Nik Sharma was in his early twenties when he moved to the United States from Bombay, India, to study molecular genetics in 2002. He graduated from the University of Cincinnati and then headed to Washington, D.C., to continue his education at Georgetown University. While pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and working as a medical researcher, Sharma started getting more into cooking as a creative, almost therapeutic release—a reason many home chefs can relate to. “I needed a break from academia,” he says. “And that drew me into the world of food.”
In 2011, he created a blog called A Brown Table, showcasing his Indian-American recipes along with original photography, another one of his passions. He’d considered cooking and photography as professional paths before, but was discouraged by his parents, who didn’t think he was cut out for those kinds of careers and hoped he’d pursue one with more financial stability. And at the time, under the restrictions of his work visa, he didn’t have the freedom to stray from the scientific field.
That finally changed when Sharma received a green card after marrying his husband in 2014. They moved to San Francisco that year, where Sharma took a job at a pharmaceutical company while sneakily exploring his culinary interests on the side. “I told them I have some family emergencies happening—I lied—and said I’ll be late every day for two weeks.” He spent the time staging at a patisserie shop, which turned into a job offer and kick-started his new career. Meanwhile, A Brown Table was gaining recognition, and that led to major opportunities, including a column in the San Francisco Chronicle and a contract for his first cookbook, Season: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food.
Now living in Oakland, Calif., Sharma has harnessed his past into a culinary and food-writing style that’s based in science and still widely approachable. It’s the central theme of his latest cookbook, released in October 2020, The Flavor Equation, in which Sharma guides readers through an explanation of the science of taste.
“I wanted to write a cookbook where cooking felt accessible to people, but also I wanted to tell them, ‘This is why we crave certain things and this is why we appreciate certain flavors, tastes, textures and all that stuff,’” Sharma says. “It’s basically the marriage of my two careers in science and in cooking.”
The book’s many research-based tips and tricks get pretty geeky, but actually make the recipes even more welcoming and adaptable. “I don’t want people to be bogged down by accessibility and finding ingredients; I want it to be easy,” he says. “The goal is to encourage people to cook.” The Flavor Equation also addresses the fluidity of recipes, something often overlooked in scientific cookbooks, which tend to focus on Western cuisines. “I wanted to highlight that, yes, there are these basic science rules that will never change, but the way we do certain things changes based on geography and culture.”
For example, when crafting his version of paratha (an Indian flatbread), Sharma wondered if readers could simply use conventional all-purpose or whole-wheat flour instead of the traditional Indian flour, atta. So the recipe is accompanied by a deep dive into his findings, including the right ratios for a successful substitute and the differences between wheat grown in India versus the U.S.
The book extends far beyond traditional Indian dishes, though, and even features reimagined American staples like cornbread with flavor-boosting additions of fennel seeds and cheddar—dishes that Sharma says “connect my past and my present.”
His recipe for lamb chops cooked in a cast-iron skillet and served with a scallion-and-mint salsa does just that, drawing inspiration from Sharma’s heritage as well as the Mexican and Asian influences in his current home of California. “In India, a lot of the meats are served with some kind of chutney, and at the end of the day, a salsa is quite similar to a chutney; it’s a sauce that you provide as a condiment on the side.”
The salsa brightens the savory richness of the meat, which is seasoned with a flavor-packed mixture including an Indian black salt called kala namak. He explains in the book that the salt serves to both brine and flavor the lamb, and in typical Sharma fashion, he goes further: “The combination of salt and acid in the marinade changes the lamb’s protein structure. In the case of red meat, the tough collagen starts to solubilize, and the tissue swells as it retains water and is tenderized. The cooked meat will be tender and juicy.”
The recipe is fairly customizable; the amount of garlic can be halved for a milder flavor, and home cooks are encouraged to use the green chile of their choice. “I would use a serrano in everything, some people prefer jalapeños. But if you want something hotter, then use a Thai green chile.”
Just don’t skimp when it comes to the quality of the lamb, which makes a big difference. “You’re going to pay some amount of money for lamb anyway, so spend a few extra dollars and get good-quality meat.” The same goes for the freshness of the scallions. “They’re not hard to find, but I feel like sometimes when we buy scallions, we stick them in the refrigerator and leave them there for so long,” he says. “With something like this, where the sauce is based on so many fresh ingredients, take advantage of that moment.”
