#109 | Season
Big Flavors, Beautiful Food
By Nik Sharma
Intro: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book podcast, with Suzy Chase. She's just a home cook in New York City, sitting at her dining room table, talking to cookbook authors.
Nik Sharma: Hi, I'm Nick Sharma and my new book is out, it's called Seasoned: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food.
Suzy Chase: Whenever I do research on a cookbook, I don't read any of the existing interviews, because I want my content to be organic, and with you, it was so tough, because you've been everywhere on social media and the web. Were you prepared for this onslaught of publicity and notoriety?
Nik Sharma: Not really, but I'm happy to see such a positive reception, and everyone's been so warm and forthcoming about the book. It's amazing, especially for a first time author. You never know what you're walking into, and this has been the most amazing experience, one that I'm extremely grateful for, and also one that I could have never imagined.
Suzy Chase: So I'm gonna read the very first entry on your blog, A Brown Table. Here we go.
Nik Sharma: Okay.
Suzy Chase: Beginnings, July 20th, 2011.
"In the next few weeks, I plan to get a bit creative and sift through my cookbooks to see what I can come up with. Perhaps I will try to be adventurous and bake some bread, one of my biggest fears, or try my hand at infusing rustic recipes with exotic seasonings. Here's to my future on cooking, writing, and eating, and telling you all about it."
Share with me what you're thinking after I read that.
Nik Sharma: Oh God. What did I do? Why did I do it? I didn't know what I was getting into, you can tell from the tone of that paragraph. I think it was a couple of lines, maybe. I had no idea what I was getting into, I had no idea what to expect, and I really did not know how to make bread back then, I used to struggle, but yeah, it's been a long time, it's been a couple of years now.
Suzy Chase: In addition to being a cookbook, Season is also an immigrant story, a love story told through food, my favorite kind of cookbooks. This is where I learn the most about food and culture. When you started thinking about this cookbook, were you thinking about educating people through your stories?
Nik Sharma: I wanted to write about something that was different. I felt that people had already written quite a bit about traditional Indian food, and food that was American, so there was really nothing new that I would be contributing to the equation. And I didn't see a point then in my writing anything.
The second thing was also about, can I talk about food from an immigrant's perspective, 'cause I had lived in India at this point, but I was in America, and experiencing food and flavors that were new to me, and I kind of always have loved the pursuit of flavor more than anything, and that is really something that I was passionate about and wanted to write about, and I figured let me try this in a blog format and see how it goes.
Suzy Chase: So why didn't you wanna write a traditional Indian cookbook?
Nik Sharma: Well, the thing was, it's already been done. And, well, a lot of mainstream Indian food has already been written about, so there was nothing new that I would be contributing to the equation, right? People have written quite a bit about north Indian food, which is what is served predominantly at restaurants. You will se a little bit from a few of the regions, so when I come to write about that, you an already get that information elsewhere, what am I trying to share with you? That's nothing new.
So instead I focused on, and I still do this, I focused on regions of India that people probably haven't heard about, so like, for example, my mom comes from the west coast of India, from a Portuguese colony called [inaudible 00:03:59], my family does, and I started to write about that food, because that is something that I knew wasn't being cooked in the mainstream restaurants in Indian food. You wouldn't see that in food media, so I said, "Let me talk about the stuff that I know that I think people should really pay attention to. Hopefully they will," so I started writing about that.
And then the second thing was, I also realized, as an immigrant, even though I grew up in India, I was not actually cooking anything traditional. I was not making dahl every week, I was not making furuta or roti every week, so I said, "Let me talk about the food that I'm cooking at home, because that is the food that I'm actually connecting with my experiences living in India and living in America."
Suzy Chase: I was at a panel discussion a few weeks ago with Ruth Reichl, and one of the panel members brought up the fact that cookbooks and food writing used to be exclusively the domain for the wealthy white wife. John Birdsall wrote in the foreword of your book that your blog posts challenged biased assumptions about who food belongs to. Talk a bit about that.
Nik Sharma: So, it's true. I feel it's true that a lot of ... I mean, if you look predominantly and you just take a quick poll of the writers that are out there, they're all predominantly white, and a lot of them are women, and I don't read a lot of chef cookbooks as much, so I can't really speak for that, and I'm sure that a lot of them are just white male driven, but it is true, and even when I was in blogging, if you look at the early years of blogging, a large part of it is pretty much a white driven population of writers.
And that's fine, but there should be space available and made for writers who don't sound and look like them. I had no idea what I was getting into, I didn't have a real game plan, I just wanted to talk about food that I was really excited about and I felt people might be interested, maybe. You know, maybe there was a 1% chance someone would be interested in what I was writing about. And so that's what I decided to write about, and it connected with people.
