In the introduction to his new cookbook, Season: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food, Nik Sharma writes: “Mine is the story of a gay immigrant, told through food.” Sharma was born in Mumbai, India, but left his native country for the United States in part because he wanted greater opportunity to be himself.
While studying public policy as a graduate student in Washington, DC, Sharma spent evenings cooking American and European classics, and experimenting with incorporating the Indian spices and cooking methods of his childhood. “I was missing home, the taste of what it was to be in India,” Sharma told us on the latest episode of Bite. “I think I was trying to connect the dots—my past with my present.”
In Season, as well as his popular food blog A Brown Table and columns for the San Francisco Chronicle, these experiments shine. Egg salad becomes more savory and robust when peppered with toasted coriander, roasted garlic, and cilantro. A rustic apple cake is elevated with masala chai spices and ground tea leaves in its batter (recipe below). Roasted chicken gets supercharged by a hot chutney featuring lime juice, caraway, and cumin. The recipes “carry the weight of tradition in new ways, wrapped in new narratives, refusing to be pushed into old boxes,” notes food writer John Birdsall in the cookbook’s introduction.
Sharma also photographs his creations, and while we never see his face, his hands are constantly present. “My hands are naturally brown, I can’t change that,” he explains. The photos push “against the visual rules of food,” writes Birdsall, challenging assumptions about who belongs in a “space remarkable for near-exclusive whiteness.”
They also act as an invitation. “For me that was my way to say, ‘Hey, I’m here. And you can be here too,'” Sharma says.
Apple Masala Chai Cake
Reprinted from Season by Nik Sharma, with permission by Chronicle Books, 2018
“I first made this cake several years ago when I started my blog, A Brown Table. It’s rustic, with tender apples, and requires nothing more than a dusting of confectioners’ sugar to finish it off. Because I call it a masala chai cake, it must, of course, have some tea in it; I grind Darjeeling leaves into the flour.”
Makes 8 to 9 servings (one 9-in [23-cm] cake)
¾ cup [165 g] unsalted butter, at room temperature, cubed, plus more to grease the cake pan
2 Tbsp Darjeeling tea leaves
2 cups [280 g] all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
1½ tsp Chai Masala (recipe follows)
¼ tsp fine sea salt
2 large Fuji or Granny Smith apples, cored, peeled, and diced
1 cup [200 g] packed brown sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
½ cup [60 g] confectioners’ sugar
Grease a 9 in [23 cm] round baking pan with butter and line the bottom with parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 350°F [180°C].
Grind the tea leaves to a fine powder with a mortar and pestle. In a large bowl, whisk together the ground tea leaves, flour, baking powder, baking soda, chai masala, and salt. Put the apples in a medium bowl, and toss with 2 Tbsp of the whisked flour mixture, to coat.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the ¾ cup [165 g] butter and brown sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Lower the speed to medium-low, add the flour mixture, and beat until there are no more streaks of flour visible, 1 to 1½ minutes. Remove the bowl from the stand mixer and fold in the apples.
Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and level it with an offset spatula. Bake for 55 to 60 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through baking, until the cake is golden brown, firm to the touch, and a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes. Run a knife around the inside of the pan to release the cake. Transfer to a wire rack and cool completely. Before serving, dust the cake with confectioners’ sugar. The cake will keep for 2 to 3 days at room temperature, in an airtight container lined with a clean kitchen towel to absorb any moisture.
The approach: Grinding the tea leaves before they go into the cake batter helps infuse the cake with their flavor. While the cake bakes, the baking soda reacts with the tannins in the tea to reduce any bitterness. This is a cake with lots of flavor for minimal effort, but be sure to use a fresh batch of chai masala.
Chai is the Hindi word for “tea,” and in most Indian households, cups of hot chai are served with snacks and sweets every evening when people come back from work. Indians drink chai in many different and beautiful ways, from simply steeping the tea leaves in hot water to accompanying the leaves with a masala (spice blend). Some add dried herbs, such as mint or holy basil (tulsi), or a few strands of saffron. My mom usually adds 1 tsp of freshly grated ginger to every cup of tea she brews, and occasionally a cracked pod of green cardamom.
Makes ¼ cup [25 g]
Seeds from 10 green cardamom pods, crushed
Seeds from 1 whole black cardamom pod
6 black peppercorns
4 whole cloves
One 1 in [2.5 cm] piece cinnamon stick
1 Tbsp ground ginger
Grind the cardamom seeds, peppercorns, cloves, and cinnamon stick with a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder. Transfer to an airtight container, stir in the ginger, and cover. Store the masala in a cool, dark place for up to a month.