“You couldn’t outsource cooking in 2020. Learning to make tasty food with quick recipes and minimum effort became an essential skill,” says B. Ramakrishnan. Through the pandemic, the Chennai-based chef and entrepreneur trained hundreds of rookie cooks in the basics of preparing food at home.
Ramakrishnan, who runs a chain of quick-service restaurants named Pizza Republic and OPOS Biryani in Chennai, Tiruppur and Delhi, experimented with recipes for over a decade to develop an ingenious method to prepare food within minutes using just one pot and a few measuring bowls. He calls it Opos (one pot one shot) cooking. Each item on his restaurant menus, including pizza toppings, follows the principles of Opos.
Now, HarperCollins India has released a cookbook by Ramakrishnan titled The Complete OPOS Cookbook One-Pot Meal Plans Ready in 10 Minutes. A cursory glance reveals that everything from biryanis to pastas and even ghee or sugar syrup can be made in a two-litre pressure cooker or the Opos kit sold by him.
The story goes back to the 1990s, when Ramakrishnan, who owned a clothing business, moved to Bahrain for professional reasons. Like most expats, he began to crave homemade food — in his case, the comforting rice and sambhar. It was a time when recipes on the internet, especially for Indian food, were unheard of. He turned to cookbooks but found them “absolutely” impossible to follow.
“I am an engineer by profession who needs precise instructions to learn something new. But those books had vague statements like “saute spices till the raw smell disappears” or “stir till the mixture starts to leave the sides of the pan”. How can someone like me, who had never cooked in his life, know for how long to saute or stir or understand when spices stop smelling raw? he asks. Those recipes would say “add salt to taste”. Salt to whose taste?
I needed something as straightforward and standardised as a recipe for rice (one cup rice, two cups water, cook in a pressure cooker for two whistles),” he says, adding: “At that time, there was nothing which offered a basic template. So I created my own with Opos to cook food perfectly with precise measures for ingredients and whistle counts.”
During the early days of experimentation, Ramakrishnan meticulously documented his learnings on a blog One Page Cookbooks (https://ramkicooks.blogspot.com/). He attempted to simplify recipes by putting them in a tabular format. Once you learnt the basic formula, the additives and flavourings could be adjusted to your taste. Instead of food photographs, some of his blog posts in 2005 had recipes and the history of items like naans, parathas and rasams, featuring ingredients and cooking steps in a tabular format with more than 1,000 variations. It feels like pure genius.
In a phone interview, Ramakrishnan talks about his new book, and why everyone can cook. Edited excerpts:
You wrote an Opos cookbook three years ago, how is this different?
I have experimented with each recipe since then to improve the flavour of each dish. In the new book, one will find alternatives for ingredients. I want to tell the reader that all one needs to do is stick to the basic steps and measurements and they can play around with the rest. One will learn that there is no such thing as an authentic recipe or traditional methods of cooking.
I have a one-litre Hawkins pressure cooker. Can I reduce the quantities of the ingredients to follow the recipes?
You have absolutely no option to do any of that. The measurements, including the size of the cooking vessel, number of whistles and quantities, need to be precisely followed. You will need a two-litre pressure cooker and then you can make anything from pulao to gajar ka halwa and even a Mexican Burrito Bowl in one pot one shot.
What is the kind of critical feedback you have received for such a radical approach to cooking?
I have been thrown out of food forums for championing home-cooked food over restaurant meals and challenging the notion of mother’s, grandmother’s and authentic food. Cuisines overlap and recipes change with time, so there is no such thing as traditional methods of cooking. If you take something as simple as potato mash, which is pitika in Assam, urulai kizhangu podimas in Tamil Nadu and aloo chokha in Bihar, the basic principles are all the same. Potato is the primary ingredient, but the oil and tempering vary. Once you learn this, you will master mashed potato, be it from the cuisines of India or an Italian-style, basil-infused variation.
I have realised that traditional cooking methods are deep-rooted in patriarchy, which confines a woman to the kitchen. Who says you have to spend hours cooking for your family? In one food event, a man told me something odd, “Ramakrishnan, if your cooking method leaves women with more time, they will wear short clothes, step out of the house and have affairs.” You don’t need to sweat it out in the kitchen, all cuisines change over time and there is nothing like traditional or the authentic way to cook food.
In that case, is cooking an art or a science?
There’s no distinction between science and art. Science can become art. People talk about Maxwell's equations as works of art. Cooking is firmly rooted in science. The law is vegetables and meats cannot be overcooked or undercooked. But it is up to the availability of flavourings, ingredients and imagination that brings variation and turns it into an art. For instance, food history suggests that landlocked areas such as Assam and Central Africa did not have access to salt hundreds of years ago. They developed a scientific way to extract salt from fruits and vegetables. It is an ash filtrate that the Assamese call khaar, which helps to cook food faster and imparts flavour. It was needed when salt was more precious than gold, and this is pure science. But the ash filtrate has remained even when salt is available in abundance. Now, it defines a cuisine because people have found ways to use it creatively. And that is art.