It is intriguing to watch a traditional Indian cook labouring over the stove. Especially, when making several course meals for special occasions in no time. The chopping of the vegetables, the combination of spices, the shaping of a balanced menu - layers of skill and intuition. In his debut book, 'Masala Lab - The Science of Indian Cooking', IT pro Krish Ashok decodes the science of Indian ingredients, cooking procedures and taste perceptions.
Books stores are stacked with glossy recipe books of Western cooking which are scientific as well as aesthetic. “They go into the first principles and explain why you do something through the lens of temperature and pressures and the chemistry of cooking and so on. Obviously they are focussed on pastas and the kinds of dishes they tend to make. I felt we needed to do this for Indian cooking. I have had really positive feedback from non-Indians who have historically found Indian cooking to be too complicated.”
Indian cooking does need sometimes over 15 ingredients and has several steps, with everything being done from scratch. One can’t open up a pasta sauce packet and dunk the past in it. The sauce has to be made from a scratch. Ashok has tried to create a meta model for making sense of complex recipes rather than simplifying them.
Krish began cooking in his teens as his mother would travel on work once in a while. When he moved to the US on work, fed up with the daily fare of pizzas, he started cooking for himself.
“That was the first time I took this whole knowledge of cooking seriously. Before I traveled abroad, I met all my grand mothers and aunts and relatives in the family and started documenting their recipes.”
These conversations were the seeds for his first book. He realised that there was a gap between what “we capture as culinary knowledge as recipes are a terrible way to capture it’ and what is valuable information about our traditional cuisine. “When people try to learn simply by following recipes, you are not asking why. The person writing the recipe is not explaining why if you do or don’t do something it is a deal breaker.”
Ashok cooked through the pandemic and when he realised that many youngsters had taken to cooking during last year’s lockdown, he decided to publish his book.
“The fundamental premise of my book is that your grandmother is probably more correct than the person you see on the Internet. The part of the problem is that a lot of actual accurate knowledge is tacit knowledge residing in our grandmothers and mothers heads. While the knowledge that is being actually documented is a very shallow and often incorrect form of it,” says Ashok.
In the Indian context where home cooking largely continues to be done by women, most of this tacit knowledge was transmitted orally from mother to daughter. He often takes potshots at internet recipes which tell one to pressure cook for three whistles or measure 1:2 or one cup of rice to 2 cups of water.
“But your grandmother doesn't measure by cups. She uses her index finger. That is the scientific way to do it because that way you are accounting for evaporation rate and you are not linearly scaling. If you put six cups of water for 3 cups of rice, you will only be making kichadi. This knowledge is not often documented. Can we use the lens of science to actually document the tacit knowledge which we have. It is not that we need this knowledge to cook, but it is important for the documentation of this craft,” says Ashok.
Being a computer scientist has informed how Ashok approached his book. His focus on knowledge representation is focused on the context of cooking for enjoyment and flavor stand point. “It is sometimes hard to separate nutrition. But I am very clear in the book that I am not a trained nutritionist. You should not take nutrition advice from someone who is not a trained nutritionist. I focus on the taste, the flavor and cooking methods per se.”
So far the knowledge representation around this has been just recipes. “The problem with recipes is that anyone can write a recipe on the internet and say this is what you need and this is the precise sequence you have to use. The reality is that that is not how our grandmother’s cooked. They are not thinking in terms of teaspoons and grams. They are thinking more holistically in terms of the overarching flavor. There are different expressions in Tamizh for a pinch, using two fingers versus using your entire fist, and other such ratios. The idea of using algorithms is essentially to say that you should approach the basics of how you cook rice or how you cook meat or you cook fish or eggs through the lens of some really standardized methods. Then you are free to experiment and you can essentially change the ingredients to make something in a Kerala style versus a Gujarathi or a Bengali style. it's just the algorithms kind of describe the basic metamodel of how you do some of these simple basic things.”
