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The food projects of Instagram

From archiving family histories to highlighting lesser-known narratives within popular cuisines and also discussing the politics of food, these projects are creating a nuanced understanding of how and what we eat

(left) The Quadrant restaurant menu for the Empire of india and Ceylon exhibition held in London, July 17, 1896, (right) an image shared by Wayne Croning from Canada of his family sitting down to a meal at the Karachi Zoo, 1969-70. Photos courtesy: The Nanima Project

Everyday we are inundated with images of food from across the world on social media, each offering a new window into the way we consume. And now, one can find projects which are taking the conversation around food to another level. While some are prompting people to document and archive familial food memories, others are finding newer narratives from within popular cuisines. And others are creating awareness about indigenous produce with a touch of whimsy.

The Nanima Project: The page of this archival project is populated with images of vintage advertisements, cookbooks and recipes. Ever since it started earlier this year during the pandemic-induced lockdown, the page has been crowdsourcing memories. So, you have images of recipe exchange postcards of a ladies club from the 1980s shared by Anushka Ghorpade. Or the tale of the famous Baroda phirni written by Shivraj Kumar Khachar, reminiscent of the childhood years spent with his grandmother at the Lakshmi Vilas palace. And then there is a heartwarming story contributed by Lilia Jimomi, a Dimapur-based music lecturer, about her ipuza (grandmother in Sumi dialect), whose kitchen was always open for everyone. “She was the grandma, who would pull anyone walking in the street, invite them for tea, or cook for them and feed them anytime of the day…,” she writes.

Aditi Bharadwaj started The Nanima Project in May, the month of her grandmother’s birth and death. It all started with her chancing upon an old recipe book, which had been passed on to her mother. “My mother had also added some recipes to it. I found napkins from army parties with recipes scribbled on to them, and also a diary,” says Bharadwaj, who runs a jewellery business in Pune. The lockdown turned into a time for reflection, with most people looking back at things that made them happy. “And nothing better than food to do that,” she adds. “I realised everyone has happy memories around food, it is how we express our love, especially in the subcontinent.” So, she put together an email, with questions about favourite food memories, and forwarded it to friends, and later to like minded food enthusiasts. She got responses from people from all walks of life, from professors and company executives to members of erstwhile royal families. “Through this project, I also wanted to get people to archive their own family’s food history. Maybe your grandmother made only bread pudding and omelette, but it’s those dishes that you remember. Digitise, document, archive family recipes, they are a great window to the diverse food cultures in our country,” says Bharadwaj.

Silbatan.Stories highlights the vegetarian dishes within Awadhi cuisine
Silbatan.Stories highlights the vegetarian dishes within Awadhi cuisine

Silbatan.Stories: This is yet another project that started on Instagram during the lockdown. Started by Taiyaba Ali, this is a digital archive of all the memories, recipes and experiences that have informed and defined her plate. From the origins of dal ki dulhan to memories of eating a whole karaunda while visiting the family mango orchards in Malihabad, her page is populated with several such nuggets. “I started cooking with my grandmother at the age of 7 or 8. As a child, I would pound away on the sil batta,” says Ali, who has done her masters in literature. She always wanted to make food a matter of study and research and this archive is a step towards achieving that.

Ali, now based in Delhi, hails from Awadh, a region which has become associated in our minds with kebabs and biryanis. However, Ali wants to showcase the rich vegetarian repertoire, which never gets highlighted. “It has always followed the principles of zero-waste cooking, with every scrap of ingredient getting utilised. So, you have turai ke chilke ke kebab and lauki ke chilke ke kebab. These follow the same principles as, say, a shami, but also make the ordinary the hero,” she says.

Lingdu or fiddlehead fern as part of 'October Mandi'. Photo courtesy: High on Mangoes/ Aaryama Somayaji
Lingdu or fiddlehead fern as part of 'October Mandi'. Photo courtesy: High on Mangoes/ Aaryama Somayaji

High on Mangoes: #FoodFriday sees Aaryama Somayaji interpret food memories and anecdotes as sketches and illustrations. So, you have a ‘picnic of sandwiches’ featuring a gamut of bread delights such as the quintessential basic aloo cheese to a more complex construction featuring fermented mustard, pork, lettuce, cheese and caramelised onion. Another day, she put together a Mexican table with all the staples such as fajita, quesadilla, guacamole and burritos. A graduate from the National Institute of Design, Vijayawada, she started drawing food nearly 1.5 years ago. “I was working on the covers of a poetry collection at Harper Collins India's art/design department. There, I ended up looking at a lot of cookbooks and began doodling food,” says Somayaji. She wanted to make it a regular feature on her Instagram page and this led to #FoodFriday.

