The Science of Indian Food

Read an exclusive excerpt from Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking by Krish Ashok.

By URLife Team
07 Oct 2023


We've all heard countless stories on dietary advice and food fads, what's good or bad for our health, the best way to cook or the side effects of an ingredient. But it's time to set the record straight. Let’s debunk common food myths and misconceptions so you can make informed choices for a healthier and more fulfilling life. 


Get instant access to personalised nutrition advice just for you. Sign up here.


The following excerpts are taken with permission from the book Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking, Penguin Random House, 2020, written by Krish Ashok.

Myth: Heat Acts Same For All Ingredients 

Not all ingredients behave the same way when heat is applied.. Here are a few examples:

1. Heat adds flavour to meat and fish until a point, after which they start to become dry and chewy. Cooking meat to be moist and tender, while ensuring it is perfectly cooked, takes


2. Heat mutes the flavour of onion and garlic. The raw ingredient is too overpowering in itself, and the aim of cooking is to reduce, not amplify, its flavour…

3. Heat significantly improves the flavour of cabbage, way more than it does for other vegetables.

4. Heat improves the flavour of tomato.,,

5. Heat adds bitterness to green leafy vegetables and, thus, must be applied very carefully.


Related story: High-Protein Dishes You Must Order At UR.Life Cafe


Myth Debunked: Pressure-Cooking is The Best Cooking Technique 

Try to avoid pressure-cooking for meats and seafood. Rather counter-intuitively, meats tend to dry out even with moist cooking methods. The key to great-tasting meat is to ensure that its internal temperature never goes above 70 degree celsius. In a literal pressure-cooker atmosphere, that is simply not possible, so the chances that you will end up with dry, overcooked pieces is very high. However, it is not uncommon to use pressure-cooking with tougher cuts of red meat, such as beef or mutton, to save time. But if you are looking to get the best flavour, low and slow is the way to go.


Myth Debunked: Lentils Are a Rich Source of Protein

A common misconception about lentils is that they are rich in proteins. In general, plants don’t focus on making proteins the same way animals do. The proteins plants make are typically nutritionally incomplete for humans. But, to be fair, lentils are packed with a lot of the good stuff, particularly harder-to-digest carbohydrates, which makes them a good source of plant-based protein in a balanced meal…

Some lentils can be hard to cook and require a fair amount of time. Soaking reduces cooking time significantly. Though soaking does technically leach some flavour into the water, the difference is largely imperceptible because we tend to add a ton of extra flavour using spices. Pressure-cooking also helps to shave off cooking times by almost 50 per cent. One of the hardest legumes to cook, the chickpea (chana), can be cooked to perfect softness if you add a pinch of baking soda to the pressure cooker. Baking soda breaks down pectin, the hard substance that holds the plant’s cell walls together, and accelerates the cooking of chickpeas (or any other legume for that matter)...


Related story: Indian Berry Smoothie Bowl


Myth Debunked: Chillies Retain Their Flavour When Powdered

To understand why we love chillies so much, we need to head back to the scene where the TRPV1 receptors panicked the brain into thinking that the mouth was on fire after being fooled by capsaicin. Once the brain deals with this panic, it has an automatic tendency to release endorphins, because sustained pain tends to incapacitate the body…


So, evolution has designed a mechanism where pain is usually followed by the release of endorphins. This convinces the opioid receptors in the brain to reduce the perception of pain... In simpler terms, the pain of eating chillies is also pleasurable, and since the capsaicin is only creating the illusion of heat, it does no permanent damage unless you eat a ton of chillies. And the release of endorphins while you are eating makes the rest of the food taste way more delicious than it is. This is why we are addicted to hot food…


Like with most spices, chillies (both green and red) lose their flavour once they are powdered…If you want the flavour of the chillies, use them whole. If you only want heat, use the powder. If you are sensitive to heat, a common misconception is that it’s the seeds that contribute all the heat. They don’t. The seeds are removed because they taste bitter. It’s the placenta, which connects the seeds to the flesh, that has most of the capsaicin. So, removing that will reduce the heat levels in your chillies…When you remove the seeds from a chilli, there is a good chance that you are likely using a knife to slice them away. The act of doing that will, in most cases, also slice away the whitish placenta to which the seeds are connected…


1. The right amount of heat intensifies other flavours.

2. Fat mutes heat, which is why idli gunpowder is paired with sesame oil or ghee.

3. Alcohol mutes heat, which is why bar snacks in India tend to be insanely spicy, because after a couple of large pegs, your TRPV1 receptors are not exactly in working condition.

4. Acid amplifies heat…

5. Heat alleviates richness or fattiness in dishes. When your dishes are too greasy, creamy or heavy, heat will reduce the perception of richness.


Related story: 6 Healthy Green Smoothies Recipes 


Myth Debunked: Don’t Use Baking Soda At All


The substance sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3), also known as baking soda or cooking soda. It’s also one of the main ingredients in fruit salt, also known as Eno, which is a mix of sodium bicarbonate, sodium carbonate and citric acid. It is commonly used as an antacid…


First, let me get the most common misconception out of the way. Baking soda in small quantities is not bad for you. In large quantities, everything is bad for you…

Let’s begin with what it can do to pectin. Baking soda is the guy operating the wrecking ball on pectin. Adding a pinch of baking soda when cooking legumes like chana, rajma and black urad dal will reduce the cook time and fuel consumption by about 40 per cent. Adding a tea bag to the cooker will ensure that any unused baking soda is neutralised. Because baking soda is mildly basic, it has a soapy and bitter taste, so the idea is to add just enough quantity for it to do its job but not linger around unutilized…You can put this to use when you want to make the most amaklamatically crispy potatoes in India, which is not an easy thing...A pinch of baking soda in the water you boil peeled potatoes in will break down the pectin, resulting in rough, jagged surfaces with significantly more surface area for crisping…You can also use a pinch of baking soda while blanching green vegetables. This will keep the vegetables green, as the baking soda will prevent the breakdown of chlorophyll, which gives the vegetables their characteristic colour. Don’t cook them for too long though because the baking soda’s assault on pectin can turn your vegetables to mush.


Baking soda can also tenderise tough cuts of meat, a common misconception is that using acids in a marinade helps make the meat tender. They do not… Acids make meat tougher. Bases, on the other hand, can make it tender. If you add a pinch of baking soda to tough cuts of meat, like beef or mutton, and let it sit for 5 minutes, it will make the meat tender. But don’t add too much or you will be left with a nasty aftertaste.


Get instant access to personalised nutrition advice just for you. Sign up here.



Follow Us On Instagram