Though intentionally straightforward, this summery dish requires a few hours of marinating, making it a great match for a long-weekend holiday like Memorial Day.
Sharma also shares a salad of cucumber and roasted corn as an equally summery accompaniment, infused with notes of umami from fish sauce and sweetness from honey. He once again draws inspiration from Mexico, specifically the classic street-food dish of corn cobs roasted on charcoal stoves and topped with variations of lime, salt and chile powder. “In India, corn is a big snack during the summer ... it’s quite similar how Indians and Mexicans cook.” It’s also a very simple recipe; Sharma’s only word of warning is to carefully watch the mustard seeds as they fry, since they can impart bitterness if overcooked.
Sharma admits he’s no sommelier, but he does know what he likes: “I tend to lean toward less dry wines, and I like a little bit of fizz.” For a daytime get-together, he suggests a personal go-to, Broadbent Vinho Verde. “The fizz tends to bring out spicy flavors much more. You can even try that with just a carbonated beverage and you’ll notice that,” he says. “I also like that it’s very soothing and refreshing, and it’s something that I could drink when it’s warm or when it’s cool.”
For those craving something warmer and richer for an evening meal, Sharma offers a red-wine option as well, Château Tertre de Viaud Côtes de Bourg 2014. Below, Wine Spectator presents five red wines and five white wines with characteristics similar to Sharma’s picks.
Note: Kala namak and amchur (a mango powder, and the other ingredient that may look unfamiliar) can be purchased at specialty retailers such as Sharma’s suggestion of Oaktown Spice Shop, and are also available on Amazon.
Reprinted from The Flavor Equation by Nik Sharma with permission by Chronicle Books, 2020
Lamb Chops with Scallion-Mint Salsa
For the lamb:
- 8 lamb rib chops (total weight 2 pounds)
- 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
- 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon amchur
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon red chile powder
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, coarsely cracked
- 2 teaspoons kala namak, or more as desired
For the salsa (makes 1 1/2 cups):
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
- 1 bunch fresh mint (2 ounces) chopped
- 4 scallions, both white and green parts, thinly sliced
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 fresh green chile (such as serrano, jalapeño or Thai green chile), minced
- Fine sea salt
1. To prepare the lamb, pat the chops dry with clean paper towels and place them in a large resealable bag. In a small bowl, mix the lemon juice, 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, amchur, black pepper, chile powder, fennel and kala namak and pour it over the lamb chops in the bag. Seal the bag and shake to coat the chops well. Leave the chops to marinate in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours, preferably 6 hours.
2. An hour before you’re ready to cook, prepare the salsa. In a lidded bowl, mix the olive oil, lemon juice, mint, scallions, garlic, black pepper and chile. Taste and season with salt. Cover and let stand until ready to serve.
3. When you’re ready to cook the chops, leave them in the plastic bag out on the kitchen counter for at least 15 minutes to warm to room temperature.
4. Cook the marinated chops in batches. Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large stainless-steel or cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, lift 4 chops out of the bag with a pair of kitchen tongs and place them on the hot pan for 3 to 4 minutes per side for rare and 5 to 6 minutes per side for medium-rare (on an instant-read thermometer, 145° F for rare and 160° F for medium-rare). Repeat with the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil and the remaining chops. Transfer the chops to a plate, tent loosely with foil, and let rest for 5 minutes before serving.
5. Before serving, garnish the lamb with the scallion-mint salsa. Serve warm. Serves 4.
Cucumber and Roasted Corn Salad
For the salad:
- 1 sweet corn cob (8 ounces)
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 English cucumber (12 ounces), diced
- 1 shallot (2 ounces), thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoon cilantro or flat-leaf parsley leaves
- 2 tablespoon pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
For the dressing:
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
- 1/4 cup Sherry vinegar
- 1 teaspoon fish sauce
- 1 teaspoon honey
- 1 teaspoon red chile flakes, such as Aleppo, Maras, or Urfa
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- Fine sea salt
1. To prepare the salad, heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Cut the corn cob in half crosswise to its length. Coat the skillet with half of the oil and brush the remaining oil over the corn halves. Sear them until they develop deep char marks all over, turning them around in the pan with kitchen tongs every 4 to 5 minutes, 15 to 20 minutes total. Remove the cob halves from the pan and let rest for 5 minutes to cool. Strip the corn kernels from the cob by slicing with a knife, and discard the cob. Place the corn kernels in a large mixing bowl with the cucumber, shallot and cilantro.