But there was also the thing with food media, where you look at a lot of the photographs, for example, a lot of them are pretty much driven to an audience that is white, and I had no option, when I started to photograph, I decided to photograph myself, so there was no other option for me to hire a model to shoot, to pose in my photos, I just rented what I had, so I didn't think twice about it. But I think it's true that there should be space made available for people who are from these countries, so that they should also write about their food, because their perspectives are just so different, and that's what makes the food world richer as a community.
Suzy Chase: I'm cracking up, because you just said that you thought there was a 1% chance that people would be interested in your writing.
Oh my God.
Nik Sharma: I had no idea.
Suzy Chase: You were so off.
Nik Sharma: Because you don't know what you're getting into, and I had no professional training in anything, so I felt like ... I mean, I still feel like I'm the underdog when I walk into a room, because I don't ... I'm pretty honest about this, I have no formal training, I did work in a pastry, I was pastry cook for a while, but a lot of what I know now is just through reading or trial and error, and I have to work hard at it, 'cause I have no professional training, so I need to work harder, read more, learn more so I can have a decent conversation about food.
Suzy Chase: What is asafetida? Did I say it right?
Nik Sharma: Yes, you did. Asafetida is also called hing. It's obtained from the resin of a plant, and it's used in Indian cooking to mimic the smell of onions and garlic. Traditionally, you would see it only in Hindu cooking, so the Hindu communities in India, you will see this ingredient predominantly used, and also, what happened back in the day, and this is kind of the dark history of asafetida, where widows, women who had lost their husbands would have to give up eating onion and garlic, because those ingredients were considered to be aphrodisiacs in a way, because they raise the body temperature, and so a widow is not allowed to have it in their parts in the Hindu community, and so, like my grandmother, when she lost my grandfather on my dad's side of the family, she's Hindu, she couldn't use onions or garlic in her cooking, so she would use asafetida to mimic that taste and smell.
Suzy Chase: Do you use it in your cooking?
Nik Sharma: Not as much, because I use onions and garlic. I mean, there's no point. I don't see the point of it, it's a substitute, right, and there's no point in adding them together with onions an garlic, I've tried that, I really never notice the difference, so I don't. Unless I'm running low, then maybe I will add it. And I don't add it in everything, 'cause honestly it's such a specific ingredient that it doesn't work well in other dishes. It works well in very few Indian dishes.
Suzy Chase: So within a few months of arriving in America, you decided to come out to your family and friends. Why did you pick that particular time, and how was it received by your family back home, and your friends in Cincinnati?
Nik Sharma: So, I knew that I was gay, which is why I moved to America, I wanted a safe place to be surrounded by hopefully a community, I had no idea what I was moving into, and I kind of had this assumption that moving to the west would make me feel safe, and I was on an academic campus, so when you're in academia, people are much more liberal and much more accepting, so I came out to a professor and to a really close friend at first, I knew my professor was gay, and my friend was straight, but I came out to them, and then with their support, I decided to go public with it. I came out to my parents, my dad was really cool, my mom initially had a hard time, because she comes from a Roman Catholic family, so it was a little bit of a struggle for her initially, but we worked it out, and within a couple of weeks, we were fine.
So I had a very fortunate experience coming out. In Cincinnati, I had a large group of friends who were ... So I was on the medical campus, and they had a student's association for gay students and queer students, and students who were questioning their sexuality in the medical campus, so we could kind of all support each other. There were professors who were physicians and scientists, so it was a large group of people who would meet maybe once a month, and kind of support each other, which was amazing.
And then through them I learned of organizations that existed that supported also gay students and queer students in general in their academic pursuits.
Suzy Chase: Talk a little bit about what you've learned from your husband Michael and his family's southern food influences.
Nik Sharma: Well, he loves to eat, Michael really loves to eat. He likes meat and potatoes, let's see ... Meat and potatoes, he's not so much into fish as I am, I like seafood a lot, but he's from the south. His family comes from a farm right on the border of Virginia and North Carolina in Roanoke, and his family, they cook a lot of southern food, in fact a lot of the southern food ideas or the concepts that I've got are through his mom, having cooked with her. Whenever we visit they do biscuits, they do cobblers. His mother cans a lot, so a lot of my love for canning has actually come through canning with her and talking about it with her. They grow a lot of stuff on their farm, too, so I've known my love for gardening also, I feel has been triggered by her.
And, you learn so much when you have that family connection, it's very different where it's just whipping up plates when you have people that you become friends with or are family, living in a place and have been there for a while, you learn a lot more about their [inaudible 00:12:07], and so that's been a really amazing gift, just to have that knowledge available that I can tap into and ask them for help when it comes to cooking, and I love it, I absolutely love it.
