Jul 10, 2020 • 25M

A Conversation with Nik Sharma

Listen now | We discussed why he hates overripe bananas, the stigma that continues to exist around food blogging, the potential of cookbooks, and more.

Alicia Kennedy
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Conversations on food and culture, hosted by writer Alicia Kennedy, with guests such as Nigella Lawson, Bryant Terry, Melissa Clark, and many others. Read Alicia's newsletter on similar topics, which has over 17.5K subscribers and has been mentioned by the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Vogue, GQ, and many other publications.
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Nik Sharma, author of Season and the forthcoming The Flavor Equation, always comes to my mind first as a scientist, but most know him for his blog A Brown Table, his column at the San Francisco Chronicle, and his new gig at Serious Eats. That association was probably at the forefront of my mind because I’d just gotten done going through a galley of that forthcoming cookbook (preorder it here) and was absolutely blown away by the depths of the science presented in such an accessible manner. There are charts and illustrations of a chili heat scale, a flavor wheel of amino acids, smoke points of various cooking fats and oils, and so much more, all alongside recipes for things like pizza toast, gunpowder fries with goat cheese sauce, and new potatoes with mustard oil herb salsa—all gorgeously shot by the multi-talented Sharma, whose photography style is immediately recognizable for its distinctive use of dark backgrounds and movement, a massive departure from the overblown whiteness that’s been so in fashion.

We discussed why he hates overripe bananas, the stigma that continues to exist around food blogging, the potential of cookbooks, and more. Listen above, or read below.


Alicia: Hi, Nik. Thanks so much for coming on and chatting with me.

Nik: Hi, Alicia. Thanks for having me.

Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

Nik: I was born and brought up in Bombay, India, which is now called Mumbai. For the most part, what did I eat? Let’s see. I ate a lot of things. It's always easy for me to remember what I don't like to eat, so that always jumps into my mind immediately. But as far as what I grew up eating, I grew up eating a lot of seafood because Bombay is on the west coast of India. My mom also comes from a community that eats a lot of seafood, so seafood and then coconut was a huge part of our diet. Let's see—a lot of fruit. I actually do like eating a lot of fruit and a lot of yogurt. Those are a couple of things that have moved on with me into adulthood.

Alicia: Well, what didn't you like, since those memories are more vivid?

Nik: That’s the interesting thing that conjures images in my head. So I don't like to eat bitter melon. I do not like to eat turnips. Let's see, and overripe bananas. That's something that's actually happened in adulthood. I think it's because I recently—uh, let's see—about a year, two years ago, I made an upside-down banana cake from my blog and I had to recipe-test that several times to get the texture right. And because of that, I went through several rounds of overripe bananas, extremely overripe, and now, the smell and the texture—it really makes me queasy, so no more of that.

Alicia: Well, that's so funny. You're known as a food scientist, I think first and foremost, and also a photographer and also a writer. How did you end up wearing so many hats and how do you balance all of those skills? When you're when you're figuring out how to spend your days, like, how do you—how do you balance all that? 

Nik: I think I’m definitely known more as a food blogger, for the most part, and then photographer. The food science thing is something that I've been pushing for so long to write more about, because that's what my background is in. I studied molecular biology and biochemistry before I moved into food.

I think it was part of the fact that I started with a food blog, and because of the nature of a food blog, people usually don’t—they may not cook your food, but they definitely visually react to what's available online. And so photography was a skill that I had to learn to convey the food across. And so photography is—that’s how my relationship with photography began, in terms of forging a career, and then in terms of writing about food science, that’s something that I've always always been interested in; it's also what drew me into food, to see the similarities between how people cook food, test recipes. It's very similar to what's happening in a lab. And I think the similarities—with its differences, of course, kind of blended in and so it made sense to me that this is really what I want to talk about.

Alicia: Your photography style is so singular, though, how did you come into that style?

Nik: One of the things that I wanted to do with food photography was to talk about the process visually, because that's what I find really exciting. Besides the hero shot and the beautiful shot at the end, one of the things that really draws me to cooking is, you know, the little, little steps. They might seem unimportant at the time or something so simple that's being done every day, but I find those kinds of things to be very beautiful. So I look to kind of exploring that visually and see how I can do something—say whisking something, or just adding flour, folding it in into a batter. How do where, what is the beauty in that? I think what is amazing a bout photography, it's a moment in time; you're taking a snapshot. So something might be moving, say the flour’s moving through a batter and it might look really pretty in texture on one side of the bowl versus the other, and that might change over time. So for me, those kind of macroscopic things that are taking place are really attractive.

