Art on a Plate
As the saying goes, we eat with our eyes first. Sight is one of the first senses to be engaged when we are presented with a plate of food and hence plays a very vital role in our decision of whether or not to engage the other senses at all. A dish if presented in an aesthetic or fancy manner is likely to appear more delicious than the same dish served sloppily on a plate.
Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, and what passes for aesthetic or appetizing depends a great deal on the person as well the period in history. In the past, tables of kings were adorned with eye-catching centerpieces: large, lavishly decorated dishes, some of which the modern-day eater might find garish and off-putting. With the advent of restaurant culture in the late 18th century, the concept of small plates of food came about, something that is still relevant today, although the concept of the centerpiece still continued, as the 1950s and 1960s saw an array of large, wobbly jellied salads, something that has clearly fallen out of fashion in the 21st century.
The 1980s steered the food trends in the opposite direction with the concept of nouvelle cuisine, tiny plates with even tinier portions of food. The food is usually very carefully plated, with the different components put together in a random yet graceful manner. Then again there are the humongous meat platters on offer today, stacked high with buffalo wings, pork sausages, ribs, fries and dips. So yeah, both the extremes are on offer these days, and people have the liberty to choose one or the other.
The concept of deconstruction is another matter of debate. Some chefs find it sacrilegious; others like to follow the trend and create new masterpieces. Deconstruction of food is like a Cubist interpretation of the Old Masters. So a classic black forest cake can be taken apart and strewn across the plate in a myriad of colours and textures. It looks novel but when you eat everything together, it still tastes like black forest cake. There’s a lot more to be said about deconstruction in the coming few weeks, so stay tuned.
Another aspect of food aesthetics is what you choose to serve the dish in. You could go with the classic plates and bowls, but there are many more varieties out there to play with. Wooden boards fashioned out of tree trunks are the perfect vehicle for rustic food at a gastropub, like fish and chips for example. Pieces of slate or slabs of marble are often used in fancy places to serve amuse bouche (a pre-appetizer, usually eaten in a single bite) or dessert. Fancy looking plates can be used depending on the dish served; I have had some delicious tempura prawns served on a plate that looked like an oyster shell, and chicken tikka masala served in a Tardis-style mini phone booth. (because the dish originated in Britain)
Sometimes though, the choice of plating is not as intricately associated with the food served, but rather reflects the whims and creativity of the chef. No one is going to bother about authenticity when you are served khaosuey (Burmese noodle soup flavoured with spices and coconut milk) with a whole array of accompaniments like fried onions, fried garlic, lime and a onion in tiny buckets suspended from a miniature ferry’s wheel, or cold coffee served in a glass resembling a light bulb, placed on a platform with dry ice underneath, which emits an eerie smoke, infusing the coffee with a mysterious aura if not anything else. Makes no sense in the context of the dish, but is definitely great fun.
Colour plays a significant role in how we perceive food. Brightly coloured dishes are eye-catching, a vibrant blueberry coulis stands in sharp contrast against the pale off-white of a vanilla cheesecake, and a handful of coriander leaves adds a touch of green (as well as a note of freshness) to a red kadai chicken. We will explore the role of colour in greater detail in an upcoming article.
The appearance of a dish influences our eating experiences in many ways, some of which are incredibly mysterious. In Part 5 of FATS, we’ll be discussing how food affects us in ways that we aren’t even aware of, and how the overall eating experience is more than what meets the eye.
This relatively short article begins our month-long exploration of food art and the visual aspect of food. Over the next few weeks we will ponder on plating, delve into deconstruction and get curious about colour. November is going to be all about the looks, so keep your eyes peeled.