A picture is often said to speak a thousand words. Yet, when we think about it, photos are hardly able to capture the aromas and tastes of the finest dishes; all they are capable of is the representation of food in the most vivid of colours. Why then do we tend to get quite caught up with food photography? Why does it seem like a phenomenon that is unique to Asians? (Of course, professional reviewers in the Western world also shoot pictures of food that they are tasting, but the average Westerner does not seem to engage in the same practice and indeed finds it rather peculiar.) Here are some of my thoughts...
Why do we photograph food?
Asians tend to be a lot less vocal than Westerners and that may explain why we prefer to take photographs, rather than expend entire paragraphs on 'oh how that pan-seared scallop was billowing with smoky flavour, paired seamlessly with a delightful sauce that lent a tinge of citrus'. The verbosity of full-length reviews might be something that we find difficult to sustain and pictures are perfect in allowing us to be a lot more economical with the words that we want to use.
One of my friends who is of Asian descent and has been living in London since young also regularly takes photographs of food. Quite surprising, I thought to myself, and I asked him why he did that. His answer? To catalogue the food that he had ever consumed. It was an interesting notion and, if one does come to think about it, a reasonable one. Across the continent, we have a spectacular variety of foods - Korean, Burmese, Indian, Chinese, Malaysian, Singaporean, Indonesian, Thai, Japanese and more. Consequently, the methods of preparing and presenting those foods are just as numerous and colourful - precisely the qualities that are best captured and organised by digital photography. In contrast, in the Western world, there seems to be fewer but equally sophisticated methods of cooking e.g. pickling in the Scandinavian countries, roasting and frying in the British Isles, curing of meats in Italy and Spain. The temperate climates and compact geography also arguably lead to a smaller variety in ingredients, compared to that in Asia. Of course, having a narrower range of ingredients and cooking methods do not necessarily mean that European/American cuisines are any less exciting than Asian ones but it does seem to make intuitive sense that we have a lot more to play with in Asia and the demands on our abilities to assimilate that mind-boggling variety of foods and preserve our culinary heritage necessitates food photography as a means of cataloging.
We can also speculate from cross-cultural studies of red-green colour blindness (shall sneak in some biology here!) the reasons for Asians having greater inclination towards food photography. Among males of Northern European descent, red-green colour blindness occurs at about 8%. That compares with 3-4% in males of African origin and 3% in those of Asian origin. Could this be one of the reasons why Westerners tend to focus on describing tastes and textures, rather than conveying images and colours through photography? We may never know but it is an intriguing point to note.
Can we do with just food photography?
The answer is almost always 'no'. Regardless of the skill of the photographer, no picture can ever describe the olfactory and gustatory sensations that we receive from the consumption of food. That is why food reviews mainly use photographs as a physical object on which we focus our attention (or even, our expectations?) on, with the prose or captions providing the re-creation of that scene.
Unfortunately, the art of writing about food is not something that we have honed very well as a country that is so enamoured with our cuisines, hawker and haute alike. We have plenty of people toting DSLRs and trotting into eateries, ready to catch exquisite dishes in all their glory. But do we really know what we are capturing? Do those pictures speak volumes about the food that one is to review? It is saddening to read articles that describe on a very superficial level, without wondering about or marvelling at the philosophy that goes into every dish and how the colours, textures and flavours come together to present as the masterpiece that one is to savour.
Photography is important. But please don't expect photographs alone to tell your story, or indeed, to make or break your review. Speak with sincere words and strive for accuracy and vivacity in description. That will surely be the best way to share our love, for food, glorious food.