Apologies, queries, and lessons in food styling and photography

Apologies for the tardiness my friends! What can I say, I’ve practically camped out in the kitchen for the last 3 weeks. The clock is ticking, we are due to publish in September and I have been cooking everything again for the photos. Also – my sister Winnie is here on holiday and we have been catching up over cups of tea and my ongoing kitchen experiments. I have mentally chided myself several times for not taking the photos the first time I tested the recipes. However, cooking everything again has led me to experiment anew with the recipes and to tweak to my heart’s content. Furthermore, I have needed this time to improve my food styling and photography skills. Before I launch into the lessons I have learned the past few weeks, I will address 3 common queries I have had from friends.

Firstly, what does Cook2Jhoom mean? This is the working title of the book – it may change, it may not. I quite like it, it’s catchy, unique and it relates to the whole concept that this cookbook is borne of. I am writing this book for Just Jhoom! (Jhoom means dance in Hindi), a dance/exercise/fitness program set exclusively to Bollywood tunes (fabulous ones, I might add). Cook2Jhoom (okay, we might change it to Cook to Jhoom, I am not a fan of text speak) literally means Cook to Dance because cooking and eating this healthy and tasty food should be part of an active lifestyle that includes dancing and exercise, Just Jhoom! style. Thank you for the question Esha, I shouldn’t have assumed everyone would know what Jhoom means!

Secondly, someone asked me (very nicely) what qualified me to write a book about healthy Indian food and whether I was a chef or certified nutritionist. I am neither. I am a home cook and have no hankering whatsoever for the label of chef. This is a book by a home cook for home cooks – although I am sure professional chefs will appreciate it too! I do know about Indian food because I have been around a variety of excellent and varied Indian food my whole life and I have had a keen interest in cooking it for the past 18 years (ever since I left home, as a way to stay connected to and recreate a sense of home – don’t so many of us do this?). As far as nutrition is concerned, I have experimented with making healthier versions of Indian classics for years now and, as I stated on my About page, I am working with a certified nutritionist to ensure that the recipes are balanced, tasty and good for you.

Thirdly, what sort of nutrition information will I be providing about the recipes and ingredients? There will be specific information about calories, proteins, carbohydrates, fats and other vitamins and minerals per serving. In order to do this, I have weighed everything and provided specific measurements. I have to confess that this is something I have struggled with, conceptually. I am a big fan of Nigel Slater’s style and philosophy of cooking, it is instinctive and sometimes intentionally vague in order to allow the cook to experiment and have fun in the kitchen. By providing detailed nutrition information and precise measurements, I was concerned that I was taking the fun out of food and might alienate the more confident and instinctive cooks (my mum has challenged me on this aspect). The way I addressed this concern is to provide more general measurements alongside the specific ones, i.e. 60g or 1 small onion. So, if you don’t have a digital scale or don’t want to use one, please feel free to eyeball your measurements! Most importantly, however, I want to emphasise that the nutrition information is provided with the best of intentions: to help and to guide. Most people I know are interested in what is in their food and want to be better informed about nutrition, even if they don’t have a weight problem. And we all have something to learn when it comes to healthy Indian food because I have lost count of the number of times that people have wondered aloud whether it is even possible to write a book about it. Healthy Indian food does exist; I have experienced it and have lived to write about it. If you eat my spicy sweet potato wedges, chicken masala, lamb kebabs and mung dall most of the time, then you can enjoy your onion bhajis, butter chicken, lamb biriyani and daal makhani some of the time.

Spicy Sweet Potato Wedges - hot, sweet, and a little sour. Delicious! Inspired by Indian and Kenyan street food.

Right, that’s it with the queries for now (more queries are welcome anytime!). On to my new role as a food stylist and photographer. In the early stages of writing this book, Shalini (founder of Just Jhoom!, partner in the Cook2Jhoom project, and dear friend) and I had discussed using a professional photographer to take the photos for the book. Like many people I know, I have dabbled in amateur photography. I even had a fancy SLR (35mm), lenses, filters and a tripod when I first started out and taught myself the basics of aperture and shutter priority, sticking to semi-automatic and never venturing into fully manual mode. I then abandoned the SLR and another expensive Olympus digital camera I first bought when 8MP cameras were cutting edge and took to using a nifty little point and shoot, purely because it is so convenient and the quality of the photos for everyday purposes is excellent. I have since regressed even further and use the camera on my Nokia N95 phone (5MP Carl Zeiss lens, I’ll have you know) for my spontaneous kitchen experiments. As I was nearing the end of my first round of recipe testing, I fished out my Olympus digital with its fancy lens, took a few photos and sent them to Shalini for her opinion. She liked the photos but pushed me to do a bit of staging on the photos so that there was an Indian touch or twist to them, be it in the garnish, colour of the napkins or tablecloth, props, cutlery, etc… I was rather resistant to the idea at first, insisting that I was a food purist (oh dear, where did I come up with that from and why?) and that I wanted the food to fill the entire frame. Shalini convinced me that the subtle Indian touches would make the photos distinctive, add colour and, most importantly, fit into the Just Jhoom! theme of modern Indian or contemporary Bollywood.  We agreed on modern and rustic chic with subtle, and sometimes bolder Indian accents. See the sweet potato wedges above – a simple rectangular white plate (modern, clean), casually but attractively arranged (rustic chic) on a distinctly Indian tablecloth (actually it’s a scarf or chuni from one of my Indian outfits) – at least, that’s my interpretation and I’m sticking to it!

A food purist at work - my very first photo for the cookbook, the grilled scented pineapple filling the entire frame.

The 2nd recipe I photographed - honey cardamom fruit yogurt. The colour is there, as is the Indian garnish, but the portion is too large to be healthy. Also, it's an old fashioned knickerbocker glory style glass.

There are heavenly smells wafting up from the kitchen as I am writing this. I must go and investigate. This has been a longer than usual post. Part II of my lessons in food styling and photography will follow very soon! Thanks for reading and thanks so much for all your encouraging feedback. Happy cooking and jhooming everyone!

2 Replies to “Apologies, queries, and lessons in food styling and photography”

  1. Ronnie

    Greetings Cheeks,

    Another precious article. I am sure readers will be able to relate to the cookbook because there is a lovely element of honesty in your writing, and I find it very attractive and entertaining. To include the articles feel personal, just as if they were written with only me, as the reader, in mind!

    You may not be a certified nutritionist or a chef but you are a qualified and certified hotelier with valuable experience in the industry. I feel it was during your hospitality days when you learnt about nutrition and food hygene where the first seeds of healthy cooking were germinated in your talented mind.

    Coming from a Punjabi culture where butter and cream are the norm, healthy recipes are what we are all crying out for. I love my butter chicken and daal makhani with heavily buttered naans, but would prefer healthier versions to enable me to eat such dishes more often and guilt free.

    Keep it up my dear.

    Lots of love.

    Ronnie B.

    • justjhoom

      Thanks again for your feeback Ron. I do seem to forget the education in nutrition and the professional kitchen experience we had at Les Roches, I guess it’s because it feels like a world away. I did so many other things after hotel school before coming back to the kitchen full time!

      Thanks again for everything!


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