Food photography trend: Bold monochrome platters are taking over our Instagram feeds and how!
Bolder plates, singular focus. That’s how we would describe the monochromatic food trend which uses varied hues of one colour to draw you in. Blue corn tortillas to purple cauliflower soup — vivid platters tantalise, bewitch and hypnotise. You might say, as we lose ourselves in a frenzy of scrolling through Instagram, that we are in ‘gridlock’. And here’s why. Digital creators who specialise in edibles have turned their quarantine kitchens into colour labs over the last few months. And while we can’t taste, we’re surely lapping it all up with gusto! While several folks have taken up impromptu one-off challenges, just for kicks, put out by popular forums like @foodcapturecollective (14.8k followers), some have committed to planning a whole calendar around it.
For instance, Assamese-born Jahnabi Basumatary (30), has been chronicling ‘12 colours across 12 weeks’ on her Instagram account @pride_n_food. Based in The Netherlands, this materials scientist and culinary enthusiast says what got her curious about the trend, was a sense of exploration. “I thought it would be fun to rediscover the flavours in each colour group by isolating and experiencing them one by one,” she says.
But she put off the idea for about a year before she got started, earlier this May. Though the trend has been doing the rounds on social media for a few years now, we might have the coronavirus to credit for its rising popularity. As for who started it, a good bet would be French performance artist Sophie Calle, with her 1997 photo series, The Chromatic Diet. Seven colours, seven menus — and back then, zero filters.
Flat lay prep diaries
Over two decades later, a lot has changed. And while less is more, visually — a single-colour flat lay may take over a week of prep. “Scouting for all your food elements can be a lot of leg work!” says Jahnabi. Especially, she adds, given that there is no food colouring involved. Fresh produce is bought from the farmer’s market, oriental supermarkets come in handy for purple and black ingredients, while exotic veggies and natural colouring agents like blue spirulina powder or black truffle sauce are ordered online. And this is just the beginning. For texture and visual appeal, New York-based Christine Wong of the incredibly popular @conscious_cooking (101k followers) shares a tip: “For ingredients to photograph, I like to look for a variety of shapes and sizes, from large vegetables to smaller clusters or sprinkles, like grains of rice, seeds or spices.”
Recipe development, a neutral background and careful plating take a few more hours — before the shot is ready to be taken. As for actually plating, tiny details reveal definition. The swirls of an onion, the bubbles in a pancake, swiggles of noodles. “It’s difficult to shoot monochromatic food because elements can be lost in the picture if you don’t think of a way to show its texture and clarity,” says Johannesburg-based Cat Carstens (31) of @lefamishedcat. She adds, “Of course, it’s really fun as well!”
Hue to get started?
• Make a list of foods readily available per colour, even flowers. This will help enormously in organising and planning your meals better. Also, while taking photos, they can be used as props to liven the frame.
• You do not need a lot of props to help with photography, but do use a well-lit location.
• A neutral-coloured background or plate that contrasts with and complements the food is best so it accentuates and highlights the food itself.
Bear in mind, these are not ad campaigns with hairspray for sheen, but meals that are eaten by home cooks and their families. So keeping them all-natural, tasty and healthy is just as important. We can’t help but wonder what a monochromatic meal tastes like though. And also, is it confusing for the senses — given that you are engaged in a plethora of tastes, but are only seeing one colour? Christine clarifies, “It is never really just one colour. There are different tones and also when you cut into some fruits and vegetables, the inside might be different from the peel or skin. And when you cook some veggies, the colour also changes. Monochromatic meals are created with other ingredients as well, like aromatics (garlic, onion, or ginger) and spices. So the taste is as you create it.”
Also, a health coach and author of vegan cookbook, The Plantiful Taste, she does point out that monochromatic food photography is purely for aesthetic pleasure. “While it may be fun on occasion, I don’t think it is realistic to eat a single food colour meal for a week. You really must ‘eat the rainbow’ in order to benefit from all the nutrients that the full spectrum of produce provides,” she tells us.
While it may be fun on occasion, I don’t think it is realistic to eat a single food colour meal for a week. You really must ‘eat the rainbow’ in order to benefit from all the nutrients that the full spectrum of produce provides
— Christine Wong, health coach and author of vegan cookbook, The Plantiful Taste
Closer home, Chennai-based nutritionist Shiny Surendran reflects the same sentiment, with a cautionary warning for those swapping hashtags for good health. “Eating only one type of food (colour) for several days will lead to vitamin-mineral deficiencies. Omitting certain food groups is definitely a recipe for disaster,” she says.
Colour me intrigued
Admittedly, we are partial to certain colours. Nod your head if this sounds familiar: ‘Eat your greens!’ As an adult in the age of food fads like Unicorn Yoghurt and Mermaid Toast — that inspires the thought: ‘Well, what about yellow, black and purple?’ We took our pondering about colours in food and what they represent to Pavitra Krishna Kumar, a product development scientist at Rich Products Corporation, Buffalo, New York. The latter handles everything from breads and pizza to cake icing, gels and glaze.
A colour, for the uninitiated, comes from a pigment, and each pigment serves a certain set of nutritional benefits. “Black and purple, for instance, have anthocyanins which is good for blood health, yellow which has carotenoids helps with the eyes, and green comes from chlorophyll, which serves as an energy booster,” she informs us. As it turns out, all-natural colours perform as antioxidants as well, which Pavitra explains, “aid in food shelf life management”.
To see or not to see?
The Roman gourmand Apicius apparently said, ‘We eat with our eyes’. Bengaluru-based psychiatrist and Integrative Medicine Specialist, Shyam Bhat, distinguishes ‘visual hunger’ and ‘physiological hunger’. The first is a desire to see food and the second is a bodily need to eat it. As technology evolves, he says, “Virtual reality experiences will be used to stimulate appetite and satisfy ‘visual hunger’ and real hunger, further amplifying the desire for unhealthy food.” On the flip side, he adds, imagery can be curated to create desires for healthy food. He suggests, “Monochromatic displays of vegetables, fruits and whole grains can increase a person’s desire for healthy food.”
Some scientists believe that our eyes respond to the three primary colours — red, blue and green, because it helped humans to find fruits and vegetables in the forest, in the prehistoric past
— Dr Shyam Bhat, Psychiatrist & Integrative Medicine Specialist
As the digital age changes the way we eat, food companies are also exploring new ways to stay relevant. Consider ube, a purple yam variety, commonly used in Philippine cuisine, which is making its way into ice creams all over the world. From an industry perspective, to catch the trend, “this means we need stable violet colours for different foods,” Pavitra says. But incorporating colour when there is a food label involved, mandates expert input.
“When a colour is added to a food, it is not simply blending an extract into the food. We need a clear understanding of the matrix, physical and chemical features of the food, what delivery systems should go along with the food, whether regulations permit these ingredients, how colours behave in specific heat and light exposure, if they are time stable and so on,” Pavitra elaborates.
So it’s no surprise that the market for food colour specialists is in high demand. Pavitra tells us, drawing reference from an industry market survey, “The global market for colours is estimated at USD 3.88 million. And it is projected to grow at a CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate) of 5.7 per cent to reach USD 5.12 billion by 2023.”