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Saucy, Tangy, Golden Cauliflower to Make This Week

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The Flavor Equation–Nik Sharma’s follow-up to Season—was dubbed one of the best cookbooks of 2020 by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, Food & Wine, Serious Eats, Epicurious, Eater, and then some. But calling it a cookbook is complicated. There are over 100 recipes, yes, but there’s also a deep—deep—dive into the science of good food. It’s this rare blend that makes The Flavor Equation the sort of book I’ll grab from the shelf for years to come, whether it’s for a tangy, saucy cauliflower dish or an explanation on how taste buds work. Keep reading for a Q&A with the author—and if you have yet to check out Nik’s column, The Kitchen Scientist, here on Food52—well, what are you waiting for?


EMMA LAPERRUQUE: The very weight of this book (almost three and a half pounds!) speaks for itself. From start to finish, how long did it take to create The Flavor Equation?

NIK SHARMA: My mom brought this up when she received her copy. The book is much lighter than it would have been the way I originally wrote it. Due to space constraints and tight production schedules that clashed with the onset of COVID-19, I ended up shaving off 200 pages from my manuscripts, including charts and illustrations. Though I worked on this book for a little over two years since I signed the contract, I’d been working on the research for at least four years prior. iBooks on Apple and any kind of cloud storage you can think of were a big help at keeping every PDF organized and accessible. From a book-writing perspective, this was very different from the way I wrote Season (where I almost always used Microsoft Word), because I ended up writing a lot of notes by hand and creating initial sketches using my iPad.

EL: This is both a reference source on the science of cooking and a collection of 100-plus recipes. How did you approach these two parts—research first, recipe development second, or were you tackling both at once?

NS: The research came first, and I found it exciting. I learned so many new things along the way and also got to fill some gaps that had bugged me for so long when I learned to cook. One of the most fascinating things was seeing how the food industry and scientists approach ingredients and cooking from a commercial perspective. Even research aimed at minimizing and salvaging useful materials from food waste was a big resource in my work. For example, I developed a method to free bitterness from oils like olive and mustard, which produce an intense bitter taste when used in emulsions like mayo or aioli; I got a clue for this from the way olive plant refuse is treated with water to extract certain chemicals that are also responsible for this bitter taste phenomenon.

To be honest, the recipe development was a bit of a challenge. I wanted the recipes to be straightforward yet fun, but they also needed to act as experiments or examples to support the ideas and facts I mention in each chapter. A recipe that motivates people to cook will tantalize people and their taste buds, and I hope the recipes in the book did that for folks.

EL: I love that you break down emotion as a crucial component of flavor (along with sight, sound, mouthfeel, aroma, and taste). Why was it important to you to explore emotion here?

NS: When I worked as a researcher at Georgetown University, I studied metabolic disorders, and dietary studies were a very useful tool in our work. Often, the biggest problems with any dietary study are trying to keep all the variables in the equation constant—but if you think about it, it’s practically impossible. There’s always something! Life, work, stress, etc., all influence the results in some capacity or another. In some studies, I measured stress hormones to see how they affected different parameters in my work. While working at Georgetown, I went back to school to study health policy, and understanding the role of human behavior plays a big role in public health policy development.

I’ve also grown up in a mixed-faith household and in two different countries, and I always compare and contrast the similarities and differences in cultures. Flavor is just so much more than the biology, chemistry, and physics. The way our emotions interact with the environment and our food is essential to the experience, and it would be remiss of me not to include it. The best comparison to this is the Matrix movie or some kind of web or network—everything is interacting and influencing each other, simultaneously sending signals back and forth. It’s remarkably wonderful to see it all together.

Reprinted from The Flavor Equation by Nik Sharma with permission by Chronicle Books, 2020.

Photo by Matteo Riva

EL: We’re sharing your Roasted Cauliflower in Turmeric Kefir recipe (plus the graphic breaking down its flavor components) with our readers. Can you tell me more about this dish—what inspired it, how it came together, any ways you’d riff on it?

NS: In the book I wanted to demonstrate how chickpea flour can be used as an alternative to wheat or rice flours as a thickener, but also showcase the bright taste of fermented dairy like yogurt. In parts of Asia like India and even in Africa and the Middle East, chickpea flour is often used as a thickening agent because it contains starch. In India, my dad makes this dish called kadhi that gets its sour taste from yogurt, to which he adds fried chickpea flour fritters—my recipe is loosely based on that. I keep a bottle of plain kefir in my house all the time; often it’s an easier ingredient to find (at least where I live) than buttermilk and a great substitute. But you could use plain unsweetened yogurt, too, just remember to thin it out with a little water. You can also swap out cauliflower; sometimes I add roasted carrots, potatoes, and peas, but even bitter greens like spinach or kale would be fantastic.

EL: Lightning round! What’s a recipe from The Flavor Equation you’d like to eat for dinner (or dessert) tonight? What’s your go-to store-bought condiment at the moment? And what are a few books on food science that inspire you?

NS: Gosh, the flan—the hazelnut flan. I think flans not only look gorgeous in the way the reveal themselves as they slide out of the pan, but that bittersweet caramel taste and the aroma of toasted hazelnuts is divine.

My favorite condiment is chili crisp oil from Lao Gan Ma—at all times I have two jars as backup in my pantry. You can add it to almost everything. Even a spoonful on ripe mango is amazing.

There are some wonderful books on food and science. Some of my personal favorites are J. Kenji López-Alt’s The Food Lab, Shirley Corriher’s CookWise and BakeWise, Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, and Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking. To understand human behavior and flavor interactions, read Charles Spence’s Gastrophysics and Bee Wilson’s First Bite. For sweets, anything by Francisco Migoya; his Elements of Dessert and Frozen Desserts are extremely useful textbooks. Also, Alice Medrich’s Gluten-Free Flavor Flours and Dandelion Chocolate’s Making Chocolate focus on more specific topics but are very useful.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. And this post contains products independently chosen (and loved) by our editors and writers. As an Amazon Associate, Food52 earns an affiliate commission on qualifying purchases of the products we link to.

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