While a student at the University of Mumbai, studying biochemistry and microbiology, cookbook author and food writer Nik Sharma learned a process that he would eventually use for developing recipes.
“We worked in a lab, doing medical research, ” he explains. “We were taught to make buffers or chemical solutions. The way it’s done is very similar to recipe development. In fact, we called them recipes.”
The computer room was separate from the workspace, so students had to take notes by hand when doing tests. He became accustomed to writing everything down in longhand first.
“The way you’re taught is to keep doing things again and again,” he says of scientific testing. ‘You could run tests three times, run the whole experiment three times, or measure a sample three times.” The point was to prove that the results were not a fluke.
Later the university bound his notes, drawings, and hand drawn charts into hardcover books, which he kept when he moved to America. Now Sharma handwrites his new recipes in standard lab books that he buys online for $10 to $20. Later he writes them up in MS-Word.
When he started developing recipes, he didn’t use the triplicate system immediately. At first, he was not sure about the process. Then he realized he already spent time tweaking recipes to figure out why some worked and some did not. He found small variations in results depending on ingredient amounts; for example, when he used one brand of crème fresh that was 7.5 ounces and another that was 8 ounces. So he decided he needed to test three times.
“I was drawn to cooking because it was a creative field, but the process of experimentation does make it much more exciting to me than normal people,” he admitted. That’s because he studied variations as part of his scientific developmental process.
“One little change can make a monumental effect,” he noted. “If I want to make something less sweet, for example, I know from my background in science that humans, if they taste or smell something at least three or more times in a particular combination, they start to make an association. Cinnamon is an example. So I can make a dessert that’s less sweet because Americans are used to sweet desserts with cinnamon.”
Sharma works in metric and converts the amounts later, using a spreadsheet. He’s content to measure spices in teaspoons for small quantities. And he has a cute beaker-shaped measuring cup, just for fun.
While I visited him at home in Oakland, CA, he tested a recipe for rainbow trout slathered inside with a bright orange sauce that woke up my tastebuds. There was the question of semolina coating versus flour, even though he suspected that semolina would taste better. He still tested his premise, making it both ways. (And yes, the semolina tasted better.)
For his third test, he said he might make the trout with Italian semolina versus Indian semolina because of the size of the granules. “I want to know both,” he said. “You start with something you’re more comfortable with and compare it with the new thing to see if it makes a difference.”
When it comes to inspiration for recipe development, Sharma said, “I read a lot from the Middle East, a lot from New Zealand and Australia, and obviously India. I read to get a sense of what’s happening outside my comfort zone. The way people approach the same ingredient in a different country can be a mind opener.”
“And I like really old American cookbooks because I learn a lot. There are things we don’t write about anymore, such as ‘Don’t cut fruit with a metal knife because it will turn brown.’ Today you could use a ceramic knife too. These are fascinating little things.”
Many recipe writers draw inspiration from restaurants, but not Sharma. “I enjoy them, but I’m not looking to replicate something from a restaurant at home.” As for seasonal produce, he says he has to be careful of what his readers can access. “Here in the Bay Area, we have lemon cucumbers and different kinds of mint, for example. Not everyone can get those. And I rarely recommend using kosher salt. We think that everyone has what we have.”
He did feel fine about including some ingredients that might be harder to find in his first cookbook, Season. “With Season, I had to be delicate about what I want to introduce people to — aside from spices, which are easy to order online. Jaggery and ghee were regular ingredients. They were my muses. But I gave substitutes for jaggery.”
Sharma’s now working on a new cookbook for Chronicle Books, developing recipes by longhand. And perfecting his trout recipe with a crispy coating.
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