Visual Appetite - Cuisine as Window to Culture
This project Visual Appetite deals with Indian cuisines and focuses on two major issues.
The culinary art in India is spread across 28 different states, each having an identity of its own. The traditional meals in India, that is lunch and dinner have a distinct visual identity and are usually known by the name ‘thali’. It is a circular metal plate containing small bowls, harmoniously clubbed together to form a single meal. Eating from a thali is quite common in most parts of India. Name of the state preceding the word thali, indicate a wholesome traditional lunch or dinner from that particular state. E.g. A thali from state of Rajasthan will be called a Rajasthani thali, and a thali from the state of Gujarat will be called a "Gujarati Thali".
For our discussion on Indian cuisines, we take thali from the state of Assam (in North East of India). The aim of the project visual appetite is to make dining an engaging experience, as well as to sense and feel the traditional scents of Indian cuisine, which are currently missing in restaurant menu cards.
Speaking of menu cards, we know that they have long list of names for food dishes. Every name has an inherent strength to express. With this strength the name tries to form a meaning and picture in the viewer's mind. It is similar to when we know someone by his name, but have never actually met him. Unless we meet him in person we try to visualize or guess his personality and when we finally meet him, it sometimes meets our expectations or leaves us surprised.
A person normally encounters similar situation when he is greeted with a bilingual menu card, in an unknown culture. The diner faces the dilemma of visualizing the actual dish in his mind, from the name (and explanation) written in the menu card.
The picture shows linear process which a diner experiences between placing of an order, until the food has been served. In the first stage, local language barriers create irritation and English as a language struggles with translations of names of the local dishes for the diner (he may be a tourist or a native). The English word chopsticks is a crude translation, because you never chop anything with them, the true Japanese word is “Hashi” meaning a bridge that enables the transport of food from bowl to mouth. In the second stage, the diner tries to anticipate the dish based on some prior knowledge. From this example it is clear how translations might not give one a complete picture. Thus, at times the waiter acts as a messenger and explains the dish. The diner waits through the interval of the preparation time of the delicacy. The food, when served might match his expectations or leave him unsatisfied.
Typographically, menu cards might have adorned themselves to make food look more appealing, but are unable to transcend the barriers of language.
Verbal explanations fail to create an authentic representation of a food item in the diner's mind. There is a huge gap between what gets imagined and what is real.
How can we address this gap? The idea is to envisage a device which will provide an interactive preview of the food items to the diner. The diner will be able to navigate through dishes and understand the essence of a true Assamese thali.
The diner can explore the palette of aromatic Indian spices which have played a major role in imparting flavor and taste to the Indian food for centuries.
The diner will also be able to opt for a video preview of the preparation.
In an interactive environment, eating from a thali will become an enriching experience. Several associations and stories surrounding food items in a thali can be brought out, along with anecdotes from history. Consider the case of Mattiboro Dal. It is an integral part of the Assamese thali. How many people consuming this Dal would know that the mixture of this dal with rice and eggs was used as a substitute to cement, while building the 17th century marvel “Talatal Ghar”, a monument attracts lots of tourists to Assam.
What else is in store? Every festival calls in for array of delicacies which are special to certain occasions. This aspect of food can also be explored. For e.g. Bihu the harvest festival in Assam is celebrated with preparation of a delicacy called Pitha. It is a sweet roll made out of rice, stuffed with coconut and sesame.
The diner will explore the multi-faceted nature of Indian cuisine and learn the etiquettes and customs of Indian dinning. The underlying concept of Visual Appetite is to give the diner a primer in a food item and rituals surrounding it (preparation, consumption, anecdotes) in each culture, before the food item is ordered.
What is the big deal about Visual Appetite as a thought? Even Japanese restaurants have window displays for food items.
McDonald’s has menu with attractive pictures of food items too, so how is this idea behind Visual Appetite any different? Visual appetite is not about combining menu cards with pictures and sprinkling technology into it. Nor is it, a mere, visually appealing representation of food. The idea is to provide interactive preview of food by making information (at various levels of depth) available as and when it is needed, right from name of the dish to its recipe, to a video of its preparation, to information on its ingredients, the significance and associations it has within that culture etc.
Eating a meal should be an experience for all the senses of the body. This idea stresses that visual and oral traditions surrounding cuisines must be safeguarded by creating cross cultural understanding that is developing respect and appreciation for each other’s cultures.
Speaking of traditional cuisines, have you noticed their changing face thanks to ‘globalization’? The change is not really a positive one. Short-term business models in developing countries are concerned with quick profits rather than preserving cultures. For restaurant owners it seems logical to use food templates for stacking, washing and serving food to ease a system and increase profit, when compared against traditional serving styles. Tradition will lose the battle to the pressure of ruthless commercialization and competition from packaged foods. Perhaps there will be a day when discussions related to cuisine cultures of countries (which are of least concern to many today) will be limited to area of research and paper presentations, but will not be a part of daily dining experience. Getting emotional about this and mere lip sympathy are pointless. We need ideas with a dual approach that focuses on culture preservation and co-existing with the changing trends in the fast paced world of today.
Concepts are holistic with a broader perspective, where as contexts are specific. Business needs ideas that can be translated into applications .Therefore, it is necessary for a designer to demonstrate the presented concept and its application in various contexts. Visual appetite can be applied where different people come together and various choices are to be made, e.g., interactive service in an airplane, where minimum interaction is possible due to constraints of space or dinning desks of restaurants, where a meal could create an experience to be carried back for a tourist.
Such interactive menus can offer new product ideas in tourism and service industries of any country. You can experience a country's meal, eating habits, customs and traditions, before you land in that country. All this may soon come true with upcoming flexible polymer LCD screens, which are so thin that they can be rolled up like a sheet of paper.