Thursday, March 3, 2011

Tips on food writing by Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal (Part-1)

This year, the literature section of the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival asked me to do a workshop on Food writing. I was very excited because while India’s food scene is set to soar with cheap eats, fine dining, home cooking, TV and every sector related to food about to explode, food writing is an area that is parched for new blood! And the workshop was a WONDERFUL experience. My ‘students’ came from different walks of life, with a variety of reasons for being there but all unified by a love for food and a love for writing; both essential ingredients in Food writing, to my mind.
 I had a single minded objective with my workshop; to help them stir themselves into their writing. Because that personal passion is what turns just another story or recipes into a piece of food writing that will make one want to go out and eat or cook the food it describes at that very moment. Here are four things I advised my aspiring food writing on. 

Le 15 Wasabi Cupcakes inspire writers at the workshop
1. What to write? - On finding inspiration 
Finding something to write on should be the easiest thing to do. But this is actually the first place a food writer will hit a blank wall. At times like these I find it is good to fall back on what you know best and make it better. Pull out family recipes, list favourite dishes. Play with them, spice them up, exchange Paneer with Tofu, substitute spinach with other greens. Remake traditional recipes to fit latest diet trends - low-fat, high protein, vegan, ethnic. Look through old magazines, newspaper clippings and browse the internet, scope out old cookbooks. Pay attention at restaurants. Whether you dine there for a review or just for fun, restaurant menus can open your eyes to new ingredients and ideas and give you confidence to use common ingredients in new ways or cook with exotic ingredients at home. Go new age. Study astrology for eating according to the Zodiac, foods to alter moods, or boost creativity. Travel is a great subject too. Can't travel abroad? Well you can explore world cuisine from your own kitchen. Take cooking classes where and when you can. No inspiration yet? Get back in the kitchen. Try the freshest, the best, the most exotic, the most native to your homeland, then start cooking, freezing, canning and frying. Hook up with local bakers, chefs, and meet them for a chat. Learn how they create new recipes. Read, Surf, cook, be inspired! Don't use the same ideas, or copy information but be inspired by someone else's Pasta or Lemon rice recipe. Then learn from them and create your own articles around these ideas. Make them better, and yes, you can. Every appetizer, every snack and every recipe can be changed and improved when you stir yourself into it. Are you a gardner? Use that as inspiration for seasonal dishes and theme articles centred on what you grow - herbs, vegetables, fruit. I can’t grow anything but I use markets as inspiration for seasonal cooking. Visit the local market, see what is seasonal, I recently did a photo feature on greens for my blog.

2. How to make a topic yours... 
Once you have an idea, see how you can play with it. Most of us come up with themes that are obvious. You can write on anything, but an unusual POV will distinguish you to your readers. It might have been done before, but your readers might be appreciative of new angles. If you want to write about something that’s already been done, look for a different approach; even Potatoes can be approached from a different angle and be made interesting! I remember doing a story on Potatoes, in which I suggested potato recipes from around the world. Maybe your grandmother was a dynamic woman who created a bread recipe at home in the times of the British Raj (mine did). That's cool and very different from "I like baking bread“. Or you could use the bread as a take-off point to go someplace else like a jaunt of exploring breads from around the world.

3. Focus! Zero in on that idea! 
Focus is important. When i began writing on food, one was paid by the word and one wrote long. Then came blogs and digital writing and one had to cut down on word count (God, knows where twitter will take us! Today digital media has made it necessary to write less. And writing less means topics covered need to be more focussed. "I want to write about markets " needs to be refined "I want to write about a particular Market I grew up near and focus on some of its fabulous offerings and the ways I ate them growing up but I also want to share new ideas to cook traditional ingredients to save them." My topic is different. It's personal to me. SO WHAT is a great tool to exercise in this case; a question to ask yourself to judge if your article is interesting enough. The combination of universal and personal is delicious! Go against convention: “How Vegetables can save the world" will grab attention -- if you mean it, and it fits naturally with what you want to say.

4. On Describing Flavor 
This is a primary issue with food writing: How do you deal with flavors and tastes? How would you describe a food to someone who has never eaten it before? I use all my senses when I write about food. What does it look like, smell like, does it have a sound associated to it? Using this approach, helps define clearly your taste experience. It is the most important ingredient in good food writing. I don’t want to know something was delicious, I want to know it made you want to leave the chair you were sitting in to go looking for a bite of that dish THAT VERY MOMENT! Eg. Using just earthy is vague- what is earthy to you may not be earthy to me. Be more concrete. A good way to get over this is to create a food diary, in which you can maintain a list of flavour words and expressions or blocks of food writing you liked in particular. Keep adding to it. Even if you don't come back to it, just the process of writing things down, will make the ideas stick.

And while you are at it, make a big poster of WORDS NOT TO USE so you can avoid the obvious. Throw words like mouthwatering / lipsmacking / delicious / yummy OUT OF YOUR MENTAL WINDOW. Nice is noncommittal, chuck it. Chocolate will be sweet, bitter, luscious, smooth … it almost doesn't need to be said -- what are new ways to say it?

Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal 
Blogger | Gastronomy writer | Author| Consultant | MD - A Perfect Bite
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