In my last review, I looked at how Claire Saffitz’s Dessert Person worked to give home bakers more confidence by offering recipes and explanations that improved home bakers’ skills and techniques. Her positive affirmation: I am a Dessert Person really connects to the notion that anyone can become a baker through practice. Looking at what happens in home kitchens it is apparent to me that there are an equal number of people who think that they can’t cook. And what Nik Sharma does in his latest book, The Flavor Equation, is to demonstrate to home cooks that good cooking and delicious food can be understood through the science of flavor. Using his background in science (molecular biology), Sharma guides the home cook through the components of flavor: emotion, sight, sound, mouthfeel, aroma, and taste. All these components make up what he calls “the flavor equation.”
And, while The Flavor Equation is a seminal cookbook on the topic of flavor, what makes this book special is the joy Sharma demonstrates for cooking. As he says in the introduction to the book, “As a cook and a food writer, I use food as a way to connect my past with my present and future — to weave a thread between my life in India, my life in America, and the people and places I’ve seen and met along the way.”(10) While science can seem dry and impersonal at times, Sharma makes the science behind flavor a personal journey. While the recipes are organized into seven chapters: Brightness, Bitterness, Sweetness, Savoriness, Fieriness, and Richness, its the way he uses recipes that are significant and personal to him to show flavor. With each recipe Sharma offers interesting insight and personal connections through the notes along with an explanation of how the ingredients used comprise flavor: “The science behind the actions and reactions in these recipes will help guide you, so that you will know what’s happening and why, and consequently make you a better, more confident, creative, and flexible cook.”
One of my favourite recipes from the book is for making Parathas — a flatbread that Sharma ate growing up in India. He describes them as soft, flaky, and unleavened. And, while he gives a recipe variation for using an AP and whole wheat flour mixture, by making the recipe as originally written — using atta (a stone-ground flour used to make unleavened whole wheat breads in India) — is the way to ensure maximum flavour. While the local chain supermarket doesn’t stock atta here in Halifax, I went to Dhaba Sweets and Spice Shoppe to buy a bag (along with some spices, paneer, and fresh curry leaves). My family and I loved the soft texture and the nutty flavor (from the ghee and atta) of the Parathas — so much so that I made this recipe three times in one week! (I made extra to freeze and we’ve been enjoying them as breakfast or alongside other meals).
When I was a kid, I could have eaten pizza morning, noon, and night — in my mind, it’s the perfect combination of flavors and textures. It was also a special occasion meal, so we didn’t eat it that often. Enter the “pizza bagel.” Using a bagel as the base, my sister and I would then add the sauce, cheese, and toppings so that we could enjoy pizza any time we wanted! So, when I saw Sharma’s recipe for “Pizza” Toast, I knew he understood a person’s need for pizza. A recipe that Sharma grew up with as well, his version makes use of sliced bread for the base and instead of using a microwave, as my sister and I did, he uses the oven. His method of using a wire rack on a baking sheet ensures that the bread doesn’t get soggy while it bakes but instead crisps up. In this way, we can see how mouthfeel relates to flavor — a soggy pizza will have a different flavor!
While making the science behind what creates flavor in cooking accessible to home cooks, Sharma has done so using recipes you can enjoy making as a weekend project or for the times when it seems like you have no time at all. One of the recipes he developed as a time-saver — the Chickpea, Spinach and Potato “Samosa Pie” — keeps all the flavour and texture of a samosa while offering it in a larger format. Here, the recipe makes good use of phyllo pastry — something I usually have in my freezer — which leaves only the filling to prepare. I found it took no time at all to assemble the “pie” and, I served it with beet relish that I buy from the local farmer’s market. Both my husband and daughter were fans of this meal and, it made enough to enjoy leftovers.
When I first showed The Flavor Equation on my Instagram stories one of the main questions I was asked was whether or not this book is suitable for vegetarians/vegans? While Sharma doesn’t write vegetarian cookbooks, he offers many recipes that are suitable for plant-based diets. For those of you that know, I’m a vegetarian in a family of vegetarians and I appreciate cookbooks which offer great vegetable, grain, bean, and legume recipes. With both of Sharma’s cookbooks — Season and The Flavor Equation — there are a wide variety of recipes. I’ve almost cooked a dozen recipes from the book and some other family favourites are: Chickpea Salad w/ Date and Tamarind Dressing, Roasted Butternut Squash and Pomegranate Molasses Soup, Warm Kale, White Bean and Mushroom Salad w/ Chilli Tahini, and the Paneer and Beet Salad w/ Mango-Lime Dressing.
I really enjoy cooking from his first book Season and, I feel that all the themes from his first book are continued and expanded upon in The Flavor Equation. There is a strong relationship between cooking and science which Sharma carefully demonstrates through his recipes. Instead of taking a purely clinical approach, he shows us that flavor is related to our senses and emotions as well as to science. It is clear from cooking Sharma’s recipes that he encourages the home cook to revel in the experience. In telling his own story through food, we can understand our own connection to flavor and the food we love to eat and make. Not only is The Flavor Equation filled with beautiful photography (both of finished dishes as well as of the ingredients themselves), but it is also brimming with beautiful illustrations and infographics by Matteo Riva.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Raincoast Books and Chronicle Books for providing me with a free, review copy of this book. I did not receive monetary compensation for my post, and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.