30 July 2021

How condescending can you get?
Let me count the ways...

I bought Masala Lab because its blurb sounded interesting. ‘Ever wonder why your grandmother threw a teabag into the pressure cooker while boiling chickpeas?” “Why does a counter-intuitive pinch of salt make your kheer more flavourful?” Etc., etc., etc. [And because it had excellent reviews. More about that later.]

Now, a disclaimer – I’m definitely not the target audience for this book. I’ve been cooking for more years than I care to remember. I grew up in the school of, “When I said one handful, I meant the size of my hand!”, or recipes from relatives that asked for “a pinch of this, a dash of that”. I learnt the basics from my mother and from poring over recipes in magazines. I learnt quickly to adapt to not having a certain ingredient or substituting something else for it. But, as I said, the blurb seemed interesting, and I'm always curious to know the whys and wherefores.

Penguin Random House India
ISBN-10: 0143451375
ISBN-13: 978-0143451372

First, the positives. Krish Ashok’s book is a nerd’s foray into the science of cooking – he talks of how heat affects carbohydrates, proteins and fats differently; what a Maillard reaction is and its effect in cooking; why powdered spices should be made/bought in small quantities; how to layer acids to add taste and why they are important, and so on. Split into different chapters, he examines the science – the physics, chemistry and even biology – that goes into the products, processes and techniques of Indian cooking. He dissects various ‘common’ spices such as garam masala, provides a generalised idea of common gravies and suggests how to mimic several regional cuisines using ingredients that are unique to those cuisines. Flow charts and illustrations make the information easier to understand.

He also gives you a general idea of the different ways of cooking – pressure cooking, stove-top and oven; the best way to go about making and freezing different types of gravies (that you can then customize to individual dishes); the different spice blends, and how to use them to good effect. So, experienced as I am, I’m more than glad to incorporate some of the information in the book into my cooking to see how it will turn out.

I also agree with him that the term ‘authentic’ for a certain dish is redundant, especially in the Indian context where the same dish appears in many regional cuisines with their own localised variations – and they are all authentic. [Yet, I must confess that I’d rather get an ‘authentic’ recipe that closely mimics the traditional way in which it was made than a modern version which completely changes everything but the name.]

Now, what irked me about the book? Plenty.

First, the condescension that dripped off the page in the “Just kidding” kind of way. Calling people who do something differently from you ‘Idiots” is not the best way to go about imparting information. Suggesting that if someone does something differently – especially when it is not even clear that anyone following your instructions is going to be successful – they are merely wasting their time at best or are downright moronic at worst is beyond condescending; that devolves into, “My, what a big ego he has!” territory.  

For instance, he insists that the best proportion of water to atta for chapatis is 1:1. Repeatedly. For a science nerd, he doesn’t seem to take into account that different brands of atta can have different levels of absorption. Secondly, he insists that the best way to make a soft chapati with a little bit of chew is this proportion which gives you a ‘shaggy dough’ and then to leave it for 30 minutes before rolling it out. Even though I rolled my eyes at that, I did tried it his way. Good luck to a beginner who tries to roll this dough out.

Secondly, rice. Does every single variety of rice cook the same way, with the same proportion of water? My experience says not.

 Regarding tea bags while cooking chickpeas – according to Ashok, it is to neutralise the taste of baking soda as well as to add colour. Now, I don’t use baking soda while cooking chickpeas, (contrary to his view, I am not anti-baking soda) and don't need my chickpeas coloured unless I'm making Amritsari Chhole. What about the traditional Chhole or Chana Masala? If you do use baking soda to cook your chickpeas for these dishes, how would you neutralise it? Ashok doesn't say. It's as if there's one right way to cook chickpeas (his) and that's that.

 Secondly, while I agree that having some gravies frozen on hand to adapt to various dishes is a godsend when you are beginning your journey as a cook, the whole point of home cooking is the freshness and the variety you bring to the dishes – with the different spices, techniques, processes. What’s the point if by following Ashok’s ‘algorithms’, you turn your dishes into the same mass-produced generic ‘curry’?

Also, what’s with the condescension towards food bloggers (other than Bongeats, which he seems to approve of) or recipes on the Internet? [Bongeats is a wonderful, non-fussy food channel on YouTube – do check it out.] Some of the bloggers whose recipes I have been following are excellent chefs – Dassana of vegrecipesofIndia.com comes to mind.  Chef Ranveer Brar’s YouTube channel is a joy (and a rabbit hole, so I warn you!) not only because of the pleasure he takes in cooking and sharing his recipes, but because of the history he narrates, tracing the journey of a particular dish. [Added bonus: He doesn't patronise you.] Good food bloggers not only give you a recipe, but also offer substitutions, tips based on their experience, and simplified versions of doing things. They have tested their recipes many times and made it as fool-proof as possible. Why not take advantage of their experience?

The repeated ‘jokes’! Ashok is like that annoying old ‘uncle-ji’ he references, who corners you at every family gathering to tell you the same ghisa-pita joke. Which, being polite, you must laugh at, even if it was not remotely funny the first time! His sense of humour punches down and I suppose he thinks he’s being humorous. He’s just being tiresome. [Why his editor didn't catch these constant repetitions, I don't know.]

My final conclusion is – Masala Lab has some good information in it. But it is badly written, has cringe-worthy humour, and is over-hyped. Buy this book, even if you are a beginner, only if you want to understand the science behind some of the techniques. [And if you have the patience to finish reading it.] Because cooking is also an art. It is the joy of creating, not manufacturing.

If you are someone just learning to cook and who wants simple recipes to start with, you can’t go wrong with Madhur Jaffrey’s A Taste of India. It is well-written, concise and fool-proof – follow the recipes blindly and you will turn out a good dish at the end of it. There is humour and poignancy in the personal anecdotes she shares and quite a bit of the history of food as well.  Once you're adept at making one of her recipes, you can adapt, substitute, make your own variation of it – in other words, create your own signature recipe. 

I’m sure there are other cookbooks for beginners out there which make cooking a joy and a journey of discovery. Find some! 

[Allow me to plug Ammini Ramachandran's excellent Grains, Greens and Grated Coconut, for a fascinating introduction to the cuisine and legacy of a specific family from Kerala and its heritage.]

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