I am Jayashree. You can call me Jay. I am a former technology professional. Food photography started as a creative outlet for me, but soon turned into a professional pursuit. I think of creativity as a way of life. I am deeply inspired by nature. My lifelong interest in human nature and learning has now morphed into a deep observation of online interaction. I am always looking for ways to effectively use technology without compromising on wellbeing. I think better when I write. You can read some of my posts on creativity, photography and wellbeing at https://boiledbeanstudio.com/ creativity/. My recent photography work can be found on Instagram @boiledbeanstudio
What do I mean by fusion dishes?
Let’s think of fusion dishes as those that combine elements of different cuisines or techniques.
We live in a world where most of us are exposed to different cuisines and foods from different parts of the world. As food photographers/stylists, food is our main muse and model. So most of us also tend to be foodies and cooking enthusiasts. In this post, let’s look at how we can cook and style fusion dishes so that they make for unique and interesting subjects for the camera.
Culinary heritages and traditional recipes are of course valuable and must be preserved. But in today’s world where influences come from multiple sources and legacies, it is also important to learn to use and hone them effectively in our work. So if your food and work are fuelled by multiple cuisines and cultures, and you want to express that amalgamation through your cooking or photography, then this post might help you get started.
How to create fusion foods?
So here are some ways:
- Switch-up the appearance and presentation of a dish
- Replace or switch-up ingredients or flavours from different cuisines
- Switch-up cooking techniques
In this post, we are only looking into the first method, which is also the easiest. I will be exploring the other two methods in the upcoming posts of this series and will soon publish them on my website https:// boiledbeanstudio.com/creativity/
Why should we change the appearance of a dish at all?
Because sometimes, it is fun to switch up things and break the monotony.
Sometimes, as photographers, it is our job to present familiar subjects in new and interesting ways.
Sometimes, small tweaks in presentation help elevate an already great dish.
And is that all?
Not really. Eating is a multi-sensory act. When we look at food presented in an appealing way, the pleasure centres in our brains wake up and whirr into action. Anticipations are created, expectations are set. And as food photographers, we know this already. We even try to take advantage of this fact by styling our subjects such that we provide effective visual cues to the viewer. The drips, the drops, the spraying of water, the brushing of oil, the glistening of syrup, the dropping of crumbs — all go to convey everything we want the viewer to sense and feel through the visual medium.
Defamiliarising works wonders
Going by the same logic, if we switch-up the presentation of a dish using non-traditional methods, add some fresh new cues, style the scene differently, we could stimulate curiosity and generate interest. Defamiliarising is a powerful way to direct attention to our images in a visually overloaded world. Even a Kheer-Desensitised viewer might take notice and wonder, if it is presented like a crème brûlée. It’s the “surprise element” that might just do the trick. Surprise elements are a good thing in photography.
Lastly, this whole effort might serve a deeper purpose. I have come to realise that foodies mainly come in two categories — those willing to try unfamiliar food and those that are not. The first group is easier to please because their main motivation is to seek new experiences or create new memories. The second group however, needs a bit more coaxing. Their main motivation is comfort, familiarity and stability so when food looks too different from their regular fare, they may never even try sampling a dish, let alone attempt to cook it.
Sometimes the stereotypes surrounding a cuisine is also to blame. Too spicy, too sweet, too bland, too ugly can be some of the unnecessary generalisations applied to many cuisines, which in reality may have much to offer to anyone that takes the time to learn them. Putting a new spin on an existing dish by adding a few familiar touches may just wean the second group into appreciating something new, in small, not-so-scary bites.
Via photography, or any other art, we seek to influence — even if it is in small ways. And since food is already a great connector of people, removing or reducing a few unnecessary mental blocks can be a great way to win over new audiences. As an added bonus, we might even end up rekindling interest in an already existing audience. And that is always a good thing.
Now that we have explored the reasons, let’s look at how to go about creating such fusion subjects effectively, with the help of an example.
How do we pick the right (fusion)dish for food photography?
