Colour coding your food just right

Aside from creating the multi-sensory impression of taste and aroma, chromatics in food has a significant role in the concept of balanced meals. But how does it fare today? Experts lay out the palate play.

Four years ago, when seasoned chef and author Abhijit Saha decided to hold on to the turmeric in his rendition of the Bisi Bele Bath, the idea wasn’t just to let the original colour of the dish be showcased, but to revive the foundation on which much of the dishes of our culinary matrix is built on: chromatics or the colour in food.

Addressing a congregation of food experts, Chef Saha explained, “When we think of chromatics, which is the technique of adding colour to a dish to enhance its multi-sensory appeal, especially the idea of eating with the eye, we think of it as a rather modern concept. Incidentally, it is not. Chromatics or colour in food is as old an idea as food itself. For ages, veds, hakims and khansamas (healers and chefs) have worked in unison to create dishes that not just have the potential to heal but the ability to wow the audience. In Indian cuisine especially, colours and their nutritional meaning have been the deciding factor of how the ingredient should be treated. This was the reason why for eons haldi, which is an indispensable spice in our cooking these days, was used sparingly and mostly when used, it was of the fresh variety.”

Organic kerala rice and millet bisi bele bath
The modern interpretation of the Bisi Bele Bhaat, cooked with organic rice and millets.

How colours define the character

“Hues in food,” he continued, “were for not only the appeal and the ability to create memory imprints in our subconscious that we today refer to as nostalgic food or comfort food, but also for the taste perception. To the extent of whether a dish is fresh, the tasting notes, the crunch, and even the most defining character of the dish that would eventually go on to build our idea of ‘authentic’.”

To prove how the absence of turmeric could play on our mind once again, Chef Saha used two different kinds of rice, blanched and pan-tossed them with the masalas, and then layered each one of them along with papad and fried curry leaves to create a dish that looked different from what it said. While it was a slight variation on the traditional recipe, it wasn’t until one had the first bite that familiarisation made the experience much more enjoyable, and his dish was put forth as the “modern interpretation of a traditional favourite”.

Curiously, Chef Saha isn’t the only chef experimenting with chromatics to help people understand and appreciate their food better—“not just as a final product but produce as well”. It has become the hallmark of most modern gastronomical restaurants where traditional dishes are being revisited by some of the most seasoned culinary minds in the business.

The rediscovery of the brilliance of chromatics was sparked off by #EatTheRainbow movement that began in early 2010 in America, first to urge kids and then, the parents, to eat loads of vegetables, fruits, and nuts, as part of their meal.

Beetroot cutlet
Chef Sabyasachi Gorai’s erstwhile Lavaash served this Kabiraji cutlet with kasundi (mustard) and Gondhoraj lime slice.

It was an idea that the Indian chapter of the Chefs’ Manifesto, headed by the likes of Chef Sabyasachi Gorai and Chef Manjit Singh Gill have aggressively promoted by setting examples. Chef Gorai (Founder, Fabrica By Saby) did so with his erstwhile restaurants Lavaash By Saby and others, by using locally sourced products that were presented in the natural colour and texture with minimalistic cooking.

Chef Vikas Seth (Culinary Director, Sanchez) has promoted chromatics by adding colour to his menu to showcase the easiness with which newer produce could be added to a traditional dish—whether it was the vegetarian Alambre that he presented at the same culinary forum as Chef Saha, or by using popular Mexican finger food such as the soft tacos and guacamole but made with a fascinating array of local ingredients such as beetroot, millets, yam, sweet potato, and even doing a peas guacamole. The latter was served in a finger millet taco that had fresh pumpkin made in Palakkad style for his audience.

Dahi bada
Modernist chef Saurabh Udinia’s rendition of the dahi bada has the dahi in the shape of a fluffy pillow with other elements added on to make it more wholesome.