Suzy Chase: What is the family's favorite thing that you make?
Nik Sharma: Definitely ice creams, when I come, there is always a request for ice cream, which is fantastic, 'cause that's the easiest thing to put together. The other thing that they've really become fond of is this rice and layered meat dish that I make, it's Indian, it's called byriani, I don't know if you're familiar with it.
Suzy Chase: Yeah.
Nik Sharma: But it's ... Okay, so basically what I do is I get beef or chicken, they don't like goat, so I don't cook lamb or goat for them, so what I do is I season the meat with [inaudible 00:12:51] and a bunch of spices and let it sit overnight, and then the next day fry potatoes, cook the rice separately, and then layer everything and give it a good steam. And they love it, that's one of their favorite things that I make for them. Also, it's a one pot dish, so with a large family, it's the easiest thing to do.
Suzy Chase: As with your blog, you did all the photography for this cookbook, and I read-
Nik Sharma: I did.
Suzy Chase: Your dad was a commercial photographer.
Nik Sharma: Correct.
Suzy Chase: Did he foster your love of photography?
Nik Sharma: Absolutely not. My dad was really strict-
Suzy Chase: Really?
Nik Sharma: Yeah, so my dad was really strict on me when we were growing up, we were never allowed to touch his camera equipment, and I actually hated the cameras, because they would take up so much space in the house when he brought his equipment home, and they would always be in the way. So there was no desire for me to learn photography, and he was busy with his work, so I never had a chance to learn anything from him. It was only until I started blog when I was in America that I picked up the camera for the blog, and that's what kind of pushed me into it. I guess it might be a bit genetic, I don't know, but yeah, everyone's really surprised when I say that.
Suzy Chase: That's so funny. Do you talk about photography with him.
Nik Sharma: Yeah. A little bit. Not too much, because my father's super critical, and he is sometimes, I go through my photos and says, "Okay, you need to fix this, you need to fix this," and it's fine sometimes, but sometimes it gets overwhelming, so I kind of just stay out of it a little bit, which is a much safer zone for me to be in.
Suzy Chase: Well thank God you moved. We all have to get away from our father. Anyway, I digress.
How do Indian cooks approach seasoning?
Nik Sharma: So, one of the things that I noticed when I moved to America was that in India, the way cooks, even home cooks, approach seasoning, is so different from the way it's done in the west. In the west, we're always looking at a single ingredient, and ingredient driven or seasonal focus, typically, and we're always looking to amplify the flavor of that ingredient complimenting, but if you look to Asia in general, and India also, we are looking not to improve a single flavor of an ingredient.
We want the dish to taste really good, but we're also looking for strong contrasting flavors, things that explode in your mouth, they usually don't make sense on paper, but when they come together in a dish, it works really well, and so I started paying attention to that more from a scientific perspective, initially watching how if something is ... Like, if an ingredient is cool, chefs will usually add a cool ingredient, so if it's milky, maybe cardamom or vanilla, and in India, if you look at it, you'll see other things being added in. Like you will see ghee being added in, in addition to cardamom, I'm just referring to milk in this example. If you're looking at meat, you will see a lot of different spices, you'll see chilies, you'll see cinnamon, you'll see nutmeg, you'll see turmeric, all these things that really don't make sense.
And then when you look at western food, it's very single ingredient focused, and I was fascinated by this. It was beautiful just to see how over time and evolution, people had developed their own cuisine based on their likes and dislikes, and it was fascinating.
Suzy Chase: Speaking of contrasting flavors, on Sunday night I made your recipes for steak with orange peel and coriander on page 171, and your red onions with coriander on 274. So describe the spice combination that goes on that steak.
Nik Sharma: One of the things I love about coriander is that it reminds me of citrus, in a very fragrant, but much milder and very different way. It's got a nuttieness to it and when you toast it, or you crack coriander seeds, you can get that aroma, and it goes so well with red meet. You can do this with lamb, too. I ... Season the steak with a bit of cracked coriander, which also adds a little bit of texture to the steak when you're slicing the steak and eating it, it gives a little bit of crunchiness, I like that with spices. And then the orange peel that you use in the steak gives it that ... It bumps up that citrus aroma, but it makes it gentle, because it's also being heated, and it permeates the steak. I love that.
Suzy Chase: I have never had citrus on a steak before, it was amazing.
Nik Sharma: Uh huh (affirmative), and it's better than using fresh, because it's dried, if you use fresh it kind of gets destroyed really fast. If you use dried citrus peel, it holds longer, it acts better when it's on the steak at that high temperature. It's so beautiful.
