Instagram, food porn and ugly delicious: how some dishes just don’t cut it on social media
I see a lot of food porn on social media. Folks love to show off their fine-dining dishes featuring edible flowers delicately tweezered into place atop even more delicately poached seafood.
They also post about colourful cocktails adorned with fruits and herbs, massive pizzas with oozing cheese and rich tomato sauce, and close-ups of scallop, tuna or beef carpaccio glistening under a portable ring light.
What I don't see very often is Indian food. Sure, Hongkongers love South Asian cuisine, and Indians have a long and proud tradition in the territory, dating back to Sikhs arriving with the British in the mid-19th century. It's also a fact that the curry options are almost always the first items sold out when I try to order dinner at the Maxim's counter.
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The problem is, a plate of thick brown sauce in a bowl just doesn't have the aesthetic appeal required by food bloggers chasing clicks and collecting likes. Unfortunately, curry fits into that category of dishes that chef David Chang (of the Momofuku empire) describes as "ugly delicious".
Of course, we all have that Martin Luther King-esque dream that someday, all food will be judged on the content of its character and not the colour of its sauce. Sadly, online, we still prefer pretty plating and decorative presentations.
Most Instagramers know if they're posting a plate of chicken tikka masala or rogan josh, they should pan out from a close-up, prop a nan bread next to it, and drizzle some raita on top so it doesn't look so drab. Oh, and you hit the plate with as much light as possible or it will - literally - look like ****.
South Asian delicacies are not the only ones to suffer discrimination based on physical appearance. It's hard to make a meat loaf look pretty without some garnish. Beef bourguignon won't pass the chic test unless something is added to brighten up the stew. A Mexican staple like refried beans is also a splodgy challenge for Instagramers.
As for Spanish gazpacho, it's cool and refreshing for summer, but if unstrained it can resemble brain splatters in a bowl. Be sure to add the hashtag #zombiefoodporn. Similarly, there's a popular tomato, egg and broth soup made by a hole-in-the-wall Hong Kong diner, but few influencers are eager to post a serving of "vomit soup" on their page.
Other Chinese dishes are victims of the ugly bias, too: any braised stew with soy or dark vinegar suffers from discrimination. A dish of black moss and dried oysters is a must at Lunar New Year, but nobody ever posts about it with their lai see and turnip cake.
Making a steak look nice can also be a challenge, especially if you're in one of those dimly lit grill houses. You need significant light to make a charred exterior glisten and the definition of the bark - the hardened top layer - visible.
Serious steak chefs know making cross-hatch grill marks does nothing to enhance the meat's taste but they still do it for the impressive appearance. To really improve a steak's visual quality, the key is to cut a few slices, revealing the bright pink juicy meat. This is another reason you should never order well-done beef, because brown and dry is not a good look.
Luckily, we don't just eat with our eyes. On Facebook, you can't capture the rich aromatic smell of curry spices. You also can't detail the first satisfying, juicy mouthful of a marbled steak on TikTok.
Conversely, sometimes food that looks great online isn't appetising to eat. The fact is, food presentation is like a profile pic on a dating website. Often, subjects look too good to be true. Sometimes, what you see isn't what you get in real restaurants. So browse your food porn wisely before you swipe right.
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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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