Curries, tea and other sketches from the road
A Jaipur-based illustrator uses watercolours to create food memories
Yasra Khoker, 32, grew up sketching. As a child growing up in Dubai, Khoker and her four siblings would make scrapbooks. “These had our drawings and other scribbles. We would store them in discarded shirt boxes, pretending that the brand on top was the name of our company. Then we would exchange these ‘little magazines’ among ourselves for stickers," she says. In primary school, when it was Khoker’s turn to decorate the class timetable, she would fill it with sketches of food.
Cut to 2017, and the Jaipur-based illustrator has traded in her magazines and timetables for a book of her own—a self-published illustrated journal titled Food Swings. “The book is a replica of my travel journal, and contains memories and sketches of meals from my recent trips. Instead of taking dozens of pictures, I decided to record these experiences on paper," she says.
Memory on paper
Food is central to Khoker’s memory of a place. Food Swings is the result of a project Khoker started when she moved to Jaipur after her wedding, seven years ago. It was a way of getting used to her new surroundings. She would head into the city with her Moleskine notebook, pen and watercolours and sketch old buildings, peanut vendors and chai thadis (stalls). She tried teaching interior design in 2009 and working as an art critic for a Delhi-based magazine, but neither excited her. “I was happiest when sketching, so I started doing it more often," she says.
Six years ago, on a visit to the United Arab Emirates, she observed her young niece and nephew recreating pictures of food from delivery menus. “Those drawings that they made stayed on my mind. When I came back, I decided I want to do just that—sketch food," she says.
The next three months were spent visiting restaurants with her husband and sketching the dishes they ate. “I would sketch as quickly as I could, which would be anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour if it was an intricate dish. Sometimes, we would eat one or two pieces from the dish I was sketching, but only if it didn’t affect the overall presentation," she says. Through it all—meals at 40 restaurants—her husband was her silent dining partner. “I cannot pull these stunts with anyone else. When I’m sketching, the other person is always ignored. He would have a silent meal, ensuring there was some food left for me," she says.
The reactions she received ran the gamut of puzzled looks to polite smiles. No one disturbed her, even if she occupied a table for over an hour, like at the legendary Niros on Jaipur’s busy MI Road, while people queued up outside.
Khoker published the sketches online, on her website Doodlenomics and across social media. She soon branched out, sketching food pictures with recipes from cookbooks and food writers. There were Kutchi Memon recipes from Hajra’s Recipes Of Life, For Life by Hajra Mohammed; Irani food from Persiana: Recipes From The Middle East & Beyond by Sabrina Ghayour; and recipes from Vineet Bhatia, Rana Safvi, Sadia Dehlvi and Marryam H. Reshii. Now, Khoker also does commissioned artwork.
Food Swings is a riot of colour. The cover is packed with fish, a fried egg, bread, onions and greens. It’s like any other travel journal, filled with sketches of scribbled notes, aeroplane tickets, hotel bills and a few photographs, interspersed with sketches of food.
These are memories from her 10-day July trip to Mumbai, Goa and Hyderabad. The sketches are not just representative of the meals she ate but whatever food caught her eye, like the perfect pyramid of samosas flecked with whole green chillies on a street cart in Hyderabad. In Goa, she chanced upon women selling mushrooms. They even gave her a tip on how to prepare them—“fry with garam masala and eat them hot."
Many of the travel stories didn’t make it into the book. In Goa, while sitting at Fort Aguada and sketching, she attracted a crowd of people. In Hyderabad, at the Rayalaseema Ruchulu, the waiters were curious about what she was doing, and why she wasn’t vacating the table soon after eating. She explained and they happily agreed to pose for a photograph.
The July trip changed her in many ways. A shy person, Khoker always found it difficult to go up to strangers. Here, she had no choice. “Travelling changes the way you think about people. It is a humbling experience to realize that, in essence, we are all the same. This plate of biryani that makes you happy also makes the other person happy," she says. Interacting with people has also helped her get over her fear of flying. And it turned her into an author. In September, in response to the overwhelming support she received on social media for her live sketching sessions, she decided to self-publish a book. “People like this new form for a travel journal," she says. “To me, it’s a new, refined version of those magazines I created as a child."
Food Swings can be ordered via Khoker’s website Doodlenomics.com.