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Food & Wine The science of Nik Sharma: How the James Beard Award nominee went from immunology to food blogging

Pablo Lobato/The Globe and Mail

Nik Sharma puts his own story front and centre in his first cookbook, the James Beard Award-nominated Season, and his own hands on the cover, sprinkling a red spice onto a green cucumber salad. The 38-year-old resident of Oakland, Calif., comes, originally, from Mumbai. He moved to the United States, he says, for two reasons: to study immunology and to come out. “There were no positive stories about gay men in India, none about them living their lives freely and openly. I knew I had to get out.”

After completing his studies, he worked as a lab researcher on the treatment of diseases in Washington, where he met Michael Frazier. In his off hours, he’d cook, introducing his now-husband to the food he grew up with, as well as reinventing North American classics, and blogging about his discoveries. When they moved from the East Coast to the West for Frazier’s work, Frazier encouraged Sharma to try writing about food full-time, and, with his blog as his calling card, Sharma soon landed a column at the San Francisco Chronicle.

His culinary project is one of reverse imperialism, the cook from the colonized culture reworking the foods of the colonizer to suit his palate, a representative of the East commenting on the cuisine of the West. Here, Sharma speaks about spicing up American classics, how science relates to recipes and the hardest part of blogging.

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What food did you eat as a kid?

I grew up in Bombay – I still think of Mumbai as Bombay – and my father was Hindu from Uttar Pradesh, so mainly vegetables in his diet. My mother was Catholic, her family from Goa, so meat and seafood – it’s a coastal state – and there was some Portuguese influence. As a household, we celebrated both holidays, had dishes from both traditions.

And what kinds of recipes did you put into this book?

All that is in it. But it's not an Indian cookbook. After I came to America, I would go to grad-student potlucks and everyone would want me to bring Indian food. But I also wanted to explore the foods I was learning about. I hadn't eaten Greek food, Italian, Ethiopian food before I came, as well as the traditional American foods. Why can't I cook those things, in my own way, too?

You’ve added tamarind flavor to your Caprese salad’s dressing, tahini and zaatar to your devilled eggs, and used curry leaves in your popcorn chicken recipe. How did you come to start making your own versions of American classics?

One thing was I went with my husband to visit his family – they’ve lived in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia for a long time – and he told them I liked to cook. His mother invited me to cook for them. I was excited and nervous. I knew they were a meat-and-potatoes family, so I made biryani, which layered meat – I can’t remember if it was chicken or beef – potatoes and rice. But it had different spices. They loved it – familiar foods to them, but new, exotic but homespun.

Cooking for my husband, there are things he likes – like biscuits, the Southern American biscuits, not what we meant by the word “biscuits” in India, something sweet to have with tea. Instead of the lard or Crisco that his family uses for fat, I used ghee. I had the wrong flour at first, but through a lot of experimenting, I got it there. Now, I’m able to do something that Michael loves to eat every day – though he shouldn’t, not every day [laughs] – and I also feel connected with it. It has that glorious scent that ghee can give.

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Does your background in science help in your recipe-making?

In many ways, cooking reminds me of working in a lab. You start with a hypothesis and then test for it, your failures teaching you a lot.

When you left the relatively sure thing of lab science, doing research on cancer and diabetes, for writing on food, were your parents delighted?

Thrilled. My mother has worked in the hotel industry, and she said she didn't want me cutting onions in a cold room – that's how she saw it. And my father is a commercial photographer, so a creative type, but he knew the insecurity that can come with this territory.

But it's worked out –

It hasn't all been a garden of roses.

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What's been the hardest part?

When I was blogging, I'd get comments about the colour of my skin – it was too ashy. In the food world, in general, at the time, everyone was light-skinned. I didn't realize the colour of my skin would be an issue. The racist comments sometimes made me feel sick, and I pulled back. But I realized this was the only thing making me excited to wake up in the morning, so I decided not to let other people make that decision for me. People are always trying to put you into a box. Growing up it was always, are you Catholic or Hindu? Now, as an immigrant you're asked do you see yourself as an Indian or an American? Professionally, do you want to be a photographer, a writer or a cook?

You do all three, doing the photos for your book, cooking the recipes, writing it.

Yes. The thing is I don’t want to choose anything. Why should I have to? Getting the space to be these different things, to be a gay immigrant doing this work, I don’t take it for granted. Any of it.

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