Diet and Nutrition - Fads and Culture
Every single person today is aspiring to be on a diet, or is on one, either leaving out certain food groups or making sure to include others. Ashok talks about new fad diets that keep sprouting every six months. “The reason for that is that this bit of knowledge is not settled at all. The science is not settled. People are coming up with new ideas frequently as people discover more things about nutrition.We sometimes don't realize that the science of nutrition and the science of how we end up processing our food is not as well understood as we think it is. We understand how to fix the heart or do a bypass surgery or do a liver transplant or a kidney transplant but nutrition is still in the realm of discovery. It is still very very complex.”
All of us have grown up arguing with our grandmothers that sunflower oil is healthier than ghee, millets healthier than rice, almond milk healthier than cow’s milk and now, Ashok points out to the latest villain - Carbohydrates (to be read as RICE). All of a sudden, the new villain is carbohydrates and that comes from the fact that some research suggests that we get 50 percent of our calories from carbohydrates which makes us want to reduce that. One wouldn’t be too surprised if six months down the line, some other research will say rice is the way to go, he says.
“Nutrition and diet research is changing every six month. However, when your knowledge is changing so fast, the better way to look at it is to apply this larger lens. That within a given culture, within a given society, dietary practices that you have followed for 1000 years have been tested. We know it will not fail. People have been alive to talk about it. We know that those traditional systems have stood the test of time. But the fad diet has not stood the test of time.”
It is not expedient to trust this new research over a culinary tradition of over 1000 years or what one eats at home, says Ashok. “Sometimes people tend to go after something that sounds more scientific but has not been tested at all. Has no experimental evidence, is based on a small amount of observational data and tends to ignore thousands of years of traditional wisdom that has been tested for over thousands of years, over thousands of generations, in thousands of homes.”
Youngsters and those who swear by fad diets should take note. “People sometimes ignore that kind of wisdom over something that sounds more sciency. Fad diets are likely to be and in a sense they are also an outcome of instagram. There is a kind of obsession that this generation has where right from teenagers we are putting out our photos and getting likes and we want to look a certain way.
Ashok says that faced with failures and obsessions in ‘weight control’, we often swing between extremes. “It is quite obvious that sometimes the most sensible nutritional advice is not to change what you eat but to eat less of what you eat. And that sometimes is so hard for people. Clearly getting so many calories into your body when you are not working in fields or hard physical labor makes no sense, especially given our sedentary lifestyles made worse by the pandemic.”
Colonialism impacted our perceptions of our food as it did everything else. Suddenly, the reliable millet became the poor man’s food. However, this was not peculiar to India, says Ashok. “Incidentally, it is a pretty global phenomenon. In the middle ages, even in Europe, the whole wheat crusty sourdough kind of bread was considered to be the poor man’s bread. The bleached white bread, perfect looking sandwich bread was what rich people ate. Now, the whole thing is flipped. Now that is considered the unhealthy option and the crusty whole grain variant is what is preferred. In India you see this movement, with richer people in the cities trying to diversify their diets with millets.”
Between the World Wars, the British Government “nudged people to eat more wheat and rice simply because it was easier to procure and store than 20 or so different varieties of millets which would grow everywhere and was harder to standardize. For food security and due to urbanisation, we ended up losing a lot of diversity in our diets.”
Ashok hails from Tirunelveli, where foxtail millet grows in abundance. He says small towns are far more likely to eat what grows around. In smaller towns in Karnataka they might eat Ragi and in Gujarat or Maharashtra, people might eat Jowar or Bajra and so on.”
With changes in family structures in Europe, with working mothers and kids moving out of homes younger, people are far less nostalgic about their mother’s or grandmother’s cooking. “Until rather recently, we have been living in large joint families and so there is a culinary tradition. Men are probably eating their mother’s cooking well into their 40s and 50s in India and we have to consider that when it comes to the whole nostalgia part of it. We take our food very seriously and that is why we get also attached to our food.”