Alicia: You reminded me of the idea that food blogging is thought of as different from food writing. And, and it seems like as a blogger, like—same as someone who's publishing something themselves—you have to have, like, a host of different skills in order to even put anything out. You know, you have to like, be a photographer and a recipe developer and you have to have this very approachable kind of voice in your writing, and you have to be able to like know how to create a website even. Do you think there is a divide between food bloggers and food writers? Like, is there a stigma around blogging still?

Nik: I think there’s definitely still a stigma around blogging. I definitely think there is that.

I mean, it was a struggle for me. I mean, I'm really fortunate to be given opportunities by different editors at, you know, different publications to get a chance to write for them. Because I know it's not easy. It's not easy to make that transition. I've been really fortunate to kind of navigate that journey, but it also took a lot of work. You know, it didn't happen overnight, that’s for sure. I mean, I took my time blogging, so I blogged for perhaps, I think four or five years before I actually started writing for the Chronicle, which was my biggest—for the San Francisco Chronicle, which was, at the time, you know, the biggest moment in my career and it still is. So, it definitely took a lot of getting to learn how to know my voice. 

Also, I didn't go into it wanting to write for the Chronicle. It just happened. It was a coincidence. I was looking for food photography freelance jobs at the time, and that's when the editor at the Chronicle asked me if I would be interested in writing a recipe column. So it wasn't an intended path. And at least for me in a lot of cases, a lot of instances, these things were never—I didn't have a plan or a focus. So I feel weird sometimes when people ask for career guidance, because I think when that happens, people want me to kind give them a set of steps or a series of goals. I just didn't have any. And I am not trying to like minimize or, you know, make this sound superficial in any way. But I was focused more on being a photographer more than anything and also with my job in science, I did not expect to get into food writing because I don't see myself as a strong food writer by any means.

Alicia: Has that changed now that you've done two books?

Nik: No. I still panic when I write. Writing for me is a struggle, because it's really easy for me to develop a recipe and you know, work on that. It's also really easy for me to photograph—not easy, but in relative comparison, writing is always the thing that I worked my hardest at.

Alicia: And in Season, your first cookbook, which was very well received, and it was, you know, pretty straight-forward as a cookbook, but it was very distinctly you, with recipes that are clearly influenced by the various places you've lived and notes on the science behind the cooking, but your forthcoming book, The Flavor Equation, goes like way, way deeper into the science. There are charts on emulsions and you document, like, chemical structures of aromas and the effects of pH on the color and texture of onions. Like it's, I mean, it's stunning to look at and it's all, you know, a great amount of information, which is I'm sure going to be endlessly useful as a reference. But what made you want to go in that direction? And how was it to, you know, develop a book like this, that’s so, so science-driven but for the kind of mainstream consumer and kind of such a departure from the first book in tone?

Nik: Yeah, so with the first book, I wasn't sure at the time if I would get to write a second book, so when developing the idea for the first book, Season, I really wanted to just come out and say, Hey, folks, this is who I am. This is what influences my recipe development and my style of cooking. I wanted it to be a bit more personal, because what if I never got the chance again, to write a second book? I didn't want to be one of those people that kind of like came out late in my career publicly. I mean, though, I'm already out. I just wanted to deal with my background initially, you know, in the first book, and then move on from it. It's not something that I really want to spend my time focusing on. But I just wanted to say, Hey, this is who I am. This is how life has shaped my thinking. These were and are my personal struggles, and this is the food that's been influenced by my life experiences.

But in the second book I really wanted to get, when I got the chance to write the second book, which I wasn't sure I would, I've always wanted to write a book about the science of cooking at home, but explore it more from a taste and flavor perspective, because even in Season, I'm more focused on flavor than anything. And then in the second book, I really wanted to talk about the science because now I could talk to people about Hey, this is actually what's going on in my head, what's influenced my style of cooking, but at a more in-depth level. And I also wanted this book to be about science, but one of the balances—this is something that I personally have to kind of navigate, and thanks to my editors on the book—one of the things with writing a science book is that I can get lost very easily writing about science because to me, it's familiar. It's something that, you know. That’s what I actually have studied all my life, and so I can go down this rabbit hole of, you know, a lot of things that probably a lot of people don't care about. So one of the things that I really wanted to do was write a science-based cookbook that felt practical to people at home where they could see the science that I'm talking about, but with real-life examples and kind of correlate those things.

