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Monday, March 08, 2021

Shelf Life: Masala Lab is an essential read for serious cooks

Krish Ashok’s book breaks down the how-to and why-to of almost every step of the cooking process in an Indian kitchen, and busts some myths in the process

Written by Pooja Pillai | New Delhi |
January 31, 2021 6:35:40 am
cooking, Indian cooking, book in Indian cooking, cookery book, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express newsThis book is so packed with information that it’s best read as needed, or you risk being overwhelmed.

Author: Krish Ashok
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 280
Price: Rs 399

Did you know that you can caramelise onions more efficiently by simply adding a pinch of baking soda? Or, that when cooking a recipe that calls for tomato purée, a sachet of tomato ketchup, in addition to the purée, will ensure that the final dish packs a flavour-jammed wallop?

Krish Ashok’s Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking is full of such advice which, if followed, promises to not just improve the taste of the food you cook, but also make the whole process of cooking more efficient and rewarding. In his introduction, Ashok, a Chennai-based software engineer, describes his book as an attempt to “de-exoticise Indian cooking and view it through the lens of food science and engineering.” Which, if you’ve wondered why you should dry roast whole spices before grinding them or why kasuri methi should only be added when the dish is almost ready, is a welcome exercise. The book, which should be in every serious amateur’s library, breaks down the how-to and why-to of almost every step of the cooking process in an Indian kitchen — from making perfectly fluffy rice to making chapati dough with 100 per cent hydration to explaining how different kinds of salts should be used. Along the way, the author also explodes certain myths that, like most family recipes, have been handed down from generation to generation — such as the idea that the number of whistles in a pressure cooker reliably indicate how well-cooked the food inside is or that an over-salted dish can be salvaged by dropping in a ball of dough.

The best section is ‘Burn the Recipe’, where the author puts together all the knowledge dispensed so far to create an algorithmic approach to almost any dish that the reader might want to make and/or improvise — from simple chutneys and raitas to more complex rice dishes and gravies. The Kerala chicken curry you make using Ashok’s Indian Gravy Algorithm may not be authentic, but it will help you understand why it’s different from a Chettinadu or Punjabi chicken curry. This, honestly, is the kind of insight that can transform cooking from a chore to a joy.

This book is so packed with information that it’s best read as needed, or you risk being overwhelmed. For example, if you’re planning to make chana masala for lunch tomorrow, go to the section where he explains how to get soft, perfectly-cooked chickpeas with a little bit of baking soda and why adding a tea bag to the chickpeas is a good idea. If you’re planning idlis for breakfast one day, go to the section where he outlines the process for making idli batter from scratch. Of course, if you’re simply curious about the science of cooking, read the book, cover to cover, in one go. It will still be very rewarding.

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