Somayaji would take prompts from people about their favourite cuisines, memories and meals and translate them visually. However, one of her most popular work was titled #OctoberMandi, inspired by another Instagram handle, @theydrawandcook, who base their prompts on food. “I was talking to a food photographer friend, who focuses on Garhwali food. And we realised that some of the things that we were putting on the list, such as artichokes, we had never even tasted. So, that shifted out focus to indigenous produce,” she explains. The illustrations featured names of desi produce such as fiddlehead fern, taro root, chayote, and more, in both English and Hindi. It combined trivia with a touch of whimsy.

In a post shared three days ago. Food.is.Political wrote about the ubiquitous brinjal, which had made its way into almost every regional cuisine. But in spite of having over 2,500 varieties, we barely see over 3-4 in the commercial markets
In a post shared three days ago. Food.is.Political wrote about the ubiquitous brinjal, which had made its way into almost every regional cuisine. But in spite of having over 2,500 varieties, we barely see over 3-4 in the commercial markets

Food is Political: This page has become quite a hub for conversation about how our geopolitical context dictates what and how we eat in the short span that it has been around on Instagram. Started in September, it has raised nuanced points about a gamut of topics, from Chinese-Indian food, which remains a national favourite in spite of the strained relations between the two nations, food bans, the resurgence of BT brinjal and reviving forgotten fruits such as the pomelo. “I used to work at The Bombay Canteen until recently. A lot of my work was on the other side of the supply chain, and not as a farmer, producer or at the grassroot level. I wanted to understand this side of the chain better,” says Takshama Pandit, who started this page.

Her interest in the politics of food is not new. While doing a course in public policy, inadvertently a lot of her papers would end up being about food. “For instance, food bans need to be culturally sensitive. We know that historically anything that is banned is driven underground,” she says. The idea was also to engage people to understand and personally evaluate the tradeoff between the homogenisation of food practices to preserve sentiments and individual food autonomy. Pandit found this page not just a way to ask questions but also to connect with people on the ground, such as the community within Aarey, and more.

“I always wanted this page to be a platform for conversation, as I wanted to hear more than be heard,” she adds. “People are now taking time out to give an opinion and not just scrolling by. Even if they are critiquing something that I have shared, at least they are part of a community which cares about where their food comes from.”

A layered 'pal pathil', with four layers of two batters, one made with maida, eggs, milk and sugar and the other featuring cooked Bengal gram, dal, sugar and milk. Photo courtesy: Ummi.Vabdulla
A layered 'pal pathil', with four layers of two batters, one made with maida, eggs, milk and sugar and the other featuring cooked Bengal gram, dal, sugar and milk. Photo courtesy: Ummi.Vabdulla

Ummi.Vabdulla: This Instagram page highlights known and little-known aspects of Mappila cuisine. It features recipes and stories by cookbook author, Ummi Adbulla, whose latest book is Kitchen Full of Stories. Managed by her granddaughter Nazaneen Jalaludheen, it has vibrant images, most of them shot by the octogenarian herself. There are stories about the panchaara paata, or sweetened honeycomb, a dish that still gives her “the jitters”, and the maasu chamandi, or dried fish, a regular during the monsoon. “I remember Umma asking me to keep a watch while the fish was laid out to dry, lest the cats or dogs decide to help themselves. I would hang around for some time and then, being a child, run away to play. Finally, the fish would be hung to dry from a tree,” she writes about the dish. Nazaneen and her family started this page as Ummi still had a lot of memories to share, beyond her books. “She is 85 but 99% of the photos have been taken by her. She is able to recall stories behind the food she used to eat. So, we thought why not post stories with images and create an archive of her food memories,” she adds.

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