Not all recipes lend themselves well for a fusion experiment. So how do we choose? Here are a few starting points that led me to creating an excellent fusion dish from its classic beginnings.
Recently, I added a culinary torch to my food styling toolkit. When I was looking for ways of using it, I learned that one of its most popular uses is in caramelising a layer of sugar on Crème brûlée, which, if not for this final step, would have simply remained custard in a cup. The crunchy sugar shell is what elevates the dish in its taste, texture and appearance. This made me think — “What other familiar dish can we elevate using a sugar shell”?
This is how Kheer brûlée first popped in my mind.
Like custard, which is the basis for Crème brûlée, Kheer is a simple, milk based dessert. And most versions of kheer use sugar as the sweetener (some use jaggery). So I thought it would work well with a sugar shell (and it did)!
Instinct (and information)
Kheer is a well known Indian/South Asian kin of milk pudding, prepared in many different ways. I also now know (from Instagram images) that every country/culture has a variation of this dessert, even though it is called by different names in different languages and prepared on different occasions. But in its simplest form, it is simply a milk-and-rice pudding. Everybody already knows this dessert in some form or other, and that can be a good foundation on which to build a fusion dish.
So now you know how I picked my fusion candidate. But how would you use this information in your own projects? Here is how. The next time you enjoy a dish, or see a food image with an eye-catching presentation, make a mental note of its most appealing visual feature and the technique that was used to create it. (Pretty Ruffles? Glossy caramelisation? Shape? ).When you are cooking something easy and familiar back at home, recall this new feature, and think about how (and if) it can be incorporated into the homely dish and make it even better and prettier. If it feels like it might work well, you’ve scored a new project topic! And if it doesn’t sit right, you can simply move on and think about it all over again for another dish! The point here is to have enough specific material to recall at the right time.
I am sure that you can think up your own unique combinations, if you put your mind to it. And unique subjects are a good thing in photography.
Experimenting on what to tweak
The first time I create a changeling, I don’t try to photograph it. I just experiment and play around to see what happens. It is always practical to focus on one challenging task at a time. When I first played around with the butane torch, I did not even bother making the kheer. I started by sprinkling different types of sweeteners on a baking tray and caramelising them. This helped me get a better control of the tool and technique. It also made me realise that fine white sugar, raw sugar, brown sugar and jaggery powder all burn at a different rate, leaving very different colours and textures of residues!
I also realised from trial and error, that it might be best to make the sugar layer thin at first (so that it could caramelise uniformly) and then iteratively add on more layers to get a thick, glossy shell in the end. But this meant that there would already be so much sugar in the dish! So I made a mental note to omit (drastically reduce) sweetening the kheer while cooking to balance the taste.
Another thing I realised was that sugar would need a firm surface to sit on, and some kheer versions are runny. So in order to make the surface firm, I may have to chill the kheer in refrigerator.
By simply experimenting and breaking down the steps, I was able to make all these notes and corrections before even beginning to cook the kheer.
How to “style” the final dish
Since we are trying to switch up the presentation here, it is important to style the fusion dish well for stronger impact. Here are some starting points to think about:
Simplify matters by picking up the styling of the dish from which you imported the switch-up feature. In this case, that would be Crème brûlée.
Style it like a whole other dish! Since the switch up focus here is on appearance, we can be imaginative! But let there be a method to the madness — be guided by your style, seasons or props. For example, I did not have ramekins on hand to style my dish just like Crème brûlée. I had pretty white ceramic tart shells though, so I decided to style the new dish like little pies.
The one thing do I avoid though, is to style the dish in the way the original dish is usually styled. I think that it would undo the impact and drag the dish back to where it started. This whole exercise was to create unique subjects — remember? Still, that’s only a personal preference, so feel free to style it any which way you like — so long as it feels right for you, and your target audience.
That’s it for now, let’s talk about other effective ways to create unique fusion food subjects soon. If you wan’t to read more, you’ll find more posts on my website https://boiledbeanstudio.com/creativity/
Until then, let’s be adventurous!