Having said that, there is more culinary diversity in one state of India than there is in entire countries because, “food is very central to identity in India. Depending on what community, what religion, you have your own cooking practices, you have your own ingredients, you have your own cooking styles.”
Only in India is vegetarian cooking “not an afterthought in the sense it is not meatish with meat taken away but an entirely original, rich sort of vegetarian cuisine by itself. In other parts of the world Vegetarian essentially means you take the meat away and find a plant source of protein.”
India has a rich vegetarian tradition, despite the fact that a large part of the population is not strictly so. “the bulk of our diet comes from the tremendous diversity of non-meat based sources. There is a huge diversity in terms of food and dishes, as well as the distinction between what you cook at home and what you eat outside including the huge richness of street food.”
There is a scientific basis for the whole historical distinction between ‘kacha’ and ‘pakka’ foods as evidenced with ‘chaat’ food. “There is a reason why everything in a Chaat is deep fried. In a tropical country like India, you don't want to run the risk of half-cooked raw ingredients served on the street. You deep fry to be absolutely certain that it will not mess anyone’s stomach as it is out there exposed to the elements all day.”
Professor Ganesh Bagler known for his research in Computational Gastronomy, an emerging data science of food, flavors and health, has blended food with data and computation giving us an idea of food pairing in Indian cuisine. Ashok is familiar with Bagler’s studies on culinary fingerprints of world cuisines, culinary evolution, benevolent health impacts of spices, and taste prediction algorithms being a computer professional himself.
.Unlike other culinary traditions which pair ingredients with similar chemical compositions, “in Indian cooking you take ingredients that share the least in common. What happens is that the flavour is slightly more multi dimensional. One uses the term ‘bland’ for Western food, which has to do with the amount of salt and spice but it also tastes uni-dimensional. Each dish will focus on a single flavor profile and really just amplify that. Blue cheese has that very specific ketone based sort of funky smell. That pairs exactly well with a certain kind of wine and you enjoy just that one specific thing. It is basically like a painting with one color. Whereas, here, it is a multi colored rangoli sort of idea where when you take the average ingredient like garam masala, which has ten spices inside. We use it on top of dhaniya powder, jeera powder and other whole spices along with ginger, garlic, onion and so on. Clearly we are aiming at combining multiple contrasting ingredients.”
This is a part of the world from where 90 percent of the spices come from and in fact those spices don't grow anywhere else. From pepper, cloves, cardamom, black cardamom, star anise everything is homegrown and made India a lucrative destination in the spice trade. “Everyone of these spices grows only in this part of the world and therefore our cooking really uses them in the best possible way -from mild flavor to strong flavor depending on how you want to do it.”
Many Indian practices can be viewed through a scientific standpoint. “Purely from a flavor stand point, whole spices will give you the least amount of flavor if you use them just as is so we grind them. It is also important to remember that spices dissolve only in fats and not in water. Which is why all our cooking starts with oil first and then you add the spices and that's when you get all the aroma molecules of the spices dissolved in the fat. Otherwise they would escape into the air.”
We also dry roast the spices and then we get a lot more of the aroma than just using as is. He gives the example of jeera or cumin, which when dry roasted turns slightly brown and then when powdered gives “very very different and much smokier, richer taste. Clearly dry roasting is another element that determines whether you want less or more flavor.”
How one chops the vegetables also makes a difference. “If you want the mildest garlic flavor, you use the whole thing. The moment you cut into it, you are causing cellular damage and a lot of enzymatic reactions start and then the taste is much stronger. Sliced garlic will taste stronger than whole garlic and minced garlic will taste stronger than sliced garlic and garlic paste will be the strongest in terms of intensity. It’s a choice that you make. If you want your dish to be very strongly flavoured in a specific way, you would then appropriately either mince, chop or grind the fresh spices.”
Indians also pay attention to the addition of leaves and are added often in the end if they are delicate. “Adding them upfront loses the aroma and that is why we add coriander towards the end. For some leaves like curry leaves, which are very very strong in flavor, we add in the beginning or at any point of time,” says the author chef. Flavour aside, the effect of these spices on the body is well documented too.
