Krish Ashok's Masala Lab demystifies the science of Indian cooking in a way aspiring cooks will find delightful, accessible
Masala Lab is primarily meant for beginner chefs who can’t cook without the crutch of a recipe or a YouTube video.
It’s said you should never judge a book by its cover. But on seeing the cover of Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking, with its array of test-tubes containing ingredients found in most Indian kitchens, I knew the book was thought up by an engineer.
Masala Lab is primarily meant for beginner chefs who can’t cook without the crutch of a recipe or a YouTube video. That’s not to say established chefs won’t appreciate this book, but they won’t have as many “light bulb moments” as a newbie. If you aren’t the experiment-in-the-kitchen kind or are curious enough to ask the culinary genius in your house how certain dishes are made, this book will definitely bring you up to speed. No, it won’t make you a great cook overnight; that’s not the objective of the book. It’s meant to help you appreciate what goes on beyond the visible, when cooking happens. By understanding the core of the process, you’ll become the culinary creator you never believed yourself capable of being.
The author, Krish Ashok, isn’t a chef or associated with the food industry; he is a software engineer. His time-lapsed cooking videos on Twitter have their own following. Having an idea of how proteins, fats, flavour molecules, carbohydrates react with each other at varying proportions, temperatures and pressures, you get a basic understanding of cooking principles. By equipping you with this knowledge, Krish hopes to create curiosity among aspiring chefs.
For instance, I had no idea that submerging chicken for an hour in salty water (a process known as brining) and then washing it off before marination helps retain the moisture and prevents the texture from turning rubbery during cooking. Or that a pinch of baking soda can accelerate the cooking times for chickpeas and other legumes. Understanding the chemistry which enables this is among the light bulb moments I was referring to earlier.
Looking at my kitchen ingredients through Krish’s scientific lens, I realised that it is filled with chemistry terms I had last come across in Viraf Dalal’s Simplified ICSE Chemistry books in the eighth grade. It was good to become reacquainted with terms such as covalent bonds, specific heat capacity, pH levels, aldehydes or osmosis and connect them with knowledge on how to knead the perfect dough or cook the fluffiest of rice. Don’t worry, the science will not overpower the larger objective of guiding the food enthusiast.
Krish tempers the book with humour: “(When cooked rice is cooling down) a process called retrogradation happens, where each grain separates and creates its own identity, much like a teenager reading Ayn Rand.” But there are times when Krish comes across as a nerdy show-off. For example: “Flavour is a combination of taste, smell, mouthfeel, and to a smaller extent, sound and visual experiences. And despite the fact that 80 percent of flavour perception happens in the nose, we tend to associate the tongue as being the Watson and Crick of flavour to the nose’s Rosalind Franklin.”
Watson and Crick had won the Nobel Prize for discovering the double-helix structure of the DNA. But they had usurped the work of chemist Rosalind Franklin without giving her any credit. If you aren't in on these details, you'll have to interrupt your reading flow to get the references.
Krish also has fun with some of the illustrations, indulging in a bit of hyperbole. The more professional-looking ones are done by his brother Krish Raghav which further assists with visualising a chemical process — a bit dense to follow if one only reads the text. There are handy tables for organisational aspects such as pressure cooking times for various ingredients; different spice types and their flavour profiles; the smoke point of various oils; brining times for different kinds of meats and so on. These could easily be copied and put up around your kitchen as ready reckoners. The illustrations more than make up for the lack of fancy food photography that might have been intimidating given the audience this book is targeted at.
Due to my engineering and IT background, what impressed me most were the “algorithms” Krish has presented towards the end of the book. These algorithms templatise the approach to cooking various Indian gravies, rice dishes, breads and even biryani (which has an entire chapter dedicated to it). Krish builds on this by giving you tips on how you can customise it to simulate regional specialities. There is a reiteration of not falling for the “authentic recipe” trap or getting too hung up on technicalities such as nomenclature. With the amount of diversity in our country every 100 km you travel, the last thing an experimental home cook should worry about is whether or not their approach follows “authentic” guidelines — a recipe for kitchen frustrations. Cheat sheets in every chapter distill a lot of wisdom in succinct bullet points.
There is little to complain about in this book. However, given the plethora of scientific terms peppered throughout the book, it would have been a good idea to have a glossary of terms either at the beginning or end.
An aspect that came as a pleasant surprise was the debunking of myths surrounding certain chemical substances, which have got a shot in the arm thanks to WhatsApp forwards. Krish almost gets into a fact-check mode in these regards. For instance, the flavour enhancing Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) has got a bad rep among Indians. I am confident that there will be a WhatsApp forward somewhere calling MSG some sort of Chinese conspiracy (#BoycottChina and all that). But it’s a chemical that is found in tomatoes, as well as widely and unconsciously consumed through chips, frozen foods, seafood, Parmesan cheese, ready to eat soups and so on, a fact that gets swept under the carpet.
Another chemical that Krish spends a lot of time on in the book is the humble baking soda. You may have heard elders reprimanding you for eating “soda-laden” junk food. Well, that’s a result of an inexperienced cook going overboard with baking soda in the food. Beginners will be surprised to know how versatile a little quantity of this product is, with many cooking techniques. (For instance, it speeds up the time it would take to brown onions.)
I took to cooking regularly only recently, and thanks to COVID-19 lockdowns, there are many others like me. The quickest hack for us nouveau cooks was to either consult the culinary expert at home or follow self-declared pros on social media. That’s one way of learning. But knowing what happens while you are cooking and the logical process when approaching certain dishes, puts you in a much better position.
As Krish notes at the start, “Cooking is essentially chemical engineering in a home laboratory, known as a kitchen, with an optional lab coat, known as an apron.” While many would call cooking an art form and hence give up because they don’t have the ‘talent’ for it, Masala Lab focuses on honing the craft behind it so that you appreciate food in a larger context.