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NIK SHARMA: A Recipe for Identity

Nik Sharma feels he could be dreaming. The New Yorker magazine’s food correspondent has put the food writer's first cookbook, Season, among the three she recommends, giving him what he describes as one of those “pinch-me” moments. Yet to read the many appraisals that have come for Season, Sharma is probably having many of those moments, with more to come. Food & Winemagazine named Season “one of the most highly anticipated cookbooks”, Joe Yonan, the food and dining editor at The Washington Post called it “an important new voice-and-eye.” And would go on to describe Season as “positively enchanting.” Nigella Lawson describes it as "quite simply beautiful food-wide-ranging, inspiring, and infused with an enlivening and generous sensibility.” High praise from among the culinary industry’s most influential voices. People Sharma wouldn’t have ever imagined would even know his name when he began his food and photography blog, A Brown Table, in 2011. For him food, like for so many of us, is not only sustenance but also a comforting journey through our past and present. He tells me via email as he continues on his book promotion tour, “my journey into the world of food was unplanned but throughout that path, cooking was the common thread that held it together. Cooking has been a way for me to see the world, to see how people think, how they cook their food and season it based on where they lived and what is available to them.”

When you trawl through the recipes in Season, you will get a glimpse into Sharma’s world, the alchemy of his thoughts and how it all plays tantalisingly on one’s palate. With titles like Tandoori Swordfish Steaks, Hot Green Chutney Roasted Chicken, Steak with Orange Peel & Coriander, and mouthwateringly, Apple Masala Chai Cake, plus Elderflower Ghee Cake, one can imagine the culinary lab, aka Sharma’s kitchen, bursting with aromas from around the world. Each ingredient taking its turn on our senses impressing us with their flavours. Yet this isn’t about an Indian infusing flavours into “American” cooking nor vice versa. It is a celebration of so many cultures coming together beautifully. Adding another layer to “food” that isn’t definable by race or country, or even style, rather a respectful acknowledgement of how our different flavours can complement each other. And for Sharma, it’s a way of communicating his life experiences in India and the US, and all the travel in between. Experiences that shaped him and helped to define and be proud of who he really is. “When you strip everything down and look at the core of our desire to define ourselves, it’s all about acceptance,” he tells me. “We want to fit in and be accepted not only by others but also by ourselves. We want to show the rest of the world that we’re not that different from them but we also want to celebrate what makes us special and unique.”[expand title="Read More..." swaptitle=" "]

Nik Sharma was born and raised in Mumbai, India, a country where food is as diverse as the languages that are spoken there. Flavourful and colourful, the cuisine is very much a reflection of the geographic landscape, one that changes depending on what direction the compass is pointing. The Sharma household was the point where north and west met. His father was from the north of the country where the seasons’ extremities meant agriculture was the main industry. Lots of fresh fruit, vegetables, wheat, and dairy were (and still are) dominant components of any dish. North India means Punjab, Kashmir, Pakistan and countries in Central Asia are ever-present in the everyday dishes. Rich curries and rotis define the flavour of the region. While Sharma’s mother was from Mumbai, her family’s Catholic upbringing in Goa came with all the influences of the former Portuguese colony on the coastal state with beaches that looked out onto the Arabian Sea. And that meant, fish, coconut, and rice infused with spices that both unify and diversify this part of the country.

Geography plays such a huge role in defining who we are. Where we’re from isn’t a question that can be answered as easily as it used to be. Our ethnic make up isn’t the singular characteristic that encapsulates or describes our current being. Origins sure, but not who we become. Where we choose to live influences our thoughts, decisions, and our tastebuds. And for Sharma, that has been a cornerstone to his cooking. He says, “I’m passionate about flavour and look for ways to introduce it into my cooking. At the same time, I’m also curious about what people eat, what produce or ingredients are grown where I live and how I can bring that to my own food. Food and cooking for that matter are not static processes in time, instead they evolve constantly and are dynamic.”

The Mumbai that Sharma grew up in is very different to the Mumbai of today, even the Mumbai of two months ago. For over 160 years, Indians were subjected to a law that discriminated against the LGBTQ community. Even the law aside, homosexuality wasn’t something people could openly talk about at home or amongst friends. India is a conservative country where religion and culture form the foundations of practically all facets of life there. So imagine being a young boy on the cusp of being a teenager and realising you’re different from others in your family. “As a child, I had no idea what “gay” meant. I didn’t even know of any gay or queer people but somehow instinct told me to keep it to myself and never mention it. It felt out of order. It made me feel out of place, and there was no real-life comparison to make me think that this was indeed OK…I also found out that gay Indian men and women most often ended up physically abused, jailed or killed. Being a homosexual was a criminal offence in India. Somehow, they were not valued; somehow, Ihad no value. The world did not care for us,” Sharma wrote recently in The San Francisco Chronicle. On Thursday September 6th this year, the five judges sitting on the bench in India’s Supreme Court struck down the law known as Section 377 (of the Indian penal code) which criminalised homosexuality. They said discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was unconstitutional. Judge Indu Malhotra has been quoted in The Guardianas saying, “history owes an apology to members of the community for the delay in ensuring their rights.” It’s a community that makes up about 8% (104 million people) of the country’s population, making it one of the largest concentrated places of the community in the world. For Sharma, it was a highly emotional moment, emotions felt for that little boy who didn’t feel he belonged anywhere, a little boy who thought he was damaged in some inexplicable way. For Sharma, he woke up at his home in California to that early morning realisation of the immense change that the country of his youth would finally openly accept who he was and is. He writes, “while attitudes and perceptions in society take time to change, this new ruling in India gives birth to hope, and to those who have nothing, hope can be all they need.”

