Ask Vir Ask Vir

Why your grandmother’s cooking is so much better than yours

Have you ever wondered why you can’t cook as well as your grandmother did?

Or why traditional cooks will often make food that is so much more delicious than anything we can manage?


We sometimes jump to the wrong conclusions and say that it is because they have (or had) access to better recipes than the rest of us. The more I see cooks (both professional and amateur), the less and less convinced I am that it is all to do with recipes. Yes, there are secret masala mixes but I often think that ustads and chefs make too much of them.


   The real difference is technique. Your grandmother knew how to select and handle her ingredients better than you and I do. She understood how much heat was perfect at which time in the cooking process for each dish. The difference between good cooking and great cooking lies in the hand of the chef.


   So let’s be frank. You can’t suddenly learn in a week or so what your grandmother picked up after years in the kitchen. Nor can your skills match those of a great chef like Gulam Qureshi, who is the fifth generation of cooks in his family and has grown up in a professional kitchen. He picked up the techniques even before he learnt to read.


   But there is a hack. There is a way to understand some of the secrets of the great cooks without spending years in the kitchen.


   Though they did not see it that way, the best traditional cooks were always doing things in the kitchen that could be deciphered by science. Understand the science and you understand at least some of what the great cooks would do.


   This is a trend pioneered by the food writer, Harold McGee, whose work came to greater public attention when it was popularised by Heston Blumenthal. Though Blumenthal is one of the world’s greatest living chefs, unlike other scientifically-minded chefs (say, Ferran Adrià with whom he is often clubbed), he has spent a lot of time moving away from his own Michelin three-star cuisine to understand how relatively simple dishes can be perfectly made.


   His TV show (and book) In Search of Perfection looks at how simple but great dishes like fish and chips are created. He breaks down the science (so you don’t have to) and tells you how you can cook, say, the best steak ever.


   The reason I like Blumenthal on cooking more than I like the pure science guys like McGee, Hervé This and Nathan Myhrvold, is because he makes it all seem easy and logical. You figure out how the guy who makes fish and chips at a legendary place gets it right every time because Blumenthal has deciphered the science behind his techniques.


   The pure science guys, on the other hand, can be heavy-going. As Christopher Kimball says in his foreword to Nik Sharma’s The Flavour Equation, Harold McGee is both “brilliant and impenetrable”.


"Heat makes a massive difference to taste. A hot dessert actually needs less sugar. A cold dessert needs more."

   Sharma’s book is nominally a recipe book packed mostly with Indian recipes, though intriguingly it is not packaged as a book about Indian food. It is described as “The Science of Great Cooking Explained. More than 100 Essential Recipes”.


   Sharma is a name to reckon with in foodie circles in California where he lives (he spent the first 20 years of his life in Mumbai, though) and all the reviews of the book that I have read in the US press, where it has been widely praised, do not treat it as a book of trendy ethnic recipes. Instead, Sharma’s work has been taken seriously as a contribution to the advancement of all cuisines, not just Indian food.


   Sharma’s recipes are fine and sometimes excellent, but the book’s great strength is that he explains why your grandmother’s cooking is so much better than yours. Do you just buy tomatoes from the sabziwallah or the supermarket? Well, your grandma carefully chose every single tomato she bought. She did not know the terminology but she knew how important it was to buy fully ripe tomatoes: the umami flavours (the reason we like butter chicken or dal Bukhara or even tomato ketchup) in a ripe tomato go up by as much as 480 per cent compared to the one that is unripe. Did she spend longer cooking the tomatoes in her sabzi than you do? At some level, she unconsciously recognised that slow cooking in oil concentrates the flavour molecules inside a tomato.


   Why do so many professional chefs prefer to use tomato paste these days? Not because of convenience or their laziness but because you would need to cook tomatoes for a very long time to get the flavour concentration that tomato paste already has.


   There are little cheat tricks in Sharma’s recipes that I did not know. For instance, he suggests hand massaging vegetables before making pakoras with them. That way, he says, you release the water trapped inside the vegetables, which makes for a better pakora.


   And some of Sharma’s insights explain things we have always sensed. Heat makes a massive difference to taste. A hot dessert actually needs less sugar. A cold dessert needs more. And perceptions of bitterness are also much stronger with cold food. Hot sabzi can taste fine even if you make it with bitter vegetables. Try it when it is cold, though, and the bitterness will come through.


   Some of his recipes clear up mysteries that have always intrigued me. We know that if we salt meat, it will be more tender when it is cooked. But why? Sharma explains that a salty liquid “makes more of the muscle protein, myosin, more soluble.  As the meat is cooked, the soluble and insoluble parts of the muscle protein stick together and trap water molecules, making the meat juicy and tender.”


   But add salt too early and you risk drying out the meat. In keema for instance, salt increases tenderness by dissolving myosin and “encapsulates the fat and water to increase tenderness and juiciness.” You add salt to a keema mixture for say, kebabs, only just before the cooking process.


   Traditional cooks (and your grandmother) did not know the science but they knew when to add the salt. They knew that if you add salt to basmati rice while cooking it, you lose the aroma.


   And Sharma explains things that have always intrigued me. Mustard oil, extracted from mustard seeds, has a characteristic, well, mustard-like, flavour. But the same seeds taste quite different when we add them to oil for a sabzi or a curry. That, it turns out, is because high heat destroys the enzyme that gives mustard its pungent taste.


   There are revelations here too. While cooking a beef fry (well, buffalo-meat fry, these days), Sharma advises against using a curry cut. Choose steak, he says and cook it quickly. He also adds pancetta which, he says, introduces another layer of flavour. (And it also offends two religious communities rather than just one!)


   I spoke to Sharma about his book and the reception it has received. He thinks that over the last few years, there has been a change in American attitudes to Indian food. There is much more interest in the cuisine now and it is taken much more seriously than it used to be. He feels that some of the praise his book has received reflects that changing attitude.


   He may be right. But from my perspective, it is good to have a book that lets you hack into the secrets of the great cooks and explains to you what it was that made their food so terrific.



Posted On: 17 Apr 2021 11:23 AM
Your email id will not be published.
Security code:
Captcha Enter the code shown above:
Your email id will not be published.
Friend's Name:
Friend's E-mail:
Your email id will not be published.
The Message text:
This email was created by [your name] who thought you would be interested in the following Article:

A Vir Sanghvi Article Information

The Vir Sanghvi also contains hundreds of articles.

Additional Text:
Security code:
Captcha Enter the code shown above:

CommentsOther Articles

See All

Ask VirRead all

Connect with Virtwitter

@virsanghvi on
Vir Sanghvi