I’ll admit that when flipping through a new cookbook, I almost always just bypass the drinks section. I’ve got my morning coffee and the occasional martini down pat, and besides that, I prefer it when someone else is doing the delicate cocktail work. But, if anyone were to convince me to linger a while over a new take on lemonade or a chai-infused fruit soda, it would be Nik Sharma.
Sharma began his career as a molecular geneticist before his award-winning food blog A Brown Table became his full time work–along with two cookbooks and counting, and columns for the San Francisco Chronicle and Serious Eats. He manages to write about cooking in a way that will pique the curiosity of any science lover or ad hoc cook alike: unlike recipe developers who have a few tricks that they come to over and over again, Sharma can ping pong between big flavor dishes and more subtle, nuanced ones with both mastery and clarity. In each recipe, he gives us a little extra on the origin of an ingredient or the temperature at which it will form a silky emulsion without tipping into over-explaining—plus, his dark, lustrous photos balance out the science talk.
Sharma’s first book, Season, hooked me with its tamarind recipes: I was used to cooking down the sticky, sweet-sour fruit until it made a syrupy chutney, or whirring a scoop of its pulp with water and a spoon of sugar until it formed a cooling agua de tamarindo. Sharma showed me a third way with a golden date and tamarind-laced loaf—a bready, walnut-studded version of the sweet chutney I loved.
It was so, so good. So much so that when I got to the Ginger and Tamarind Refresher in the book, I didn’t flip on. In that recipe, Sharma rehydrates a scoop of tamarind pulp (ignore the concentrate, he recommends, which lacks the freshness and zing of anything labeled pulp or paste, wet and dry varieties of essentially the same quality tamarind.) Once the pulp’s been plumped up and massaged through a strainer, leaving you with a clean, sweet extract, it’s ready for the drink. The tamarind is combined with a ginger simple syrup, then poured over ice. The finished product: cooling, gently spicy, tart-sweet, is so delicious that lately, when I’m stocked in tamarind, the first thing I do is make a batch of refresher. On especially hot days, I whir the whole thing in my blender for a slushy consistency, and add a squeeze of lime, since the cold temperature of the slush mellows its intended oomph.
“Tamarind is something I drink in summer. Even now, I have a box of fresh tamarind fruit on my counter, which I’m eating off the seed,” Sharma tells me from his Los Angeles home on a particularly warm July day. “I wanted to make it into a quencher for hot weather, and I wanted the acidity to stand out—sort of the same principle as in a limeade.” Sharma added ginger, he says, because the “heat sensation gets us to drink more fluids—it’s tantalizing and exciting.” That little tingle from a chili (or a Ginger Tamarind Refresher) “comes from a phenomenon called chemesthesis, where chemicals in a spicy food causes that sensation of burning. It’s a safe thrill factor.” Depending on your personality, you might be more drawn to the constrained risk of that heat: a 2013 study found that those who have more ‘sensation seeking’ personalities are more likely to enjoy spicy foods.
Spice also refreshes us because it makes us sweat, which in turn makes us drink more. And while anyone who grew up with spice might not find a gingery drink to be enough to feel a flush, it at the very least provides enough zazz to make you want another glass. While so often we think of a spiced drinking as warming—a mulled cider, a hot chai—a dose of heat, coupled with brightness from an acidic component, is exactly what a still summer evening needs.
Sharma’s latest book, the upcoming The Flavor Equation, marries taste with five other components: emotion, sight, sound, mouthfeel, and aroma. Together, these elements make up what we experience as flavor. This flavor equation, as Sharma calls it, seems tricky, maybe, but in reality, every deft home cook weighs it already—Sharma just carefully explains this whole other dimension to cooking, so we can better understand it, and hone our sense of taste. In this book, too, the drink recipes are not to be missed. The subtly sweet/slightly fiery bellini with cardamom and peppercorns adds complexity and nuance to what is usually a syrupy waste of perfectly fine Prosecco, while the simple lemon and lime mintade harmonizes tart juice, perfumey zest, and bright, cooling mint to create a drink that's far more complex than the average lemonade.
A dose of heat, coupled with brightness from an acidic component, is exactly what a still summer evening needs.
Again, though, the ones that stand out the most are those that combine a hot element with an acidic one: Sharma’s grapefruit soda starts bright and bitter on the mouth before giving way to a warm tingly sensation from cardamon, peppercorns, and cinnamon, while another option combines both a delicate sweetness and an acidity from hibiscus petals with the heat of long peppers and ginger.
It was the Sumac and Saffron Refresher, though, that really got me. Like most home cooks, I have a few strands of precious saffron in my spice drawer; I reserve them for “special occasion” cooking. At least I did, until a global pandemic hit and I decided to get into the good stuff (truffle salt, specialty honeys, little sachets of expensive spices) as often as possible to brighten kitchen drudgery. In this drink, saffron really gets its moment, as the delicate threads are ground with sugar (Sharma recommends using an abrasive agent to break down the threads; sugar or salt depending on the recipe) which coaxes the strands to release more color and aroma. It’s combined with sumac, which is both acidic and bitter. “I’m always fascinated by citrus and I’ve really enjoyed sumac in Native American and Middle Eastern recipes, but I wanted to see if I could make it into something sweet,” explains Sharma. The resulting drink is tangy and refreshing, but with a subtlety and harmony to it.
There are, of course, plenty of recipes in these books that deserve your cooking attention—not to mention the breadth of information in The Flavor Equation, away from the recipe pages, that will surely make this a required reading reference book for home cooks going forward. But the drinks are a great way to dip your toe into Sharma’s world. I’d argue making one and settling in to scan The Flavor Equation’s charts on food pigments or mouthfeel is an excellent way to get acquainted.Nik SharmaNik Sharma
Originally Appeared on Epicurious