2. Toast the pepitas in a small skillet over medium-high heat until they just start to brown, 1 minute. Add the pepitas to the mixing bowl.
3. To prepare the dressing, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over medium-high heat in a small skillet. Add the mustard seeds and fry until the seeds start to sputter and get fragrant, 30 to 45 seconds. Remove from the heat and pour the liquid into a small mixing bowl. Add the remaining oil, Sherry vinegar, fish sauce, honey, red chile flakes and black pepper and whisk to emulsify. Taste and season with salt. Pour the dressing over the ingredients in the large mixing bowl and toss to coat evenly. Serve immediately. Serves 4.
Note: The following lists are selections of outstanding and very good wines from recently rated releases. More options can be found in our Wine Ratings Search.
5 Rich, Dark-Fruited Reds
CHÂTEAU DE SALES
Score: 91 | $35
WS review: Silky and refined in feel, with alluring dark tea, dried anise, mulled plum and steeped black cherry notes gliding through in unison. Bay leaf note twinkles on the finish. Drink now through 2031. 6,800 cases made. From France.—James Molesworth
CHÂTEAU DU CARTILLON
Score: 90 | $24
WS review: Black currant and black cherry fruit take center stage, with hints of graphite and dark tobacco along the edges. Fresh, focused finish. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Drink now through 2028. 6,200 cases made. From France.—J.M.
Bordeaux Supérieur 2018
Score: 89 | $15
WS review: Juicy, with a mix of red and black cherry compote flavors that pick up anise and savory details through the finish. Drink now through 2022. 20,000 cases made. From France.—J.M.
BARONS DE ROTHSCHILD (LAFITE)
Bordeaux Légende 2018
Score: 88 | $17
WS review: Plump, with anise, plum and blackberry notes backed by a touch of sweet toast on the finish. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Drink now through 2022. 240,000 cases made. From France.—J.M.
CHÂTEAU DE PITRAY
Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux 2018
Score: 88 | $12
WS review: Modest in scope but nicely rendered, with a mineral edge running amidst damson plum and red currant fruit. Light-handed toast allows the finish to have a pure, unadorned feel. Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. Drink now through 2024. 12,000 cases made. From France.—J.M.
5 Light White Wines
BODEGAS AS LAXAS
Albariño Rias Baixas 2019
Score: 90 | $19
WS review: Light-bodied, but with a broad, leesy texture, this white shows peach and apricot flavors, marked with accents of honey, cream, floral and spice. Engaging, with good complexity. Drink now. 5,000 cases made. From Spain.—Gillian Sciaretta
BODEGAS LAS CANA
Albariño Rias Baixas La Caña 2019
Score: 90 | $20
WS review: This focused, elegant white has a distinctive briny undertone accenting the apple, ginger and peach flavors. Savory elements of spice and herb fine-tune the mouthwatering finish. Drink now through 2022. 18,000 cases made. From Spain.—G.S.
Vinho Verde Portal da Calçada Reserva 2019
Score: 88 | $14
WS review: This light-bodied white shows a supple profile, with creamy yellow peach, lime and spice notes cast with floral and wet stone accents. Lingering finish. Loureiro, Alvarinho, Arinto and Trajadura. Drink now. 15,000 cases made. From Portugal.—G.S.
Getariako Txakolina Txomin Etxaniz 2019
Score: 88 | $22
WS review: Refreshing, this brisk white derives energy from vibrant acidity and a light spritz. Briny notes of sea salt and chalk frame grapefruit and green pear flavors. Hondarrabi Zuri and Hondarrabi Beltza. Drink now. 7,500 cases made. From Spain.—Thomas Matthews
Alvarinho Minho 2019
Score: 88 | $16
WS review: Aromatic white blossom notes hug the lime, white peach and lemon zest notes of this zippy, light-bodied white, with a saline acidity highlighting the mouthwatering finish. Drink now. 15,000 cases made. From Portugal.—G.S.