San Francisco Bay Area food photographer and writer Nik Sharma recently released his first cookbook, Season: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food, which showcases the Indian home cooking featured on his award-winning blog A Brown Table (www.abrowntable.com). The Southern Food & Beverage Museum hosts a discussion and book signing with Sharma 2 p.m.-3 p.m. Oct. 6. Sharma also will participate in a collaborative dinner inspired by his book at Saffron NOLA at 7 p.m. Oct. 7. Sharma spoke to Gambit about his book and cooking.
Gambit: Tell me a little bit of your background in cooking.
Sharma: When I lived in India, I wanted to go to cooking school. My mom was in hospitality management. She said, “I don’t think that’s for you because it’s hard work and I don’t see you being the type of person that can stand in a cold room peeling onions all day long.” Coming from an Indian family, it’s also not considered the most stable career — you’re always told to find something like engineering, medicine or law. I wanted to cook, so I would sift through my mother’s cookbooks and magazines, and when I moved to America for graduate school, I started to cook because I was living on my own for the first time.
(At the time) I had just come out (as gay) and my best friend from grad school is from New Orleans. When I came out, I was still trying to find acceptance within myself and her family was really supportive. I would come (to New Orleans) and it was a non-issue, which is exactly what you want when you come out. I would literally spend any vacation I could with her family in New Orleans. It is such a rich city when it comes to food and culture and it made me really appreciate how many similar influences from Africa and India were found in the food. The spices and the ingredients were similar, so I started paying attention to a lot of these things, and when I moved to Washington D.C., I started writing the blog.
(Later) I got a job working at a startup taking pictures of food. … While looking for jobs, I approached my (now) editor at the (San Francisco) Chronicle, and they ended up asking me to write a recipe-based column for them.
G: How do you teach home cooks how to tackle Indian cuisine?
S: I wanted (the book) to be part memoir but also a cookbook and something that’s useful to people. I wanted to tell my story: Why I moved to America; what it means to be gay; what it means to be an immigrant; and why I moved here, which was just to be myself and to be free. All those things have influenced and shaped the way I feel about food and the way I cook. I didn’t want it to be a bunch of recipes thrown at people with no context. I wanted it to be useful for a person who may cook something from the book and who might walk away having learned something. We did a visual spice glossary so people can identify ingredients and feel confident when they walk into a store.
I also wanted to showcase my Indian heritage and culture. I’m mixed in terms of heritage and faith because my mother is from Goa, which used to be a Portuguese colony, and my dad is from the north. I wanted to draw in those influences as well as the influences from my husband’s family and the stuff that I’ve been exposed to here. You’ll see Goan recipes and you’ll have a little bit of North Indian (cooking). I don’t delve into the things that people are already very familiar with. I intentionally left out curries.
Start simple. This is how I learned to cook. Start with something you like and move on. If you’re a person who likes hot food, look to chili peppers you’re not familiar with and start there. Kashmiri chili powder is probably the mildest. It’s got a sweet, smoky flavor and it’s mildly hot, but it’s also used in Indian cooking to give color. So build on that, and if you want something hotter you can go for hotter chili peppers. For that, I usually use Thai chili peppers or serranos to add heat. If you want to start using whole-seed spices, start with cumin and coriander. Once you feel comfortable with that, move into nigella, which traditionally is used to create a nutty, aromatic flavor. Just play and have fun. I say it’s OK to make a mistake. If the recipe doesn’t work, or the flavor combination is not what you like, do it again and make it better. Make it your own.
G: What tips can you offer novice food photographers?
S: Do and focus on what you really want to do, or what you want to convey. Don’t follow anyone — these days, everything is so social media based, determined by how many likes you get. That’s instant gratification, and that’s fine, but your work can be great, or good, even if you don’t get a single like. I think some of the people I admire most in the business in food writing and photography don’t have large followings. Those are the people that inspire me the most and probably because they don’t fall into the cookie cutter mold.