Culinary Temptations – in Words and Pictures

by Kalpanaa Misra

Kalpanaa Misra goes on a culinary journey through Instagram, novels and poetry, citing her favourites.

Crispness, lightly coated with oil, crackles under the crunch of my teeth as the flavour spreads onto my tongue, enhanced by spices of such variety that they pop in surprising corners of my mouth. Before I can identify each spice my tongue is pleasantly afire with chilly and coriander, a hint of garlic and a soupçon of coconut. Heaven.

Can you guess what I just described? I haven’t even touched on what it looks like even though this dish could grace any Pinterest board.

Taste and smell are the senses food tickles, although these days, sight isn’t far behind. If you have a camera and a pretty plate of food you’ll probably take a picture of it –  just to record the moment, if not to upload it to social media.

Presentation has acquired new heights with every passing year. I’m not sure when it began, perhaps Masterchef Australia ensured we upped our game. Cupcake designs with butterflies and sunflowers gave way to intricate lettering and drawings of tiny crowns –  all done with icing sugar.  Cake as works of art vie with desserts of spun sugar where colours are carefully blended or contrasted to tempt you visually too. My birthday cake was embellished with pansies as well as the mandatory (for me) strawberries and whipped cream.

I think it’s the ‘fault’ of Instagram which has made food photographs available to everyone idly browsing the app, setting off aspirations to either record good-looking food or even to actually make your food the visual delight these chefs and wanna-be chefs ensure it is.

But people don’t just stop at making the food look stunning – they use food to make art. This Instagram account mommymermaidfl will make you look at your toast with a new and discerning eye. Charlies.taste loves to contrast colours – think beetroot hummus with avocado – the visual delight of those juxtaposed hues enhances my enjoyment of the food. Anne_travel_foodie from the Netherlands really likes to play with her vegetarian food; she turns sandwiches into tulip fields and invites you to her website with unicorn noodles made without any artificial food colouring. The Avocado Show is another recent find – let me describe what I just liked – Hawaiian style raw salmon, wakame seaweed salad, soy beans, salty fish caviar, shuri rice and edible flowertops cuddled by an avocado rose. Karishma_sakhrani had me hooked with her suggestion to add lavender to my lemonade so it becomes the prettiest shade of light purple.

Photos have a universal appeal: they connect people instantly, your taste buds could resonate with those of a food photographer from New Zealand. The language of pictures is easier. As a writer, though, I’ve always loved words and the freedom they give you to imagine what’s being described. I can’t resist reading about and drooling over a description of a well-written dinner in words. The written word.  I’m not talking about dinner in the sense of a social gathering where the conversations between people reveal more about the plot or even tweak the character of a character (hahaha) but mere diversionary descriptions of the repast. There’s nothing like words to send you off into your private world of imaginations about food. And your dreams of food are low on calories unlike the actual consumption of it.

You will find below a few extracts about food from books I’ve read.

This is from a book I’m currently reading, by Pakistani author Nadeem Aslam, whose work is so lyrical I read it like chocolate –  small nibbles to allow extra time to savour it.

“Helen brought him a plate of yoghurt sprinkled thickly with sugar, the crystals becoming pale green as they absorbed whey from the yoghurt. There were two eggs fried into tidy circles with lacy edges. And two parathas.”

~ Nadeem Aslam, The Golden Legend

The quote below is from a book by a woman who is recovering from divorce. She uses food and meditation to heal herself.

“The dough, it takes me half my meal to figure it out, tastes more like Indian nan than like any pizza dough I have ever tried…Thin, doughy, strong, gummy, yummy, chewy, salt pizza paradise. On top, there is a sweet tomato sauce that foams up all bubbly and creamy when it melts the fresh buffalo mozzarella, and the one sprig of basil in the middle of the whole deal somehow infuses the entire pizza with herbal radiance, much the same way one shimmering movie star in the middle of a party brings a contact high of glamour to everyone around her. It’s technically impossible to eat the thing, of course. You try to take a bite off your slice and the gummy crust folds, and the hot cheese runs away like topsoil in a landslide, makes a mess of you and your surroundings, but just deal with it.”

~ Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love

Cooking as therapy isn’t an unknown entity – I’ve tried it successfully and so I’m sure have many of you.

“’Baba sahib, sit only and we will cook up the happy future. We will mash its spices and peel its garlic cloves, we will count out its cardamoms and chop its ginger, we will heat up the ghee of the future and its masala to release its flavour. Joy! Success in his enterprises for the Sahib, genius in her pictures for the Madam, and a beautiful bride for you! We will cook the past and present also, and from it tomorrow will come.’ So I learned to cook Meat Cutlass (spicy minced lamb insdie a potato patty) and Chicken Country Captain; to me the secrets of prawn padda, ticklegummy, dhope and ding-ding were revealed. I became a master of balchow and learned to spin a mean kaju ball. I learned the art of Ezekiel’s ‘Cochin Special’, a mouth-wateringly piquant red banana jam. And as I journeyed through the cook’s copybooks, deeper and deeper into the private cosmos of papaya and cinnamon and spice, my spirits did indeed pick up; not least because I felt that Ezekiel had succeeded in joining me, after a long interruption, to the story of my past.”

~ Salman Rushdie, The Moor’s Last Sigh

From the sublime and profound, I couldn’t help but move to a writer who makes the laughter bubble up in my soul. Should you talk to your food? I don’t know. What if it talks back? Would you eat it anyway?

“‘The time has come’, the Walrus said,
‘To talk of many things:
Of shoes – and ships – and sealing wax –
Of cabbages – and kings –
And why the sea is boiling hot –
And whether pigs have wings.’

‘But wait a bit,’ the Oysters cried,
‘Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!’
‘No hurry!’ said the Carpenter
They thanked him much for that.

‘A loaf of bread’, the Walrus said,
‘Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed –
Now, if you’re ready Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed.’

‘But not on us!’ the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue. “

~ Lewis Carrol, Through the Looking Glass

The vicarious thrill of watching people eat – the things people do to enjoy their food – read these feline observations from ‘The Dalai Lama’s Cat’ where the book is written from the cat’s point of view.

“There are, of course, some disruptions that we all enjoy. How dull life would be without, for example, the occasional sampling of a new delicacy, like the day that Mrs. Trinci arrived at Jokhang triumphantly bearing a tray of roasted-eggplant lasagna for all to taste. Or the morning’s entertainment at Café Franc, when an Asian gentleman laboriously broke his breakfast toast into small pieces, applied butter and marmalade to each individually, then used chopsticks to eat them.”

~ David Michie, The Dalai Lama’s Cat

The wonderful thing about food is that you need it on a daily basis – more than once a day. With a clean conscience I plan to indulge in something delicious because I’ve whetted my own appetite by looking at so many stunning photos of food and reading the lyrical descriptions quoted above. I’m now off to sink my teeth into a succulent rosogolla sweetened entirely with date palm jaggery, turning the usually white ball of cool spongey juice into a gentle beige delight dripping rivulets of brown into my insatiable mouth.

Kalpanaa Misra writes on on divorce in India, gender, travel and fitness. 
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