Now in this book, I'm really focused more than anything on flavor, less about textures—even though texture is a component of the book as a separate chapter, I wanted to do that. And then the other thing with this book was I really wanted to talk about emotion. Because one of the things that I did when I was living in D.C. was I went back to school at Georgetown and studied public policy and health, and one of the key components during the course was human behavior. And I had never put two and two together to see how people respond in behavior to policy changes. So like sugar taxes, and all those kinds of things. So I found that really fascinating where you play with, you know, like the labeling on the box, or, you know, to affect policy change, for consumption of ingredients, to improve health outcomes. So I found that really fascinating. And that's what led me to explore human behavior in this book, although very gently. I don't really go into that much depth, but just about what I think will be applicable for a home cook, So I wanted to talk about those things, but how emotions affect our cooking and perception of taste, but also how this can affect the perception of taste also affects our emotions. And I wanted to do that in a cookbook, you know, kind of build a whole picture, because I don’t—I've never seen flavor as something that's just taste or aroma. I see it as a multidimensional component. So one of the other things that I did with this book was I also talked to folks that had lost their sense of smell, or their sense of vision, to get a better understanding of how they then relied upon their other senses to cook at home, and a lot of that informed on the topics that I wrote in this book.

Alicia: And how did you go about using emotion—were you focused on kind of how the visual influences, you know, how much someone eats, in terms of when you’re talking about labeling and that sort of thing like, yeah, how does emotion kind of affect our perception and our experience of recipes?

Nik: So one of the things is, one of the things that I read a couple of studies on being done on this is, for example, if you're in a bad mood, or you've had something that's happened in a negative way to you, you perceive food, the taste of certain foods as sour, bitter—it’s a turn-off. And an example that I use in the book, which is based on a study that was done, was about people who've lost a game. And when they lose the game, their perception of food becomes negative, because they're sad. So it changes and you're not, they're not really interested in eating and if you think about it, that's something quite common. Like when we're sad, we lose our sense of appetite. Nothing really tastes good. And this is something that happened to me. My dog passed away last year, so when he passed away, I really wasn't interested in cooking. I really wasn't interested in eating out and it was a struggle. I remember my husband taking me out to kind of get to help me move on, but also get a little distracted from what we were going through. I just wasn't interested. And so I started putting two and two together when I was writing this book, and I said, Okay, you know what, I'm actually going through these things that people are researching on a personal level. And I want to kind of bring that into this book.

And then there are things that excite us so when we are happy, you know, like, if you think about it, sweeter drinks are often used at celebrations. You've got desserts, like cakes that are used as a symbol of, again, celebrations, birthdays, weddings, etc. Desserts at the end of a gathering. So, you know, the taste of food is—it’s really interesting how people look at things.

Alicia: And this is totally unrelated, but we talked a bit once about food media's obsession with identity for a piece I wrote at The New Republic—that representation in the media doesn't often translate into material changes for the people who are represented. In recent weeks, we've seen, you know, two top men at at magazines and newspapers in the food world, either resign or lose their jobs. Or I know you're you're a bit distanced from this kind of food media as someone who's focused on recipes, but do you do think that there will be a real shift in how stories are told and who's telling the stories and what do you think, you know, food media could look like in the future if there's different people in power?

Nik: I’m a bit pessimistic about what will happen, to be honest. I don't want it to be a one time thing in response to fear, you know, in response to fear of accountability. I want to see something that's long-term, you know, I don't want it to be seen in 2020, and then come back to 2021. And then it's all kind of pushed back. And then maybe like five years from now, again, you know, the same thing is repeated. This shouldn't be in ups and downs. That's not what I want to see. What I really want to see is that people who are talented, given a platform, you know.

One of the things for me this year, that was really exciting was the James Beard Awards, because for the first in a very long time—and you can correct me if I'm wrong, and I'm sure people will—but The Ethiopia Cookbook won the international category. That's what it should be. Right? It should be a person who’s—and I don't want to also limit people from writing about other cultures. That’s not what it is. And you don't have to do this for everything. Like for example, cumin came from Iran. I’m not going to mention that all the time, you know, in a recipe because it's something now that's a part of Indian culture. I do understand that assimilation of ingredients will occur over time. Nothing is static; everything is dynamic, so we have to accept that. But at the same time, kind of acknowledging or giving recognition to the culture or the place where things come from, to me that's important. Also, it makes you look really well read, so I don't know why people don't do this enough. That's when you start respecting someone. The people that I respect as food writers are the ones that from whom I've learned things, from the people that say, Oh, you know, this is actually something that originated in say Italy, or in a say in Turkey. You know, those are the things that make me understand better. 

