The Piglet2016 / Quarterfinal Round, 2016

Made in India vs. The Food Lab

Made in India

Meera Sodha

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The Food Lab

J. Kenji López-Alt

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Judged by: Lauren Collins

Lauren Collins is a staff writer for The New Yorker. She lives in Paris, where she can often be found searching "how many grams in a pound." Her first book, about learning French, comes out in September. 

The Judgment

The books arrived—one, a doomed little upstart and the other, a swaggering favorite—and, being in mind of brackets, I immediately thought: Gonzaga vs. UConn. Remember Phoenix, 1999, the fourth round of the NCAA tournament? The 10th-seeded Zags, in the midst of one of basketball’s great Cinderella runs, were, improbably, up against the top-seeded Huskies. The game was a thriller, full of errors and foul trouble. With thirty-five seconds left, Gonzaga’s point guard sunk a three-pointer, cutting Connecticut’s lead to one. But the order of things asserted itself, and Connecticut prevailed, 67 to 62. They went on to win the tournament. 

Anyway, cookbooks. Meera Sodha’s Made in India is Gonzaga, so palpably underdoggish that it seemed half-sadistic of the nominating committee to have put it in the path of the juggernaut that is J. Kenji López-Alt’s The Food Lab. Sodha is a British cook, born in Lincolnshire to a Gujarati family who fled Uganda in the wake of Idi Amin’s 1972 expulsion of Indian “bloodsuckers.” (Sodha tells the story in the book’s heartfelt introduction, which is illustrated with family snapshots: the entire clan posing on a village green, Sodha in a school blazer with green yarn in her hair.) Sodha explains that, in Uganda, her mother, Nita, never cooked. She had someone to do it for her. In England, she was in the kitchen “day in, day out, to feed her growing family, arranging whatever she could afford into various pots and pans to magical effect, conjuring up tastes and smells of the past and linking us, in an instant, to our ancestral home.” There’s a full-page shot of Sodha and Nita, to whom the book is dedicated, rolling chapatis. She’s as kindly a parent-character as one could conjure—a sort of Dave’s Mom in a sari.

The book’s structure is straightforward, starting with starters and ending with desserts, and then, blessedly, a chapter called “Housekeeping,” which tells you how to make basic items (paneer, yogurt, ghee) and what to do with leftovers (a stray slosh of coconut milk sweetens the daily dal). There’s a humility to this book that’s so appealing. How many cooks have the quiet confidence to write, as Sodha does, positing uses for extra chapatis: “Turn them into chips (see page 272), chapati wraps (see page 64), or feed them to the birds”?

This is all to say that I was smitten before the first mustard seeds hit the pan. Sodha’s premise is that Indian home cooking is fresh, approachable, and quick—“there are no wild-goose recipes in this book,” she writes—so I decided to begin with her recipe for a masala omelette, which she remembers eating on Sunday mornings, “alongside a pile of hot buttered toast, a fresh pot of chai, and Lata Mangeshkar’s timeless, syrupy voice on the stereo.” I had all of the ingredients on hand: eggs, scallions, cilantro, turmeric, chili powder, a green chili. I broke and whisked the eggs; chopped the green things; added them, along with the herbs, to the egg mixture. Then I  heated some canola oil in a skillet and, per Sodha’s instructions, poured in a quarter of the omelette mixture, swirling it around and letting it set. “The eggs should be cooked through but a bit soft on top,” Sodha writes. “Flip it over for 30 seconds or so, before shuffling it out onto a plate.” Then she’s back to reminiscing over Bollywood songs. But wait a minute: The other three-quarters of the omelette mixture never resurfaces. Maybe that’s where the toast comes in? 

I was disappointed. Having embraced Sodha’s premise of trusty-amateurism, I’d gotten a three-paragraph recipe that fell off a cliff. But I wanted to give her another chance, so, in keeping with my cupboard-friendly approach—the geese can be particularly wild when it comes to Indian ingredients in Paris, where I live—I opted next for the Roasted Tamarind Chicken with Honey and Red Chili. (Honey isn't typically featured in Indian cooking, Sodha explains, but her “uncle” Raymond, a neighbor in Lincolnshire, was a beekeeper.) Again, the recipe-writing left something to be desired. The ingredients section called for “14 ounces bone-in chicken thighs,” which seemed like a complicated way of saying “two chicken thighs,” particularly in a book that elsewhere resists the vogue for giving precise weights for things like herbs and garlic. The preparation was significantly easier than pie: You throw a few things in a bowl to make a paste, rub it on the chicken, and your meal emerges, twenty minutes later, burnished and gooey.

