I won’t argue with the statement that making food look pretty adds to the sensory appeal of a dish. We do indeed “devour with our eyes”. That said, food that is so artfully presented that you don’t feel like eating it kinda defeats the purpose – at least in my opinion.
I subscribe to the “quick trick” school of food presentation… since I don’t take hours to dress myself up, I see no reason to spend hours dressing my food up. For the average home cook, making food look good doesn’t necessarily involve intricately carved vegetables or sculptures made of meat. All it takes is a little imagination, and yes, a smidgen of extra effort.
Although I feel that European and American dishes are easier to work with, because they are usually served in individual plated portions, the same principles that govern attractive food presentation apply to desi cuisine as well.
Whether you’re serving individually plated steaks, or dal and chicken curry in large bowls for everyone to serve themselves from, here are four things you can do to elevate your food from mundane to magical. For those of you who are skeptical about the idea of plating Indian food, check out this picture of shorshe maach (Bengali fish curry) served with rice and stuffed karela (bitter gourd):
Food Presentation 101
1. Start with the plate or serving dish
Think of a plate or serving dish as your canvas, with its rim being the “frame”. The goal is to make your food “pop” visually. In simple terms, that means – avoid serving green beans on a green platter or plate. If you’re plating individually, use white or any other neutral color that attractively highlights the color of the food. If you’re not serving individual portions, choose an attractive white or neutral serving dish with a broad rim – the rim contrasts with anything you put in the dish, forcing the eye to focus on the contents.
2. Think contrast
The human eye is drawn to contrasts and finds them visually appealing. Use this principle to boost the visual oomph factor of your food. For example, garnish a pesto-based pasta or a green curry with julienned red pepper; conversely, if you’re serving something red, garnish with something green. Similarly, garnish “light” colored food with something dark, and vice versa (rich, brown, fried onion rings on rice; slivers of almond on black dal). Experiment with textural contrasts too – a swirl of (smooth) cream topping a platter of (roughly textured) chicken tikka kebabs, or some (crunchy) onion slices atop a (mushy) baingan ka bhartha.
3. Sprinkle, drizzle, and swirl
You can make any dish or plated meal – desi or not - look good by topping it with a light sprinkle (chiffonaded herbs, crushed nuts, whole or powdered spices, grated cheese), drizzle (oil, ghee, sauce, gravy), or swirl (cream, balsamic vinegar, unsalted white butter) of an appropriate ingredient. remember, though to think about how your garnish will affect the taste of your dish. Tip: Professional chefs like to use salt shakers to do the sprinkling and ordinary squeeze bottles to do the drizzling and swirling.
4. Clean up
This is probably the simplest thing you can do to ensure attractive food presentation – wipe off drips and spills from the outer surface and inside rim of your serving dish, or from the rim of your plated meal. Simply use a sheet of disposable kitchen roll to do a quick wipe down before you set your food on the table. This may seem like a small detail, but it makes big difference in how appealing a dish appears – casual dining is fall very well, but sloppiness is unattractive.
Finally, here are some more plating tips from Curtis Stone, who is, in my opinion, as yummy as the food he dishes out.