Nik Sharma Has a Winning Formula for Flavor

Scientist-turned-cookbook author Nik Sharma talks with Julia Turshen about emotion, research, and his favorite condiments.

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Nik Sharma
Photo: Saroyan Humphrey / Eyevine / Redux

Nik Sharma is a Bombay-born, Los Angeles–based food writer, photographer, cookbook author, and recipe developer. Sharma first came to America to study molecular genetics before starting his food and photography blog, A Brown Table; his second cookbook, The Flavor Equation: The Science of Great Cooking Explained, was released earlier this fall. He and I have spent years comparing notes on everything from working on our books to caring for our pets. What follows is exactly what it sounds like when two cookbook authors talk about pretty much everything except food. — Julia Turshen, founder of Equity At The Table (EATT) and author of Now & Again

Has your definition of success changed over time?

It definitely evolves because I'm evolving as a person. The greatest joy for me is being able to have the privilege to write and photograph a cookbook. That people will actually buy the book and cook a recipe from it blows my mind.

I know that feeling! Can we talk about the role that emotion plays?

It's part of how we experience flavor. Sometimes it's conscious, and often it's subconscious. If you have a good experience with something, immediately you're drawn to that particular flavor, taste, or food.

And what about not-so-positive memories?

Even the negative experiences are interesting. When I was researching the book, I was fascinated to learn that with a negative experience, food can taste much more sour.

Did anything else inspire you to think about the relationship between food and emotion?

I once worked as a food photographer for a start-up company where data scientists were mining customer behavioral responses to the dishes that they were buying on the app. For example, if there was an exciting thing happening, like a celebration, everybody went toward something sweeter.

The science of food so often gets pigeonholed as this completely impersonal thing. And because you used emotion, you made science feel personal and holistic.

I thought it would be a disservice for me to write a cookbook just talking about science and not emotion because it is a measurable concept. Emotion and memory are interconnected, and they're part of the way I cook; I cook because I'm emotionally excited.

Can you tell me about the two men you dedicated the book to?

Floyd Cardoz [who died from COVID-19 in March 2020] was a very influential chef and cookbook author to me because he was the first person I saw representing Goan cuisine in American culture.

Did you ever get to spend time together?

We did, and it turns out that we're from the same neighborhood. It was really cool to have this bond with someone from the place I grew up but in a different country. His passing shook me because this was the only other person that I knew who was writing about Goan food. I thought it was important to acknowledge his contributions, not only to American cooking but also my career.

And the other dedication?

My husband has been there supporting me, giving critical feedback on every recipe, even if I don't want it.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Nik Sharma's Kitchen Essentials

Logan's Gardens (Santa Monica Farmers Market)

They carry a variety of edible plants from all over.

Brooklyn Delhi's Condiments

Made by my dear friend Chitra Agrawal, these remind me of home.

Just Date Syrup

A wonderful sweetener made from California Medjool dates.

Diaspora Co.

This is one of the brightest and most potent brands of turmeric available.

Red Bay Coffee

Not only are their roasts a joy to start the day with, but the store and the owner, Keba Konte, employ people who've been marginalized by society.

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