And also, as someone who's really interested in like the science behind food, it also then helps me understand why people were using a certain ingredient somewhere. For example, why date syrup is used as a sweetener in the Middle Eastern countries. To me, that makes sense then, because that's a plant that grows really well there, so I can connect those dots and see the influence. So for me, it's a learning experience. I really want that more of that. And I think people who are really talented are getting a platform to speak and share their food. That’s something that I’ve really enjoyed reading about, and also to see different voices come in. But it should be focused on talent. That is something that's really important to me. Because you could have a lot of the same old, same old, which happens in cookbooks. You know, I'm probably guilty of this too. I probably repeat ideas all the time, but it's the diversity of ideas that makes not only food writers better, but also the cook at home, because in a way, a cookbook can be so much more. It could be a gentler way to teach someone history; it could be a gentler way to teach them all about food science; it could be a gentler way to explore culture. And I'm not the person also that says "food brings everyone to the table,” because I think there are definitely things that food actually throws everyone against the wall and they’re not willing to talk about. So I don't want to, like, sell that notion. I'm quite aware that people get angry about food, too, all the time. But I think there should be opportunity to explore and write about things because, I mean—like I said earlier, if a person knows about what they're talking and they write about that in a head note, it means so much to me, because I view them with a lot of respect. Because I'm learning from them.

Alicia: I’ve thought about this lately, how important citation is and how important. I think because during the pandemic, I've had time to read again in a way that I didn't before, and now I'm like, Oh, if we all just had time to read and think more, we would not stop being so reactionary and superficial, in kind of the way we present ideas, especially around food. And I think it's also important that people haven't been able to go to restaurants so much, because I think it's just people have had to think about things that they haven't thought about before, because they just haven't had time or it's been too easy to just go out and prioritize like the chef-y type energy.

Nik: And I think one of the things that I'm hoping comes away from this—nothing against chefs, but I feel it will be nice, and I see a lot of chefs are doing it right now—where I found a lot of chef cookbooks for the longest time, well, a bit unapproachable. Even for me, like I look at it and say, Okay, this is a nice idea, but I need to reinterpret so it works for me at home. And I can do that. A lot of home cooks will probably not. And sometimes I'm not always successful with these interpretations, but I think there seems to be a focus now more on the home cooks, but a lot of chefs have been forced to pivot in that direction. And I think that's good. That's one good thing that's coming out of this. There are a lot of bad things that are coming out of this. But I think that's one of the good things, where they're building a better connection with home cooks.

Alicia: I've talked about this, how it's been nice to see chefs have to take on sort of a new role, where it's less about their ego and more about your knowledge.

And so for you, is cooking a political act?

Nik: Well, this is the—I looked at this in your questions, and this was the hardest one for me. Because I never know. I've been asked if my cooking is queer or is it political, and I know food is political. But at the same time, I don't know if what I'm doing is with an intent to deliver either of these messages, if that makes sense.

And so I would probably say that there are two statements that I'm probably trying to make with my food intentionally. One is that I should be allowed to cook whatever I want to cook. I don't want to be boxed into just because he's Indian, he has to cook Indian food, which I'm always trying to navigate very carefully because it is a terrifying thing for me. I want to be able to write about the food that I want to cook. And that's what I tried to do with Season—even though it's Indian influenced, it's also just influenced by what's around me. And then at the same time, I also want to be able to have the freedom to reinterpret things the way I want to. I don't want to be boxed, is what I'm trying to say. And that is my goal throughout—is that if I want to reinterpret something Indian, I shouldn't have to answer questions about why did you not do it this way, you know, and sometimes I do get that from a lot of people who are more familiar with the cuisine, or grew up eating it. And this happens to me with—I'll probably get attacked for saying this—but for me, I really want Indian people as a community, for us to be proud of the food we cook, and that doesn't mean we have to be boxed.

One of the things I did with this new book also was—I do have Indian food in the new cookbook, but not enough to make it an Indian cookbook, by definition—but at the same time, I did want to express some of the science in Indian cooking because for me, it is really fascinating from a historical perspective, to see that our ancestors were doing things in the scientific way, even though at the time there were no definitions for those things. And for the longest time, if you look at science cookbooks and books on science, they primarily focus on the science of Western cooking. The principles are the same, you know, like, fat-soluble ingredients will dissolve in fats. And that's what I've been trying to do with Serious Eats. I’m not going to write about Indian food all the time at Serious Eats—definitely not. But at the same time, when it's relevant, and I feel I have something to say about the methods being used in Indian cooking or other techniques that I'm familiar with, from Asia, the Middle East, then I will bring up the science, because I feel all of us need to be proud of not only the history of our food and culture, but also about the science that our ancestors used, developed by trial and error. And those are celebrated techniques that have been used time and again, and I think we really should acknowledge not only history and culture, but also the history, the science that's behind these things.

Alicia: Absolutely. Thank you so much for coming on. 

Nik: Of course. Thanks for having me.