with Jaya Modi
S&W: Is there any food that is special to you in terms of ritualised aspects?
Jaya: When I was a school going girl in New Delhi, I ate Dal Chawal (prepared pulses and rice) everyday. Of course, I never realised how much I would miss it when I would move away. Now, whenever I visit home, the first meal I eat is home made Dal — which is a lentil soup like preparation cooked with turmeric, fresh coriander and spices, served atop a mound of rice. Along with it, I take a generous dollop of a seasonal spicy mango pickle that my aunt from Kerala sends me. Eating with my hands and fingers will always have a special meaning for me. Feeling the food with my fingers, which are left stained yellow with the turmeric and smelling of the spice from the pickle — despite however many hand washes one may try. I always have to remember not to touch my eyes for a few hours, lest they burn unbearably. Hand based eating is a very important aspect of Pan-Indian cuisines. Traditionally, it is believed that eating with one’s hands directly helps you connect with your food — you concentrate on what you are eating, how you’re eating it and how much of it. Without any distraction, one is able to observe every morsel of food, almost curated between your thumb and fingers.
S&W: When you think of eating, what do you smell?
Jaya: The first association I make is with what I consider to be my olfactory holy trifecta — chillies and garlic frying in an aromatic oil. Undeniably inviting, this smell signals the start of any meal. I have enjoyed multiple cuisines and hold many dishes close to my heart, but this humble combination sits within every memorable meal I have ever had. However, my earliest recollection takes me back to the twinge of mustard oil climbing up my nose, the heat of frying curry leaves and chillies — smells wafting from my grandmother’s kitchen. I inhale deeply every time.
S&W: … and how do you relate to food?
Jaya: I feel like I have a collection of food memories that I keep returning to, tucked away like little keepsakes, safe and comfortable. I take them out to reminisce across vivid recollections of spaces, preparations and singular experiences… The noisy crunch of the spicy papad-chur (crushed mung bean popadoms) that is made at home — topped with ghee, masala and chopped onions. The colours of the pickled Kaanji — a customary dish served with thin slices of colourful root vegetables. The ruby-like pomegranate studding the tops of street chaat, complimenting the sweetness of the yogurt and spiciness of the chutney. The satin insides of all the custard apples I’ve enjoyed in the autumnal months in Delhi, where the sweet ripe flesh just falls off the seeds — as I roll them in my mouth plenty before letting them out. That glorious sluuurrrp! as I eat a crushed ice lolly (or chuski as it is called locally), the syrup running down my wrists. The soft pillowy appams (fluffy fermented rice pancakes) made by my best friend’s mother — a meal I look forward to every trip back.
S&W: You started your project called E.A.T., what was your investigation about?
Jaya: For me, this project was about uncovering the inherent divisions that thrive within our existing eating rituals. I was inquiring into the supposed aesthetics of affordability — about how the simple placement of tools and food could have tacit implications such as demarcations of class, civility and customs. Through my project E.A.T, I attempted to push the boundaries of how we understand, experience and relate to both food and our rituals of dining. E.A.T encourages a design-led inquiry into finding new ways for us to consume food and rethink its normal usability; we are challenged to reconsider preconceptions about the relationship between tableware and the user. It accepts the finding that eating is, and will always be, inherently ritualised. Through this study, I attempted to use Design research as a tool to explore the fundamental relationships between humans and eating tools. By looking at how the design of these objects, I also investigated how the habituation of such interactions unconsciously shapes our other related experiences and social preconditioning.
S&W: What do you wish people would consider more when eating?
Jaya: I wish people would allow more time to their meals. Eating a meal, abiding by all its rituals, is actually quite performative, and thus can be quite enjoyable. During this lockdown, I think people are definitely engaging with the eating experience a lot more deeply. More importantly, I wish we all could be more mindful of what we eat. Adopting completely new habits of consumption is possibly unrealistic. However, I would argue for a cultural engineering motivated by various factors ranging from personal health concerns to global resource depletion. Today there are quite a few noteworthy endeavours working to protect biodiversity and natural, native species of flora and fauna. For example, Edible Archives run by chef Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar aims to revive innumerable vanishing Indian rice strains. Her restaurant is purely ingredient driven — which are freshly sourced from local growers following seasonal patterns, and limiting waste. Also, Fernando Laposse, a Mexican product and material designer has developed a new veneer material — Totomoxtle, made from the husks of heirloom Mexican corn. This project goes beyond just aesthetic value, it has ensured the preservation of the native grains that were in danger of becoming lost in favour of higher yielding foreign seeds.
S&W: Is there any culture that excites you when it comes to eating rituals?
Jaya: Lately I have been very curious about Japanese customs of eating. I was intrigued when I was told that the eater slurps loudly in order to communicate how much they like a bowl of ramen. This ‘loudness’ while eating was unique to me as it is not very commonly appreciated in other eating cultures. The Japanese seem to successfully balance an intriguing intertwining between the simplicity of food and complexity of consumption. Sushi for example is a preparation style that embodies very little interference with the ingredients, and has some very specific rules of the way it should be consumed. Of course, the ersatz adoption of the cuisine globally doesn’t do justice to the original way it was intended to be enjoyed. As a vegetarian, the cuisine offers me limited options, but I can not help but be enamoured by the purposeful curation and discipled performance involved with every consumed bite of the food.
S&W: What’s the latest history of our eating tools you could find out in your investigation?
Jaya: Studying cutlery, I found myself charting a remarkable journey through advances in design all made solely for the purpose of moving food without having to touch it with our fingers! I was able to trace the form and functional usage of these instruments as they have changed over periods of time. I think it is irrefutable that we will always, in some capacity, need both eating tools and their associated rituals. Together they respond to our practical needs, and provide us with a certain consistency and comfort. Of course, there is indeed a reassuring connotation of the traditional object — a fork to hold, a knife to cut, and a spoon to collect. Some of the most interesting and inventive tools I’ve come across are — The goûte spoon by Charles Michel and Andreas Fabian is a unique tool that has been created purely to enjoy creamy foods. It encourages the natural behaviour to lick and suck, and provides an inhibited experience of eating. They have also developed various other eating utensils that consider the tool as an extension of the hand. Some other notable cutlery pieces I was drawn to were the Moment Spoons by Joo Hyung Park, and the Playful Spoons by Laia Ribas Valls, for The Experimental Gastronomy initiative, which brings together renowned chefs and artists for a distinguished experience. Within a Demeter setting, artists are invited to create cutlery and dishware that exemplify new ways to enjoy food. Rejecting traditional connotation and usability, this experience reevaluates preconceptions around the relationship between tableware and the user.
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Jaya is a a London-based graphic designer currently working as a Design Consultant with Tiipoi, a product design studio in London. With a recent postgraduate degree from the University of Arts London, I have since contributed to a variety of design spaces and worked on both collegiate and industry briefs across departments of curation, visual branding and community development.
She has professional experience working with esteemed organisations like the Shawn Carter Foundation, British Council and Hidden Women of Design, and has also contributed to several print publications like Hole & Corner magazine, The Earth Issue and Hakara Journal. Her creative process involves incorporating multi- disciplinary approaches to design enquiry and writing, focusing on evolutions in visual culture and communication.
She is particularly intrigued by experimental type, innovations with printed deliverables, and discursive notions of space and context in the fields of art and design.
Jaya Modi: @jayamodidesign