The delay in the advent of refrigeration and storage systems, allowed India to evolve its own system of preserving food in a hot climate where food starts changing, degrading, fermenting at room temperature. Fermentation is one of the most common methods in which Indians consume and preserve food.
“We have a rich tradition of fermentation. Fermentation is basically the spoilage by friendly bacteria or by friendly fungi. You can't have an Idli or a dosa without the 15 different kinds of lacto bacteria staphylococcus as well as some amount of yeast acting on the rice and urad dal to ferment it. If it was slightly different varieties of bacteria it would just rot or get spoilt. To extend the shelf life of milk, we turn it to curd. Curd has a much much longer shelf life even in a pre refrigeration era.”
Ashok says because of the absence of refrigeration, Indians have overtime figured out methods like fermentation to extend the shelf life of food. “There are many dishes that objectively improve in flavor with time, up to a point. In umami type of gravies like fish gravy, people say it tastes better the next day.”
He busts the myth about refrigeration where one tends to believe that all old food is bad. “There is a distinction between refrigerating at 2 or 3 celsius when there is still some biological activity versus freezing which is -16.and there is no biological activity. Anything you keep in the freezer will stay fresh for months. In a regular fridge, beyond a week or so it will spoil.”
Seeing Indian Cuisine through the lens of Science
Ayurveda and traditional cuisines, created categories of food based on observation over generations and not necessarily by putting test tubes and looking at molecules. “So, part of that tension that we have today is sometimes our inability to realize that it is good to be able to use the modern tools that we have. Now we have better equipment, chromatographs, you have R and D, you have scientific peer review and so on. And being able to test or really verify and validate which bits of traditional wisdom are scientific is useful.”
With cooking, Ashok says, it is most likely to be valid and convey this to the world in a language they understand. “It is important to have that scientific temper and be willing to accept that some of this stuff is going to check out and some of this stuff may not check out. The ability to really look at both in a critical way is going to be important. We may not end up with the same categories because the way we might look at food and molecules and so on may be slightly different.”
Ayurveda always emphasised on the individual constitution. One size doesn’t fit all. Modern nutritional studies are saying what Ayurveda has maintained all along that - nutrition is a very deeply personal thing. “In the US research says that a very high carbohydrate, high fat diet disproportionately affects African Americans more than it does White people. They are far more likely to get heart attacks and Type 2 diabetes than White people and so on. That is definitely going to be true in the context of India given the diversity of our population as well. You are going to see a lot of this nutritional advice has to be highly personalized. But,we don't understand the sciences generally as yet. It is better to stick with eating habits that have stood the test of time while really reducing the overall amounts of food that we eat.”
Ashok insists that the discussion is not about Science versus Ayurveda or something Science versus Tradition. “Science is simply just a series of observations - you hypothesize something, you verify it and you can apply it to Ayurveda or traditional cooking. That is essentially my argument - which is we definitely need to continue to test and validate a lot of traditional wisdom and a lot of traditional medicines. Even today most of the top drugs in the world essentially come from the same few plants that traditional medicine systems have known for a long while. We still can't synthesize them in the laboratory. We still have to use those plants to synthesize a lot of our anti-cancer drugs. We have to remember that human progress has been a very continuous thing. The average life expectancy 1000 years ago was 40 years. The life expectancy is now 80 years and in that sense, it is because of a combination of knowledge that we have inherited from the past but as a community we have also continuously evolved, changed and experimented with vaccines - polio vaccines, tetanus vaccines, and now the covid vaccines.”
Ashok has tried to use Indian words in his book, adapting English to suit his needs. “There is no reason why we should not use the term tadka and globalize it and say that tadka means temper. Why should I use tempering? For terms that really kind of convey nuggets or standardized processes in a common shared vocabulary, we should use the appropriate terms from our Indian languages and globalize and popularize them.”