“The thing about chromatics,” says modernist chef Saurabh Udinia, “is that it not only is multi-sensory but also helps one understand the specific role of each and every ingredient that is used to make a dish, and that often comes in handy when we are either reviving a traditional dish or tweaking it to suit modern sensibilities.”

A good example is his signature, Dahi Bada rendition, which is also inspired by the Odia Dahi Bada. “While remaking the dish,” says Chef Udinia, “I had to understand what the concept behind the dish was, which has been a part of not just chaats but also of every vrat ka khana (fasting food). Thanks to its concentration of gut friendly bacteria and fermentation goodness, a serving of this aids the gut and stomach to prep for digesting what is the first, heavy meal of the day.

“Much of the addition of spices and herbs including the use of whey to curd ratio is to help the dish do the needful effectively. This understanding was crucial in creating the dish in a manner that not only brought out the different facet of the dish but was as effective in its appeal as the original. Thus was born the famous Dahi Vada platter that had the dahi in shape of a fluffy pillow while other elements were presented separately, along with a few new additions, making the dish more wholesome.”

Vegetable alambre chef vikas seth
Chef Vikas Seth’s Vegetable Alambre is a great showcase of how newer produce can be added on to traditional dishes.
Image: Courtesy Neha Thakur

“Incidentally, the study of chromatics,” says professor and environmental consultant Purvi Vyas (Founder, Plate Politics) “though was developed for neurological purposes in the vedas, its most successful usage has been with food and the art of dining. Its purpose is to create this peaceful environment to enjoy a meal, make it look richer, fresher, its uncanny ability to build hunger and craving or the most amazing aspect, the perception about tasty or healthy food. And it is this perception that has been taken and used by hakims, vaids and unani tibbs to make food that was effective because of that sense of acceptance. In fact, the effect of such perception has been used mostly to ingrain information about ingredients and its selection process too. Thus, making chromatics in food just not a powerful culinary tool but of wellness too.”

In the psychological world, colour play is mostly used as part of the reverse mind process where colours in food are used to either alienate people from a certain negativity to finding solace in another. “In fact, the use of colour,” says wildlife and tribal expert Shardul Bajikar, “has been an integral part of our cultural fabric through which we live not just our lives, but also create our moments of happiness. And one aspect that does it better than others at translating this is chromatics in our food. Colour is how the food culture of tribes across India record their food habits. Different hues are used not only to define what they should grow or forage during a season, but also when to eat it, how to cook it and how it would help them fight a certain ailment such as the maladies brought on by weather change.”

The cultural markings of chromatics

A good example of this has been the gruels ledger—the one pot meal—that was discovered in the Harappan civilisation, which had porridges and their accompaniments colour-coded to season and purpose, much like the Chinese and Japanese list of congees.   

“Chromatics in food is essentially what represents the phytochemicals and essential nutrients (especially antioxidants and other acids) that are important for complete wellbeing. It is an easy but effective way to maintain the balance of nutrition in the meal. The more hues in the plate means more essential nutrition, lesser tones indicate that the food while calorie dense inclines towards one of two essential nutrients, which usually is fat or carbohydrates,” says consultant nutritionist Niti Desai.

Although she finds chromatics a good way to healthy eating, she does have some caveats. For instance, you do not judge chromatics based on the bowl you eat or the final dish, but the produce used, the way it is cooked, and of course, the pairing of cooked versus raw. “Remember,” she says, “each ingredient uses a different time to digest and thus needs to be layered accordingly.”

Adds Chef Gorai, “Follow the Indus Valley concept of a meal bowl where the bowl/plate is divided into five different segments. The most space is given to vegetables, followed by protein, followed by dal, rice, salad and pickle.”  

Experts believe the thumb rule to follow is to eat root vegetables in the curry with gourds, dal with rice as it aids in digesting both, and raw vegetables such as peppers, carrot, cucumber seasoned with salt and a dash of lime. The natural sweetness and juices help break down the protein components that aid in digestion.

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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