Food For Thought


Food forms a huge part of our culture. The artistry in food is no different from how photos are made. There is a vision, process, composition, plating, service, and a need to engage the senses. And of course, in keeping with today’s snapshooting times, there is also fast food served in a box. Perhaps not healthy, but certainly tempting, and worth the risk once in a while. Then there is home food. There are moments when I don’t think I have craved for anything more, as much as I have for food from home. As with almost every one of us, the food made by mother’s hands are the most uniquely memorable. It comes from a place of great love, dedication, devotion, and duty, and there can be no parallel… Just as it was with the greatest legends of photography.

Making a photo story of one’s own mother in the kitchen is extraordinarily difficult. As odd as this may sound, I think it takes a lot of time and courage to truly understand what it fundamentally means to be a mother making breakfast for her family in a kitchen, before the shutter is released. To poorly compensate, one of my longstanding personal projects is to photographically document some kinds of foods my mother makes. If you and I, and a hundred other photographers, simply record and write down the exact recipes and back-stories of just the chutneys and pickles made at home… That would be a repository unlike any other.

We are particularly fortunate to inherit a rich heritage in food. The term ‘local fare’ takes on a whole new dimension in India, because there is so much variety and detail in the local cuisine of each region. There are many forms of dishes that are staple in India, that either came from or travelled to different parts of the world. For instance, ‘congee’ or ‘kanji’, a rice porridge, is extremely common in both South India and China, with the same name. Similarly, in Swahili, ‘chapati’ is unleavened bread out of wheat, in exactly the same way as the chapatis we make at home. My driver in one of the Better Photography excursions to Kenya was very surprised that the chapatis in India changed in form, ingredients and flavour by geography and culture, and that we had dozens of varieties. And then I was surprised to be offered ‘dawa’ or medicine, or magic potion—a stiff alcoholic beverage, drunk to one’s good health. There are certainly some common roots there.

As a kid accompanying my family to some place that I just cannot remember, I recall the car grind to a halt. Someone… I don’t know who… got out and returned with steaming hot batata vadas wrapped in brown paper, the oil still gradually soaking into the paper in patches. The mirchi was salted, green, alluring and dangerous looking. The aroma surrounded us all. I still remember that mid-morning meal we had as a family, sitting on a crumbling brick wall by the side of a road. The crumpled paper, steaming vadas, streaming sunlight. There are thousands of photos online, of this simple food so commonly found everywhere in Maharashtra, and I have yet to see one that truly tells a story. There is so much more to photographing food, that just taking a photo of food.

The rituals surrounding food has always interested me. In the south, in traditional homes, seated on the floor in front of plantain leaf, one offers prayers of thanks and good fortune. Then a little water is taken in the palm of the hand and poured in a thin stream all around the leaf. Then the food is served. This is usually in a certain order meant to whet the appetite and grace the palate with a variety of flavours. Subtle, spicy, savoury, sweet. It is a long, elaborate meal, meant to be enjoyed thoroughly with nothing else on the mind. The water poured around the leaf, which I always thought was some form of offering to the Gods, serves to keep ants away.

There is ‘the way of tea’ in Japan. I have been fortunate to experience a traditional tea ceremony. I wish I had better prepared myself for it. It is extremely important to be a perfect guest, perhaps even more than being the perfect host. With the ‘way of tea’, the term ‘no stone unturned’ takes on new meaning, because every pebble on the path to the tea room is inspected and placed carefully by the host, for a guest’s pleasure. And a good guest must notice and politely remark, on the garden, the tea room, the paintings and calligraphy. The bowls are exquisite, and must be held and turned in a certain way on the palm, so that other guests may appreciate the artistry on them. It is quiet, graceful, unhurried, serious, with polite, engaging conversation, and extremely pleasurable.

It is certainly not at all easy to do a consummate job in documenting some of these aspects with photography. Especially when it comes to food, there are some magnificent, moving stories to be told. Food is as close as one gets to life. Food involves politics, society, social classes, people, economics, consumerism, rituals, festivals, kitchens, families, mothers, flavour, colours, joy… And then you have the storied, absolutely delicious, completely humble, batata vada and vada pav.

This article originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of Better Photography.