Sometimes you open a cookbook and everything looks great in isolation, but you puzzle over how you might incorporate the various mouthwatering elements into a coherent meal. (This happens to me with Ottolenghi.) Sodha is kind enough to offer a “Menu Ideas” section at the back of the book. This is perhaps unfashionable, but welcome. Ditto the pages on “Wine and Indian Food,” “How to Eat With Your Hands,” and, particularly, the “Help” section. Worried about turmeric stains? Use bright-yellow place mats. The appendix of Indian ingredients continues in this warmly practical and explanatory spirit. Have you ever seen a bitter gourd? I would wear one as an earring.

López-Alt’s The Food Lab enters this tournament with a loud cheering section. López-Alt is the managing culinary director of Serious Eats, where he writes a much-loved column called "The Food Lab," dedicated to “unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.” The book is nine-hundred-and-fifty-eight pages long. Its front and back pages feature the sort of charts (volume equivalencies, weight conversions, temperature conversions) that once would have been wildly useful to have on hand, but are dead weight in the age of iPad cooking. For some reason, the same ones are reprinted twice. López-Alt calls his introduction “A Nerd in the Kitchen.” I am slightly suspicious of people who call themselves “nerds,” because the implicit suggestion is that they’re so outwardly fabulous that you’d never have guessed that they’re also quite brilliant. López-Alt’s enthusiasm for his subject is winning, but, by the end of the introduction, less than convincing. “Sure, I earn my keep in a number of ways and testing and writing recipes is only a small part of it,” he writes. “I push commas, I stick words together; I blab about pizza this or hamburger that online, I fake my way through the occasional annoying business meeting or schmooze-fest foodie event; heck, it turns out that I even write a book now and then. But in the end, I’m a cook, and that’s all I ever really wanted to be.” 

The Food Lab is a very voicey book. As its narrator, López-Alt, comes off as a strange combination of iconoclast and job-interview candidate, writing that he has “discovered that in many cases—even in the best restaurants in the world—the methods that traditional cooking knowledge teaches us are not only outdated but occasionally flat-out wrong” and, of joining Cook’s Illustrated after eight years of restaurant work, “It was only after this shift that my curiosity finally began to be sated.” He spent much of college, he recalls, debating “such scientific puzzles as precisely how many whiskey-and-Cokes it takes before the next morning’s hangover will prevent you from attending an 11 A.M. lecture.” He is an unapologetic lover of puns (“penne-pincher”), hokey asides (“Not so fast”), and his wife (“Personally, I like the way charred ribs look, enough so that I had my wife’s engagement ring delivered to her on a bone of wild boar chop. Isn’t that romantic?).” He has never met a scientific phenomenon he can’t shoehorn into a glib pop-cultural metaphor (“Think of inosinates at the Robin to glutamate’s Batman”). As accessible as he is trying to be, his attempts to translate nerdspeak into everyday language can feel like pandering. Read him on hamburgers—“We start big fat burgers off on the cooler side of the grill and finish ‘em with a sear in order to get a nice, perfectly even medium-rare”—and you start hearing Sarah Palin. He left desserts out of the book entirely because they just don’t interest him in the way that savory food does. He writes, “Remember that whole thing about not doing anything that I don’t love doing?”

Enough with the close reading—maybe López-Alt’s writing style just isn’t my thing, as desserts aren’t his, and, in red-penning my way through the book, acting out the old clash between the humanities and the sciences, I, too, am falling back into in some sort of collegiate rut. In López-Alt’s world, it’s the results that matter. “It’s an indication that as a population, we’re finally beginning to see cooking for what it truly is: a scientific engineering problem in which the inputs are raw ingredients and technique and the outputs are deliciously edible results.” (His utilitarian outlook extends to the book’s photographs, which recall the aesthetics of a Time-Life primer on bricklaying.) The first recipe I tried was for his Perfect Poached Eggs, and they were indeed impeccable. The key to the method—he credits Heston Blumenthal—is to run the egg, before cooking, through a fine mesh strainer, ridding it of straggly bits of white. I will probably never make another poached egg without doing this. Coming from a guy who’s a stickler for precision, though, whose mission it is to provide an answer to every “why?,” the recipe was a bit mysterious. Why three quarts of water for an unspecified number of eggs? Why two tablespoons of salt? Any one of the benighted cooks that López so confidently dismisses—“Home cooks follow the notes and recipes of their mothers and grandmothers or cookbooks—perhaps tweaking them here and there to suit modern tastes, but never challenging the fundamentals”—could have told him that’s a waste.