And then the red onions, the pickled red onions, I feel like a steak, you don't need too much to go with it, and the orange ... Sorry, the pickled red onions, they're just a super way to add that bright note of acidity, which goes so well with every bite.
Suzy Chase: Totally. Those pickled onions were to die for, and they were so easy.
Nik Sharma: And it's quick.
Suzy Chase: So quick, two hours, bing, bang, boom.
Nik Sharma: Yeah.
Suzy Chase: What's your mother's favorite cookbook?
Nik Sharma: I don't think she has a cookbook.
Suzy Chase: Really?
Nik Sharma: My mom hates to cook. Which is why I ... My mom hates to cook, which is probably why ... I have a lot of family, I guess a lot of family things coming out, but my mom hates to cook, which is why I think I actually started to cook as a child, and any cookbook that she owned are all with me now. She asked"Do you really want these?" I said, Yeah, I'm gonna take all of them," and she said, "Okay, fine."
Suzy Chase: That was easy.
Nik Sharma: Yeah.
Suzy Chase: A couple weeks ago you were mentioned in your home newspaper in Bombay, how did that feel?
Nik Sharma: That was really cool. I did not expect a response in India about the book, but it was so wonderful that I knew when my mom sent me a clipping, she sent me a newspaper clipping and said, "Look what we saw in our local newspaper," and I think for her to see that, and my parents to see that gave them a sense of pride, which is really amazing, because they don't live here, so it's one thing for like, to get acknowledged here, but it's another thing for them to see their son in a newspaper that they've been reading for so many years of their lives.
Suzy Chase: So growing up in the Midwest, my mom only made potatoes, and never grain, so it's super intimidating to me. What is the key to making grains stand out?
Nik Sharma: I think with any grain first of all, it's really important to understand how it tastes without anything else, what the texture is like, because you can have something as simple as rice, but there are so many different kinds of rice, from basmati to wild rice, each of them with such different texture profiles, some are even stronger in aroma, like basmati has a really strong aroma, and then you've got jasmine rice, which has a beautiful fragrance, too, and so I think learning how those things taste, and that gives you a really good end point, and then build on that.
So what I do is that's how I always start with even seasonings, I taste them raw, or cooked, to see how they actually feel before actually using them in an entire dish. So I do that with grains, and one of the things to do with grains, first of all, if you're using rice in this case, make a pilaf, use a scented oil, or a fat, like ewe, or a good olive oil, you could use such oil, and then add aromatic things, like onions, garlic, dried herbs, that's always easy to find. You could also have fresh herbs, for a little bit of brightness add a little bit of acid in the form of a lime or a lemon, fold that in really well, and grains can be so much more exciting.
I think you could also do something fun, like if you had left over nuts, I always have a bunch of nuts, like two tablespoons, one tablespoon, throw those into your rice or your pilaf, or your quinoa. Fry them in a little bit of oil, or even a little bit of dried fruit. It just adds so much depth to the dish.
Suzy Chase: So I can't end this interview without hearing about your darling new kitten that you scooped up out of your backyard.
Nik Sharma: He is adorable, but he's also got so much energy right now, he is across the trainer that my other two pets never had. My two year old cat, exhausted, my eight year old dog is exhausted from both of them running around, and right now in the morning, I woke up at 4:00 AM today, and they were all awake, they ate, the other two are still sleeping, the younger one is still running around. Too much energy for them.
Suzy Chase: He'll calm down.
Nik Sharma: I kind of enjoy this phase, though, 'cause he's keeping ... He's letting them sleep, and they used to be really annoying at one point, waking me up at five to eat, it's amazing to see what the kind of magic this little one has brought.
Suzy Chase: So, now to my segment called My Last Meal, what would you have for your last supper.
Nik Sharma: Ice cream. I would do a good luck tart lemon, or a passion fruit.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web and social media?
Nik Sharma: You can find me on my blog, my site's called www.abrowntable.com, and you can also find me on Instagram or on Twitter, and the handle is A Brown Table.
Suzy Chase: Joe Yonan of the Washington Post called you an important new voice. Yours is the story of a gay immigrant told through food, and we're so thankful you told your story, thanks so much for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Nik Sharma: Thank you for having me on today.
Suzy Chase: Subscribe in Apple Podcasts, and while you're there, please take a moment to rate and review Cookery by the Book. You can also follow me on Instagram at Cookery by the Book. Twitter is I am Suzy Chase, and download your Kitchen Mix Tapes, music to cook by, on Spotify at Cookery by the Book.
Thanks for listening.