Sharma came out when he was 21, a few months after he moved to the United States for graduate school. It was in the US where he found himself. “I was excited to come to a new country and be free. But I was also nervous, not knowing where I’d be in the next 10 years. It turned out to be one of the most liberating moments that made me an adult. I was living alone and not dependent on my parents and it gave me courage in myself to see that I could do things on my own,” he tells me. And through it all, food was there, a constant companion both providing solace during difficult times, the times when he was homesick with his memories of his parents cooking “with love and enthusiasm”, and times when he was still grappling with his newfound freedom to just be. “It was the one stable thing I had, and it helped to distract and move my attention from my problems and channel them into something positive. It gave me focus and along the way guided me through life in its own way,” he says. Food would also be the new friend that Sharma would make when exploring his adopted home and familiarising himself with the culture of “American" food. All this as he underwent his graduate studies in genetics and molecular biology, a “stable career option” he says, but an option that would prove to have a profound impact on his current path. He says, “I was fascinated with how molecules talk to each other and create pathways and changes in all living forms. Between familial expectations and the desire to live freely as a gay man, I decided to pursue higher education in America.” When I asked Sharma how he has been able to use his experience and knowledge as a scientist in his chosen career now, he tells me, “I think it happens every time I cook. How long to cook something, when to add salt or sugar, how long to cook egg yolks to inactivate the enzyme so it helps the custard thicken and so much more. It has also helped me understand how to manipulate spices and draw those flavours out in my food.”

Nik Sharma started his blog, A Brown Table, as an extension of his creative outlet both through his recipes and the photographs he would take of the food he made. He would eventually give up his career in pharmaceuticals and work part time in a bakery in the Bay Area to feed his growing passion and to “follow (his) dream of learning more about the culinary arts” he writes in his blog. It’s a blog that has become a regular column (A Brown Kitchen) in the San Francisco Chronicle and has received awards including the Best Photo Based Blog in 2016 from the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP). And it’s the photos that take Sharma’s blog, and now book Season, to another level in visualising who he is and what he’s about. His brown hands play a prominent role in the photographs and when I ask him about that he tells me, “I was pretty numb to the lack of diversity in food media. I would flip through food magazines or books and rarely see anyone that might look like me. In fact, I accepted the norm as a given but things changed when I worked at a patisserie. Here in the kitchen, we worked together but all of us looked different. I worked with Vietnamese, Japanese, Indian, Persian, White, we’d prepare our pastries, assemble our cakes and it was rare that I had ever seen anyone like us depicted in food photos. So this was my way to depict what I had experienced and seen in commercial kitchens. Here, the people preparing your food often didn’t look or sound like everyone else and perhaps, this was a way for me to give them a voice.”

The immigrant experience in America is fraught with so much negativity, even from as early as the 1600s when the Pilgrims arrived in search of religious freedom. When more immigrants arrived ashore in the 19th century it was to find economic prosperity. Both reasons are still strong for so many who travel, some under great difficulty, to find and realise their American Dream. Today, while the news reports on the victimisation of immigrants through racism, violence, and institutionalised exclusion in so many industries, the reality is that the true face of America today (and of its past) isn’t white, colonial, and of singular faith. It is a melange of colours, ethnicities, religions and cultures. Intertwined and ever-evolving. Valuable contributors to a growing country competing on the world stage. Sometimes living in that reality feels like swimming upstream when there’s only a handful of people in the mainstream, visibly representing the racial mosaic of a geographically western population. Sharma tells me when I ask him what he hopes to communicate to his readers through his recipes he says, “I want people to enjoy the recipes and the food I create but I also want them to take a moment and see that even though many of us don’t look or sound alike, we are all the same in the end, just looking to connect and share our stories and celebrate our diversities with each other…Food is dynamic, it constantly evolves just like we do…If anything, I would like my food to be remembered as a fun way for home cooks to experience parts of the world that they might never see or travel to but get a chance to appreciate those cultures along with their own.” Asha Gomez, author of My Two Southsperhaps said it best when praising Season. She said, “(Nik Sharma’s) personal journey is a part of a larger ever-changing culinary landscape that takes all of our struggles and fractured selves to weave a new, uniquely American tapestry of food.”

In the opening of Season, Nik Sharma writes “mine is a story of a gay immigrant told through food.” It’s a story that he has been writing through his blog too. It’s a vital narrative for so many reasons but if you break it down to one simple factor, there is love that emanates from each recipe in both the book and his blog. There is love for the country where he felt free to be who he is, to get married legally. There is love for the country of his birth where his curiosity for cooking was born out of watching his own family’s relationship with food and how food was an expression of their culture and how they care for each other. And there is love for all the places he has been that have taught him about life outside his own world. You can feel the kindness and compassion emanating from every word and photo. His understanding of each ingredient beyond taste and texture makes Sharma a significant addition to the culinary arts. He says it best when describing his Upside-Down Fig Cake, a recipe that was inspired by the abolishment of Section 377. He shared the recipe in his column in The San Francisco Chronicle: “The fig tree, in many ways, represents hope surrounded by bleakness. It survives hot weather, and it produces the most unusual fruit. Technically, the fig isn’t a fruit by the standard definition, but rather an inverted flower that contains tiny flowers and seeds inside. A ripe fig is marvelous, its inner flesh sweet as honey, the texture reminiscent of beautiful jam. The fig doesn’t have to fit any definition of what is right or wrong based on some norm or definition; it just exists as is, perfect in its identity. It makes no apologies to anyone for its existence.”

Season is out now and available in bookstores& Amazon.[/expand]

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