What do the words “soldier” and “salary” have in common? Answer: Their origin; both can be traced to the word “salt”.
That’s right. The words for the most basic unit of two of the most important aspects of modern life — national defence and personal finance — owe their origins to the most basic food ingredient across cuisines: Common salt.
Bizarre? Two foodies, Chennai’s Krish Ashok and Pune’s Pranav Joshi, explain the connection: The word “soldier” comes from the French word “solde” meaning “pay”, while “salary” comes “salt” which was what the ancient Roman soldiers were paid with.
Don’t laugh; back then, Ashok and Joshi inform us, salt was as uncommon a commodity as it is common today, and therefore much sought-after.
Being rare made it expensive, but the soldiers needed it as nutritional supplement for themselves and their horses. Of course, they sought it out for seasoning as well.
And guess what? Salt is also the origin of the word “salacious”, Ashok says in the first episode of Patthar Ke Fools, a Live series on Instagram, available for belated streaming on YouTube.
“Salacious is salty, in the naughty sense,” he explains to the camera.
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Like two peas in a pod
Ashok and Joshi can banter about food all day long, but their live chats usually last about an hour. What makes their exchanges so wholesome is their contrasting approach to food.
Ashok explores foods through the lens of science, and his role in this collaboration is doing just that — debunking food myths. Joshi gets his kick from the history behind the foods he consumes.
For instance, Ashok tells South First, many people believe jaggery and honey are healthy for diabetics, when they are not; others believe microwaves cause cancer, when it doesn’t; and refined oils are unhealthy when all fats are unhealthy beyond a point.
“Oh, there are tonnes of myths,” he sighs.
Joshi, on the other hand, thrives on history. In fact, it is he who starts elaborating on the history of salt after Ashok introduces the topic in the programme’s maiden show.
“I’ve been a quizzer for a while and knowing the story behind why everyday things are the way they are has always been something I’m passionate about,” says the 27-year-old.
“Food history just happens to be particularly more interesting to me because it tells the story of war, economics, language, science, and all such cool things, apart from the food part itself.”
Ashok, 45, is from India’s South, and is the global head (digital workplace) at Tata Consultancy Services; Joshi from its West, and by his own admission, “currently unemployed in the traditional sense”. They come from vastly different cultures as well.
How did these two seemingly dissimilar collaborators meet?
It was the mutual interest in quizzing and trivia that brought them together, first via Twitter, and later through collaboration on quizzes and Instagram Reels, explains Ashok.
Adds Joshi: “We rarely talk about individual cuisines and cultures, and even when we do, they are in the form of anecdotes.”
Finding common ground
But despite what Joshi says, the series has also explored an unlikely topic: The similarities of the two cultures.
And it is because, he says, the stories of their respective foods are “quite similar” though they are from “two cities divided by a bunch of geographies”.
The similarity Joshi mentions dates back to almost two centuries.
“Quite a bit of the South was under Maratha rule from the mid-1600s to the mid-1800s. So, there were a lot of cultural exchanges that happened then,” he explains.
A whole new dialect of Marathi called Thanjavur Marathi was born, along with other minor dialects. So naturally, a lot of food was exchanged as well.
In fact, the duo’s Live session, Patthar Ke Fools, is named after stone flower, called dagad phool in Marathi — a lichen that is a common ingredient in both Maharashtrian and Chettinad masalas.
Another common food is puran poli, a wheat flatbread filled with a sweet lentil paste. “Puran poli is known as hollige in Kannada, bobatlu in Telugu, etc,” says Joshi.
An unlikely food-related element connecting the South to Maharashtra are the “military hotels”, apparently set up to serve food to the Maratha military and their families, which have now spread “all over Karnataka”.
Apart from salt, the duo has talked extensively on sugar as well. In their upcoming episodes, they plan to discuss fat, rice, wheat and acids.
The common theme will be intriguing stories behind these ingredients rather than “educational 101”, explains Ashok.
Food for thought
Apart from the Live stream, the duo also uses Reels to tell you how to eat right; a recent 90-second Reel on how fish curry tastes better the next day is a case in point.
Joshi explains the mystery behind fish tasting better a day later: “It’s got a lot to do with how the spices mature over time and the science behind fish protein breakdown and other such things.”
So how did this passion for food even come about?
Ashok says he always liked to use science to understand the world better. When he learned to cook from a working mother, science naturally crept in.
Ashok believes three things improved his cooking: Better planning and prep (“making base gravies ahead of time, par-cooking ingredients and refrigerating/freezing them etc.”), a more precise understanding of temperature (“what happens to a specific ingredient at a particular temperature”), and finally, the layering flavours (“a good dish is a mix of aromas, textures, tastes and visual appeal”).
And when he wrote his first book, science made its appearance once again. Titled Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking, the book was published in 2020 with the idea of helping tech nerds learning to cook.
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But after his editor at Penguin nudged him to widen his target audience, he wrote about the science of cooking in a more “widely accessible way”.
Ashok admits a lot of his learnings come from his maternal grandmother’s cooking. He remembers her making sambar with “whatever vegetables or legumes she had” rather than putting off preparing it just because a certain ingredient was not available.
“She was experimental,” he says, in the spirit of the continuous adaptation that is in the “foundational DNA of Indian cooking”.
And this shows in the ingredients Indians use today; more than three-quarters of the ingredients we use in the Indian kitchen right now were not in use 150 years ago, Ashok says.
“Most of what we eat today is a product of colonisation and globalisation.”
Joshi is an equally fanatic food enthusiast who in January set off on a 28-state journey “to chase the fish”; the idea was to sample fish recipes from different regions and document the journey on Instagram.
The trip had to be cut short on account of bad weather and delayed trains, but the lingering taste of a Kolkata fish dish — the Bele Paturi, prepared “lovingly” by chef Koyel at the Sienna Store — still haunts him.
“It was a simple, rustic fish dish that requires a bit of patience, but the end result will keep you wanting for more,” he remembers, somewhat wistfully.