The Story of Masala Lab

If someone had told me that my first book would be about cooking, I’d have snorted. But then, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve snorted at accurate predictions or good advice. One particularly memorable snorting incident happened some 5 years ago when Manasi Subramaniam from Penguin wrote to me, asking me to consider writing a book. At that point in time, I was one of those insufferable techbros who believed that printing books on dead trees was passé and that if at all I think about writing a book, it will be futuristic, augmented reality, multi-sensory and multimedia experience (on the blockchain obviously) that I will craft and create all by myself and distribute via social networks and bypass institutional gatekeepers of legacy media. Yeah, I was one of those guys.

Of course, that unbridled sense of techno-utopian optimism toned down with age (doom-scrolling the slow-motion destruction of democracy around the world definitely helped hone the skepticism), so when the pandemic hit, I was in the throes of a digital detoxification routine. I realised that I remembered things I read on paper better than things I saw on a screen. I switched back to dead trees after cheerleading Kindles and iPads for many years. I had turned off all notifications and kept my phone permanently on silent mode, much to the chagrin of my wife. That was when I realised that maybe it’s the right time to sit down and write a book, so I put together a proposal for a series of absurdist, dark humour, science fiction short stories set in India, because, well, that fit in perfectly with the kind of writing I was comfortable with over the years.

As an afterthought, just to cover my bases, I put together a non-fiction proposal for a book on the science of Indian cooking. I had been reading (and bicep curling) Harold McGee’s weighty tome “On Food and Cooking” and was wondering why there wasn’t an equivalent (and slightly less attractive to the earth’s gravitational pull) version for Indian cooking. I mean, it’s not like ingredients behave more spiritually once they get south of the Tropic of Cancer while obeying the laws of physics and chemistry in the west. A quick search on Indian food science on Amazon only yielded textbooks meant for catering students, so I decided that if I was going to provide a plan B, it might as well be in a niche that hadn’t been filled yet.

Penguin, much to my surprise back then, jumped with great alacrity to green-light the food science book and told me that humour + sci-fi is a cute combination, but unless it helps the reader crack the IIT JEE, it will not sell. Food science, on the other hand, is clearly a niche waiting to be filled. The universe of food writing in India, while undeniably rich, diverse, steeped in tradition, marinated in exoticism and soaked in culture, largely tended to see home cooking as an art form, and at the starting point of an imminent pandemic, it felt like newbie cooks might warm to a crisp, kitchen 101 popular science book. They sent me a contract and my mind automatically searched for a “scroll to the end” and “I agree” button, and before I realised it, I was staring at a blank MS Word page, 60,000 words short of my contractual obligation.

But, in the immortal words of countless MBAs trying hard to sound smart in meetings, let me take a step back. 

I learnt to cook from a working mother at a point when she realised that I could boil water without causing an LPG explosion. To be fair, the lack of female siblings might have played a role in me learning the basics far earlier than most South Asian men, who tend to be enrolled in the “How to grow up to be a douchenozzle husband” advanced tutorial classes pretty early in life, thereby leaving them with little or no time to do basic chores involved in managing a house. Like most boys in this part of the world, I have to admit we also took my mother’s multi-tasking for granted, but fortunately we had a father who did his share of housework instead of reading The Hindu and demanding freshly brewed filter coffee three times a day.

And, when my job took me to the US for the first time, I undertook a minor documentation project of sorts, talking to every old person in the family and writing down their recipes. 

Just one problem.

Most of those old ladies never really thought in terms of recipes. They tended to think about cooking in terms of broader ratios of ingredients, acids, herbs, dry spices, legumes, rice and so on, and had developed heuristics on the function those ingredients played (sources of sourness, sources of strong aroma etc), and mental algorithms on how to extract flavour from those ingredients by cutting/chopping, acids and heat. With these basic building blocks, they didn’t cook by reading elaborate recipes with 37,283 ingredients, but approached it in the form of dish templates that are broad meta models for entire categories of dishes. A rasam, for instance, is essentially an aromatic, watery and sour broth, and thus the sourness can come from a variety of sources, from tomatoes, tamarind, or citrus, while aroma can come from any mix of spices you fancy. With this metamodel in mind, you can get creative. For instance, try replacing tamarind with Apple Cider Vinegar (and thank me later).

But, there is a curious irony here. They evolved these simple mental models to make their lives easier, given that the patriarchal setup in this part of the world has evolved a natural preference for freshly cooked food made only by women with little choice in the matter. And yet, it’s precisely these heuristics and generalised algorithms that we have largely failed to document in favour of some fraudulent notion of “authenticity” and elaborate recipes. My maternal grandmother would make sambar with whatever vegetables or legumes she had rather than shut the kitchen down because a specific kind of pumpkin was not available, and yet recipes tether us to this rigid notion of how a dish must be cooked with precisely a particular set of ingredients in precisely a particular sequence. And regularly fail to provide scientific causal relationships between cooking steps and outcomes.

At the same time, it would be bombastic marketing on my part to claim that I am somehow the first to rescue these golden nuggets of tacit engineering and food science wisdom our mothers and grandmothers had and record them for posterity. Far from it. If anything, the best book on the science of Indian cooking is yet to be written. My book is merely a small nudge to a gap I saw between point and cover and I’ve just taken a quick single. I’ll also freely admit that the novelty of a man writing a book on home cooking has likely contributed to its modest success. 

But, back to the writing process though. As someone who had only written blogposts and newspaper columns, I had to first evolve a method that was productive for me, so I approached the universal oracle of all knowledge (and part-time alt-right propaganda rabbit hole) – YouTube. I then installed an app called Scrivener, and 65,000 words later, my atheist self prostrated to this app in complete awe at its supreme magnificence. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without Scrivener. You know that saying about bad workmen blaming their tools? Well, this mediocre workman absolutely worships this tool. 

The first thing I did is write a table of contents and sub-headings for each chapter. And once I had that loaded into Scrivener, I set myself word count targets for each sub-chapter, and daily word count targets (3000). I dumped all of the relevant research into the Notes section of each sub-chapter, and then woke up every day at 6 am, read the notes and wrote 3000 words on a specific sub-topic before 9 am. Whenever I felt an illustration was required, I made a note of what exactly I wanted to convey in the illustration and then on weekends, did the illustrations. 

Electromagnetic Spectrum (WhatsApp vs Reality)

Maillard Reaction (that causes delicious browning in food)

And of course, this was the easy part. Once the first draft was in place, Aslesha Kadian, my copy editor at Penguin, made me export this to good old MS Word for the next step – Editing with track changes. And beyond just checking for grammar and spellings, she checked for internal consistency, made me get rid of gratuitous nerdery, fix ambiguous explanations and well, even tested out some of the methods I described in her home kitchen to see if I was just making stuff up. And I know all of this seems rather banal, but in a world where surgeries are going horribly wrong because a patient’s blood had thinned dangerously from drinking turmeric water 3 times a day to prevent Covid-19 on the basis of a WhatsApp forward, the societal value of fact-checking far exceeds the Bitcoin-USD exchange rate (peer review, I am told, is less computationally intensive than blockchain consensus building) 

So, that’s how Masala Lab came to be. Against all expectations, it’s stayed at Number 1 on the Amazon food chart for over 4 months now, and will release internationally on April 15. It’s been a fun journey so far, and it’s a little odd to be suddenly treated as some kind of authority on food, when in reality, the book was written by someone who isn’t a natural good cook for people who find cooking knowledge intimidating. As the opening page of the book says,