by Jay Kitterman, consultant, Culinary Institute, Lincoln Land Community College
Science was never my strength in school, and I was always in awe of the chefs at Lincoln Land Community College that introduced molecular gastronomy to our culinary students. The New York Times recently listed their top cookbooks for 2020 and “The Flavor Equation” by Nik Sharma was featured. For Sharma, the equation for flavor adds up to “Emotion, Sight, Sound, Mouthfeel, Aroma and Taste.”
Sharma in this book has the ambitious goal of explaining the science of cooking plus making it understandable for people like us. Sharma grew up in Bombay, India and his love for cooking began in his parents’ kitchen. He started cooking out of necessity and curiosity and got bored eating the same food again and again. He delved into cookbooks and recipe cuttings from magazines and newspapers. It was in his school chemistry class where he first discovered how food and science were interconnected. He writes that when he came to America he discovered that “recipes here used ingredients that complemented and enhanced the flavors of key components of the dish, quite unlike the approach seen in kitchens of India, which emphasized the use of contrasting ingredients.”
Mexican and Cajun food caught his attention for their use of “bold contrasting flavors,” that reminded him of his native Indian cuisine. He writes how different ingredients help him understand how flavors are used in different parts of the world. For example, in North America the most frequent ingredients in order of use are milk, butter, vanilla, eggs, molasses and wheat. East Asian recipes in order of use are soy sauce, scallions, sesame oil, soybeans and ginger. All in his opinion, “illustrate our relationship with flavor in our food, our cooking choices and behavior influenced by the culture where we grew up.” As people immigrated, they brought new flavors to their adopted countries.
The recipes (over 100) are divided into seven sections:” Brightness, Bitterness, Saltiness, Sweetness, Savoriness, Fieriness and Richness.” Each of these chapters adds another layer of flavor and gives home cooks more tools to add to their cooking to boost flavor and enjoyment. Brightness includes recipes like Roasted Butternut Squash + Pomegranate Molasses Soup, Spareribs in Malt Vinegar + Mashed Potatoes, and Lemon-Lime Mintade. Bitterness offers up Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad, Sweet Potato Honey Beer Pie and Chocolate Miso Bread Pudding.
He writes about the chemical makeup of the aromas of food plus the importance of the aroma. From personal experience, the aromas in our kitchen always alert Carol when something in my cooking attempts goes wrong. For me, aroma is one of the things that connects us to the foods of our childhood, the foods we grew to love.
The Flavor Equation demonstrates how to convert approachable spices, herbs and commonplace pantry items into tasty, simple dishes. He offers up information on textures, because the mouthfeel of a food can increase or decrease our enjoyment of eating. And he looks at the effect of taste on emotions and the effect of emotions on taste.
With recipes for starters through desserts, even for snacks and drinks, The Flavor Equation brings a host of Indian and Indo-Chinese recipes to modern cooks. And the photography in this book is phenomenal. Sharma is a food stylist as well as cook, recipe creator and blogger, so the pictures bring these dishes to life. And there are even some tips for improving your food photos too. Some of the science sections get a little intense, and I found the multiple charts and graphs informative.
The Flavor Equation is one of those cookbooks that will not only teach you new recipes, but also a whole new way to think about cooking. If my science textbooks had been this fun, confident I would have received an A.
Reprinted from The Flavor Equation by Nik Sharma with permission by Chronicle Books, 2020
COLLARD GREENS, CHICKPEA + LENTIL SOUP
½ cup [100 g] red lentils
2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium white or yellow onion (91/4 oz [260 g]), diced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1 in [2.5 cm] piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated
2 in [5 cm] piece cinnamon stick
1 tsp ground black pepper
½ to 1 tsp red chilli powder
½ tsp ground turmeric
2 Tbsp tomato paste
1 medium tomato (5 oz [140 g]), diced
1 bunch collard greens (about 7 oz [200 g]), midribs removed, coarsely chopped
One 151/2 oz [445 g] can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 qt [960 ml] vegetable stock, “brown” vegetable stock, or water
1 Tbsp tamarind paste, homemade or store-bought
Fine sea salt
2 Tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 Tbsp chopped cilantro
Buttered bread or naan, for serving
The tamarind and tomato provide a sour backdrop for bitter greens and vegetables in this soup.
Pick over the lentils for any stones or debris, rinse in a fine-mesh sieve under running tap water, and transfer to a small bowl. Cover with 1 cup [120 ml] of water and soak for 30 minutes.
Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot, add the onion and sauté until translucent, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the cinnamon, black pepper, red chilli, and turmeric and sauté until fragrant, 30 to 45 seconds. Stir in the tomato paste and cook until it just starts to brown, 2 to 3 minutes.
Stir in the diced tomato and collard greens and sauté until the leaves turn bright green, 1 to 2 minutes. Drain the soaked lentils and add along with the chickpeas and vegetable stock. Bring to a boil, lower the heat to a simmer, and cook until the lentils are tender and completely cooked, 25 to 30 minutes. Stir in the tamarind paste. Taste and season with salt.
Before serving, stir in the chopped parsley and cilantro. Serve hot with toasted slices of warm buttered bread or naan.