Curiosity belled the cat. Chennai-based MNC executive and foodie Krish Ashok was tickled by the mysteries of food that went beyond menus. He was curious about things such as why potatoes absorb and reflect wi-fi signals. It is because of their water content and chemistry, he found out later, or why honey never goes bad, for which the answer lies in its hygroscopic nature, which means it contains very little water, making it difficult for microorganisms to survive.
If you’ve wondered why puris puff only on one side, he has the answer: “When it meets hot oil, the bottom of the puri gets hotter, more dehydrated, than the top. A dome of air puffs up into the thin, relatively cooler, more moist top. It’s why we push a puri down as it fries, to cook it evenly,” says Ashok. His pedantic chase to know the why, what and how of Indian cooking, resulted in a recently launched book called Masala Lab. Published by Penguin Random House India, the book is true to its name. “Just like a laboratory, Masala Lab is a dossier of scientific information that makes your cooking experience better. Its 280 pages serve as a repository of information.
“It’s all backed up by science. Treat it as a book of algorithms that will guide your way to more intelligent cooking,” says Ashok. Things like the reason behind adding water till the first knuckle of the index finger while making rice, or the correct techniques of cooking wheat, lentils, meat, eggs and vegetables have been written about. It also explains why onions and garlic should be sliced at a particular angle to extract maximum flavour, or why our grandmothers threw a teabag into a pot of boiling chickpeas.
It also answers things like why adding salt while making kheer will make it taste better. Other aspects such as the best way to infuse spices into a curry or why freezing powdered spices is better than keeping them outside have been included. Ashok’s enquiry into the ‘why’ of cooking started around 2000 when despite following his mother and grandmother’s recipe of sambar and rasam, he just couldn’t get it right. Surely, he was missing something so he phoned them to check. After getting all the details, he began making both again and got it right.
“One can learn through trial and error but it’s time-consuming. I wanted to make it easier for other food curious enthusiasts like me so I put all my learning into a book,” he says. So if you wonder why sambar tastes sour at times, why vangi bhath remains undercooked despite following the same recipe, why rotis crumble like papads at times, why the dal makhani you otherwise get right, doesn’t turn out luscious at others, or why the chicken you marinated for hours is still bland, turn the pages of the Masala Lab to find answers.
Things beginners get wrong
•Counting the cooking time in whistles
Instead, count the time after the first whistle of the pressure cooker goes off. Then turn down the heat and count six minutes for the rice to be done, 10 minutes for large potatoes and 20 minutes for soaked chickpeas and rajma.
•Adding powdered spices early
Spices lend aroma, not taste, and if you use them early, you will have no aroma left by the end. That’s why spices are the last thing to go into a dish at restaurants.
•Storing spice mixes at room temperature
Store them in the freezer, otherwise, they will lose their aroma.
•Undercooking onions and tomatoes
Onions that are cooked translucent lend mild flavour to creamy dishes like Korma. But the longer you brown them, the tastier they get. As for tomatoes, the longer you cook, the more concentrated they become.
If you overcook green leafy vegetables, they will turn bitter. Spinach is an exception.
•Marinating meat for 24 hours
Whether you marinate the meat for half an hour or 24 hours, it won’t make a difference because spices remain on the surface. Instead, brine the meat for a few hours and then marinate for an hour.