#DesiBooks10QA: Krish Ashok on cooking from first principles and not judging people’s food habits

About the author

Krish Ashok is not a chef but cooks daily. He is not a scientist, but he can explain science with easy-to-understand clarity. He trained to be an electronic engineer but is now a software engineer. He learnt to cook from the women in his family, who can make the perfectly fluffy idli without lecturing people on lactobacilli and pH levels. He likes the scientific method not because it offers him the ability to bully people with knowledge, but because it confidently lets him say, “I don’t know, let me test it for myself.”

When he is not cooking, he’s usually playing subversive music on the violin or cello. He lives in Chennai with a wife, who sagely prevents him from buying more gadgets for the kitchen, and a son, who has the flora and fauna in the neighborhood terrorized.

You can follow him at @krishashok on Twitter and @_masalalab on Instagram.

About the book

Ever wondered why your grandmother threw a teabag into the pressure cooker while boiling chickpeas, or why she measured using the knuckle of her index finger? Why does a counter-intuitive pinch of salt make your kheer more intensely flavorful? What is the Maillard reaction and what does it have to do with fenugreek? What does your high-school chemistry knowledge, or what you remember of it, have to do with perfectly browning your onions?

Masala Lab by Krish Ashok is a science nerd’s exploration of Indian cooking with the ultimate aim of making the reader a better cook and turning the kitchen into a joyful, creative playground for culinary experimentation. Just like memorizing an equation might have helped you pass an exam but not become a chemist, following a recipe without knowing its rationale can be a sub-optimal way of learning how to cook.

Exhaustively tested and researched, and with a curious and engaging approach to food, Krish Ashok puts together the one book the Indian kitchen definitely needs, proving along the way that your grandmother was right all along.

Masala Lab by Krish Ashok is a science nerd’s exploration of Indian cooking with the ultimate aim of making the reader a better cook and turning the kitchen into a joyful, creative playground for culinary experimentation. #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks


1. The desi book that made you want to be a writer (or changed your life.)

Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. I never realized until then how gorgeous the English language can be and, more specifically, how it could capture the ambience of Kerala in a way I had always assumed only Malayalam could. That book convinced me that words on a page can visually bring a world to life with richness that even well-made films cannot match.

2. The desi book that your own latest book is most in conversation with and why.

As a book that was the first in its genre (Food Science for Indian Cooking), I usually find it being compared to popular food science books from the west (such as Food Lab by J Kenji Alt-Lopez) rather than Indian books. But since its launch, this sub-genre seems to have found more takers. For example, Sonal Ved’s Whose Samosa is it Anyway and Nik Sharma’s The Flavor Equation.

3. The desi book that doesn’t exist (to your knowledge) but you’d love to read.

The Indian Design Guide to Interior Decor for Middle-class Homes. As someone who is keen on good design, I find most middle-class Indian homes to be rather poorly designed, in comparison to how even the tiniest homes in Japan or Korea are designed to maximize space utilization and embrace a philosophy of minimalism while still retaining a certain unique cultural identity.

4. The desi book that you’re currently reading or planning to read soon.

Not a desi book but. Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch. I’ve been writing on the internet since 2007 and the evolution of language has always been fascinating to me. I’ve always used language with the intent of getting my point across easily rather than be obsessed with rules of grammar and convention. I’ve always invented new or hybrid words or expressions that my audience can easily understand and this book explains why millions like me have played a role in transforming English as we know it in the internet era (and why that’s a good, not a bad, thing.)

5. The desi book that you believe should be read and known more and why.

Indica by Pranay Lal. The history of the Indian subcontinent has simultaneously been mostly poorly documented and highly politicized. This has made the objective discussion of history mostly contentious and colored by political ideologies. In contrast, Pranay Lal has produced the most magnificent work on a non-controversial aspect of history: natural history that spans millions of years. Every page is filled with jaw-dropping insights and the illustrations in the book are works of art.

“[Indica by Pranay Lal is about] natural history that spans millions of years. Every page is filled with jaw-dropping insights and the illustrations in the book are works of art.” ~Krish Ashok on a desi book that should be read more #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

6. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Write to tell stories, not educate an audience. Respect the reader. Use simpler words always. Show more and tell less.

#WritingTips from Krish Ashok: “Write to tell stories, not educate an audience. Respect the reader. Use simpler words always. Show more and tell less.” #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

7. While writing your latest book, how did you keep yourself motivated to keep going despite setbacks (if any)?

I used a tool called Scrivener that let me lay out the book in chapters and sub-headings, set a word count target at the sub-heading level, and a daily word count target (3000) that was prominently counting down as I typed. I spent two hours every day morning for about six to eight weeks to finish the manuscript. The research for the book obviously took longer, but that was not a structured process. I documented findings as I encountered them in digital notes that served as a reference for each chapter sub-heading.

8. With this latest book, what does “literary success” mean to you?

That professional chefs are recommending it to their colleagues and friends genuinely signifies literary success for me personally. I had originally assumed that only newbie cooks might pick this book up.

9. How have larger literary citizenship efforts or the writing community helped you with this latest book?

As a techie with an engineering background and working in software, I am not part of the larger humanities community. My writing has largely evolved by just regularly writing on the internet and improving based on feedback from readers, commenters, and web analytics.

10. What would you most like readers to take away from this latest book?

1. Learn to cook from first principles. Understand where your food comes from and which simple rules of physics and chemistry transform it into delicious dishes.

2. Don’t judge what other people eat and how they cook their food. Our brains process flavor in unique individual ways and no one’s experience of food is the same as that of another. There are no universal rules for what constitutes good taste.

“. . . cook from first principles. Understand where your food comes from […] Don’t judge what other people eat and how they cook . . .” ~Krish Ashok on possible reader takeaways from his new book, Masala Lab #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks


Krish Ashok has a new book out, Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking. More at his website.


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