Late last November, I was sick and attempting a feeble gesture at recovery by eating a large bowl of kak curry: a spicy, savory dish made with rice noodles, bean sprouts, fried shallots, scallions, a soft-boiled egg and finely crushed peanuts from the Vietnamese-Thai restaurant at the end of my street. My body was temporarily happy with me, but my tongue was a bit confused.
I had eaten curry (so, so) many times before, but my particular dish from down the block was soupier than I thought curry could be. Wondering aloud to Google how something so beautiful and perfect could come into existence, I stumbled upon Nik Sharma.
I had just eaten, but his blog "A Brown Table" made my stomach raise an eyebrow and vow to leave me for greener pastures. Scrolling through recipe after gorgeous recipe, I made a mental note to step my kitchen game up at least a notch and try one of his dishes.
Sharma's beautiful original photography is filled with dark, cool-hued vignettes that give his camera's vibrant subjects the royal color treatment they deserve. And I was quick to learn his work hadn't gone unnoticed: Nik won Best Photo Based Blog from the International Association of Culinary Professionals twice (both 2015 and 2016, Ina Garten is shook) and was a finalist last year for Best Food Media.
I had the chance to chat with Nik about what influences him as a culinary artist, what it means to be an out, LGBTQ immigrant of color in his industry, and his forthcoming book Seasons from Chronicle Books, set for release in the fall.
OUT: You grew up learning how to cook from two cultural standpoints, Goan and North Indian. What was the dynamic in your kitchen like growing up, and do you see your parents and their influence in your work today?
I didn't think much about this as a kid and I took a lot of these things for granted. But as it turned out this would become one of the strongest influences that shaped my thoughts on food and cooking. We ate everything, and I learned to appreciate food from both sides of the family, the vegetarian and the non-vegetarian. Beyond ingredients, their styles of cooking were also so different including the techniques they used to create flavors in their dishes. My parents were adventurous in their food choices and let us make our own decisions and explore as we grew older, which was an asset when I traveled and moved to America. Both my parents also worked full-time, so I'd often spend my time in their kitchen, sifting through cookbooks and kitchen notes that my mom had typed out on her Brother typewriter. This bicultural experience helped me keep an open mind to both food and cultures other than my own, and it helped foster my curiosity about cooking, techniques and flavors.
How do you see food writing intersecting with LGBTQ communities?
Things have changed so much since I came out, and for the better. There is more visibility than before, in part due to editors that are supportive and encouraging of queer voices as well as writers who have been brave and generous to share their experiences and vulnerabilities through their writing. Some of the most prolific and impactful food writers today come from the LGBTQ community and while there are several amazing LGBTQ writers that inspire me, some of my favorites include Kim Severson, John Birdsall, Julia Turshen, Mayukh Sen, Joseph Hernandez and Ruby Tandoh. Writers both queer and straight are bringing us stories of queer individuals who have had success as well as hardship in the food world from farms to restaurants to media.
With my own work both at my column for the San Francisco Chronicle as well as my blog, I write from a gay POC immigrant's perspective on food. I look at it this way, I've been given a platform to speak and I need to use it to make a positive impact and the best way I know to do that is through my words and food. By sharing my experiences, I hope that it connects with people and anyone in a similar situation never feels alone. Food should be inclusive, whether it's at the kitchen or the table, no matter who you are, how you look or who you love.
Your book Season from Chronicle Books is coming out in the fall. You just returned from a trip to India to wrap shoots for it, and you'll be in Los Angeles on March 3 at the Food Book Fair to talk about it. What can we look forward to from your first book?
India was a fun trip. I don't visit as much as I'd like to, so this was a great excuse to see family and eat a lot of food in the name of research. Season has been a surreal experience. Slowly watching this book come to life has been both an emotional and exciting journey. I've had an amazing time working on the recipes, photographing as well as being intimately involved in the design process. And while this is a cookbook with recipes and photographs, I wanted to share my story of being a gay immigrant through food as these experiences help shape me along the way--what it meant to come out and to finally be free to live and love who I wanted to. The food is reflection of my life in my two worlds, India and America.
With Season, I want to make people more comfortable in the kitchen as well as with spices and ingredients that can bring bold flavors to their food. Just like everything else, we tend to be a little nervous around things that we are unfamiliar with, and in the book, I encourage people to explore and experiment with seasonings as much as they can, with the hope that they become confident cooks using the building blocks in the book. Regardless of your skill level in the kitchen, there's something for everyone in Season.
Before parting ways, Nik recommended three of his recipes for us to try out. Check them out below:
"This butternut squash salad drizzled with a sweet and sour lime and curry leaf infused dressing is a great salad to make all year round," Nik said. Perfect for an appetizer, or made in a batch for the entree, it's a beautiful, light dish that won't put you in a food coma.
If you're not feeling a salad for the main course, not to worry: Nik has a curry for that. For an "easy weekday curry, this is my go-to-recipe," Nik said. "You need a little bit of yogurt and turmeric with a few spices to create bright and flavorful stew." (Hint: bright and flavorful means good for the Gram.)
Take one look at A Brown Table and you'll quickly discover Nik's passion for dessert. "Of late, I've been baking this upside-down banana cake often," he said. "It's laced with a good dose of maple syrup, a little bit of nutty ghee and the fragrant perfume of ground cardamom."
Nik innovates in his kitchen, his photography, and his life as a gay immigrant of color in the U.S. His story is unique, and we're proud to share it in partnership with Lexus.