López-Alt’s lack of generosity toward the traditions of the kitchen, the folk-wisdom that generations of home cooks—the overwhelming majority of them women—have toiled to attain, made me a little uncomfortable. I decided to attempt his All-American Meatloaf, a hulking eight-pager of a recipe. López-Alt, let it be said, has done his research. He begins, delightfully, by invoking a 1958 cookbook that included seventy variations on meatloaf, including Chili Hot Top Meatloaf (glazed with Heinz Chili Sauce) and Sunshine Meatloaf (ketchup and canned peaches). He has done some tests and come to some conclusions. The meat should be a beef and pork mix; veal has no place in it, powdered gelatin will help the loaf to retain moisture; eggs, buttermilk, and chopped mushrooms also enhance its structure and flavor. “Bread crumbs may, at first glance, seem like an unnecessary extender—something added just to stretch your meat a little further—but they are perhaps the most important ingredient of all when it comes to improving the texture of a meatloaf,” he writes. “Aside from absorbing and retaining some moisture as the meatloaf cooks, they physically impede the meat proteins from rubbing up too closely to one another, minimizing the amount of cross-linking and thus dramatically increasing tenderness.” 

It took me two hours and ten minutes to get to step six of the recipe, which is when the meat goes into the loaf pan. (Then you have to cover the loaf pan in heavy-duty aluminum foil, making sure that no air bubbles are lurking underneath, and flip it over onto a rimmed baking sheet, baking for thirty minutes and then, before another forty minutes of baking, using a thin metal spatula to jimmy off the inverted pan. I forget why.) The meatloaf was good. Not great. A little crumblier than promised. I felt like I could taste the presence of what López-Alt calls “my trusty umami bombs: anchovies, Marmite, and soy sauce.” They were a little off-putting, in theory more than in actual flavor. They just didn’t seem like they needed to be there, like they had much to do with the dish, any more than did the fish sauce that López-Alt adds to his take on spaghetti bolognese. (And, now, in the vein of sports metaphors, I fear I’m the grumpy, low-scoring Ukranian judge.) 

What’s so wrong with the cooking of mothers and grandmothers anyway? Who can’t tolerate a floater or two in their poached-egg pot? López-Alt’s approach, flawless as its byproducts can be—do score your pork chops before pan-searing them, as he instructs—is, I realized, fundamentally at odds with the way I want to cook. To the López-Alt disciple, it might sound pre-Galilean, but maybe there is no perfect poached egg. Gonzaga wins!

And the winner is…

Made in India

Made in India

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Do you Agree?


Buder S. November 12, 2017
This reviewer writes for the New Yorker? Wow. Does she cook?
mped April 13, 2016
I think Lopez Alt's book ignores a lot of how/why we get into cooking - the memories, ease, love, cultural experience, pleasure. Food is not always about taste, or food chemistry.

And he overpromises/under-delivers - science hasn't always made his recipes the best. I agree that his meatloaf and spaghetti bolognese recipes are blah and not everything needs umami bombs.

Reading about cooking the way he writes about it puts me off, and well that may not be true for every person who encounters Kenji, it was true for this reviewer.
Lisa W. March 31, 2016
There is quite a bit of worship for the Food Lab blog-- that's certainly understandable. What's interesting is how very good so many cookbooks are, and have been, as far back as Escoffier. There will always be a new approach, a new spin on cooking that speaks to its time-- a "better meatloaf", so to speak. And that's fantastic. It's proof of our desire to cook. So, I'm all for Food Lab. But don't forget the Julia's and Jacque Pepin's that are truly unbeatable; and the inspiration behind so much of what we are all cooking today.
D March 21, 2016
Chris P. March 19, 2016
The review begins with a paragraph-long sports analogy. That's bad enough. What follows is strangely personal and bitter or trite.
hardlikearmour March 18, 2016
I wanted Food Lab to win, but that is not the reason I didn't like this review. (I was also rooting for Mamushka, but didn't have a visceral dislike to the review in which it lost). It took me a bit of thought to figure out exactly what troubled me about Ms. Collin's review. This sentence is extremely off-putting: "López-Alt’s lack of generosity toward the traditions of the kitchen, the folk-wisdom that generations of home cooks—the overwhelming majority of them women—have toiled to attain, made me a little uncomfortable." It implies Ms. Collins thinks Mr. López-Alt is a misogynist; she seems to be hyper-sensitive to perceived slights against women. It makes me question if she's a misandrist, and if she could possibly write a fair review of any male authored cookbook. I hope I'm misinterpreting her intentions, but her choice of words did give me a very negative reaction.
JK March 18, 2016
"...acting out the old clash between the humanities and the sciences..."

"López-Alt’s lack of generosity toward the traditions of the kitchen, the folk-wisdom that generations of home cooks—the overwhelming majority of them women—have toiled to attain, made me a little uncomfortable."

No unreasonable bias here.
Tyler B. March 17, 2016
I found this review very interesting, though I wonder if it's not a generational or a gender-rooted difference in views between Ms. Collins and I. I love Kenji's writing, and enjoy his book, but I'm not interested in putting forward my own views here or disputing hers. Judges get to judge.

I do have an answer to her hypothetical question, though: "what's so wrong with mothers and grandmothers?" Nothing, of course, except that they didn't teach me how to cook. The internet did.

As a young man, I grew up in a house where women cooked, unless my father was barbecuing. My mother made meals, and the rest of us ate them. I never learned to cook until I was a college student, and by then my mother wasn't around to teach me. I learned how to cook by googling it, and by teaching myself. Lopez-Alt's writings have, for me, been an indispensable part of that process.

For those who, like me, learned to cook through the written word and youtube videos, rather than through participation with experienced cooks, there is comfort in exactitude. There's a kind of certainty in gram weights as measures, rather than descriptors like "a pinch". There's reassurance in the notion that there is a "right" way to poach an egg, and that if you follow it you'll be okay.

For those who don't come from a rich culinary tradition, who've never sat around a stockpot all Sunday with grandma or learned a family recipe for anything, The Food Lab offers a doorway to a culinary tradition anyone can call their own.
Sarah March 2, 2017
I loved this reply, Thank you! I feel the same way: "there is comfort in exactitude" with cooking if you did not grow up around experienced cooks!
katieDidnt March 16, 2016

I love the Food Lab for both its solid technique and its voice. I don't always care for the modifications... some of them turn a simple task into a large scale construction project without always making the end result better, in my opinion. Some of FoodLab's recipes (fried chicken, pie crust dough, biscuits, goulash, bolognese sauce) are not an improvement over classic preparation despite adding time and ingredients that can be difficult to obtain. The greatest thing about the FoodLab book, though, is that Kenji trains his readers to think critically about how their technique and ingredient choices impact the end result of any dish.

I have not read "Made in India" and doubt I will... I would enjoy the story telling aspect of that book but I dislike international food recipes that are badly written, poorly seasoned, lacking in descriptive technique, and relatively untested. Several readers have commented on that, so I'll pass.

I can't take this author's comments about cookbooks seriously after reading this review. The criticisms leveled at Kenji's book are pretty trivial... like looking for the window washer's fingerprints on a 20 story building. I also think the review of his book reads like a petty high schooler mad at the girl selected to be the head cheerleader.... childish and petulant, with complaints lacking in substance and, so, are instead personal in nature.
SNNYC March 16, 2016
His pie dough is better than any pie dough I've ever tasted, and I made pretty great pie dough before that and work in fine dining, so I've had pie dough from many a pro, so I don't agree there at all. It's also easier to roll out than conventional and dispels with myth for consistent results every time.
And as for the bolognese, it's pretty much Barbara Lynch's very classic bolognese sauce (one of her most renowned dishes with good reason, as it's a perfectly silky, rich, and savory) with a few modifications.
SNNYC March 16, 2016
Also, I haven't made Kenji's biscuits, but I've been laminating biscuit dough for years and it truly makes a flakier, lighter biscuit, so I do consider that a necessary step for my biscuits. You and others might disagree.
clbeth March 16, 2016
Agreed! Worst review in Piglet history. And that is saying a lot. Very nasty tone. It makes no sense whatsoever.
51Mills March 16, 2016
I love J. Kenji López-Alt's recipes. As a busy mom of three who cooks every night for her family, I don't have time to mess around with recipes that don't work. My go to for new recipes lately is anything from López-Alt. I can't even tell you how many of his recipes are now in my monthly rotation of meals with almost no tweaking or fussing around, just bam done awesome food.

I also grew up with both parents working, there was no real cooking going on or passing down of traditions. I started cooking in my late 20's and learned everything from trial and error, so to have resources like Food Lab and Serious Eats is amazing.
beejay45 March 16, 2016
I find Lopez-Alt's supposedly scientific recipes to be more contrived than scientific, witness 8-page meatloaf! He has a massive following, but I (with my minor in Chemistry) have found many fallacious assumptions in a lot of his Food Lab columns. His aw shucks, I'm just a nerd voice doesn't make up for them. I'm guessing I'd like Made in India better, too.
Brian G. March 16, 2016
Just curious but could you give an example of when he made a lot of fallacious assumptions in his food lab columns?
beejay45 March 17, 2016
Not off the top of my head. I finally got tired of his excesses and gave up on Serious Eats a year or so ago. I should also say that I worked as a medical writer and an editor, and on all counts, SE just had so many issues it drove me nuts trying to read around them. I doubt the book as all those problems solved. Could be wrong.
Erin March 15, 2016
Man, this review is a disappointment. There's something romantic about finding inspiration in imperfect recipes, but boy, is that ever not what I look for in adding to my cookbook collection. When I look for a cookbook, first and foremost I want the recipes to be written so that they work. I don't have time to mess around with endless experiments to improve flawed recipes. I would expect the same of any Piglet contender, and to hear that a book would be advanced despite having flaws in this regard... well, let's just say I don't feel compelled to purchase the ultimate winner of the competition.
Loves F. March 15, 2016
Wow, lots of VERY SERIOUS comments about this one! :). I actually really liked this review. In Sara Kate Gillingham's excellent Piglet review (of two other books), she wrote "Both [of these two books] made me want to cook more and left me feeling uplifted about food. As far as I’m concerned, this is whole the point of writing cookbooks." My takeaway from Lauren's review here, is that while it had errors, Made in India made the reviewer want to cook more, and left her feeling uplifted about food. Whereas it sounds like Food Lab left her feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. Yes, the recipes in Food Lab may produce better results in the end, but if the reviewer is too intimidated or turned off, for whatever reason (since this is a subjective review, her personal subjective reasoning does matter) to open it again, then what's the point? This is nothing against Kenji, I love his work. His Fake Shack burger revolutionized my life. And his book may very well be the best "cooking textbook" (as a reviewer below called it) out there, but that doesn't mean everyone is inspired to cook from it, or that someone can't be more inspired by something else, even something less scientifically perfect and more flawed. Some people (for example, the reviewer) don't want to spend 6 hours making an ok meatloaf, but would rather make the same old imperfect loaf recipe that was passed down from their mother and grandmother and great grandmother--it's comforting. And some people want to understand the exact science behind what makes every ingredient work. Neither approach is wrong! People are different! That's what makes us great :).
PS. Kenji's a big deal, I'm sure this Piglet loss isn't weighing on him like it's weighing on a lot of these commenters.
Brian G. March 16, 2016
I have no problem whatsoever that she picked Made in India. It's a fun competition. And I think all 16 cookbooks are getting a lot more visibility simply by being in this competition.

But I would really like to see reviews based on something more concret than "What's wrong with grandmas recipes?"

creamtea March 17, 2016
Agree, it's not weighing on Kenji; his book is a James Beard Award nominee
janet S. March 15, 2016
Fundamentally disagree with the stance by the judge here. I disagree that blindly following mothers/grandmothers should be how one approaches cooking. In fact, I think from reading around a bit that questioning even traditional professional kitchen standards is in scope for The Food Lab, and am saddened that the judge was only able to see along the lines of women/mothers/grandmothers and reduced The Food Lab as such. Questioning and researching why one does something in the kitchen is valuable, regardless of who the source of the technique came from. I have no idea why the judge needed to invert the pan for the meatloaf, but seems like the point of the recipes were to help understand why. If that information wasn't available in the book, might be an argument there, but not understanding why you are being asked to do so is fundamentally at odds with the spirit of the cookbook.

Sounds like the judge didn't like reading The Food Lab, but didn't like cooking out of Made in India. Seems like a cookbook tournament should also judge the cooking, not just the prose. I didn't enjoy the prose here, too bad too, as I usually enjoy this little competition.
Claudia P. March 13, 2016
In all of my cooking years, The Food Lab is the most phenomenal cookbook I have every read. It has totally changed the way I address recipes, and how I cook! Everything I have tried from scrambled eggs to chicken stock has be fantastic!
Nancy I. March 13, 2016
Based on her review, I can't imagine how either book made it into this year's Piglet.
janet S. March 15, 2016
Third F. March 13, 2016
Congratulations, Meera Sodha! Your book has introduced my palate to new aromas and flavors and has broadened my cooking repertoire. Your win is well deserved!
Jodi March 12, 2016
All those great reviews and then.....this. What a rip off.
bwf17 March 12, 2016
I totally disagree. It is the recipes, not the personality that should be judged!
Chris P. March 12, 2016
Good review, thanks! I find myself referencing the food lab for answering fundamental cooking questions, and cross-referencing his recipes with the many others floating through the Internet to put together a version that works for me. But I largely agree that he sucks some of the joy I find in simple preperations and replaces it with long, convoluted science experiments that are typically not worth the time.