Visual Appetite

Interactive treat into the culinary culture of Assam

Understanding the relationship between generating a concept and applying it to a context while teaching/learning design.
Sharing with you a thought which was born under the pressure to answer an argument generated out of a student’s question, that “why at all, was it necessary to study the aesthetics of Indian thali and what would be the outcome of such an effort.” Documenting the trouble of answering the ‘why audience’ who keep on questioning even before understanding the topic.
At times, it becomes difficult to answer the questions of the ‘why audiences’, who are interested in jumping to conclusions, rather than enjoying the act of exploring unvisited areas or in other words, delaying judgement. Apart from inductive and deductive methods of approaching a design solution, exploration has to be understood as a process, which is based on assumptions; let it not be suppressed by the thought of predetermining conclusions or demanding a rationale even before beginning the work. One has to understand the act of exploration as a free and open mind, which can reframe problems rather than answering solutions. Such mindsets can position ourselves, to look at the problem from different perspectives and lead us into raising new questions and therefore finding new answers.


The matrix of Indian cuisine is quite complex and much more than just satisfying one’s appetite. Therefore a serious effort needs to be made to make a person aware and sensitive about the associations a dish creates within a culture. The concern of this paper is primarily about;

a.) Whether menu cards in Indian restaurants are competent enough to verbally describe, the visual richness inherited by a meal and

b.) How the traditional legacies of a cuisine culture can be revisited (from a design perspective) to blend them in the current context of technology, with a notion of preserving their existence.

Cultural Journeys

The culinary art in India is spread across 28 different states each having an identity of its own, enriching the great Indian cuisine. Diversity of Indian cuisine is not just unique to a particular state, but also in the food items of a single meal. It is this complexity of regional food in India, which makes it truly fascinating. The Indigenous tradition of meals in India has given lunch and dinner a formal visual identity, linguistically represented by the lexical term Thali. (See Fig.1)
Figure 1: Assamese Thali, Picture shot at Akhaj restaurant, Zoo road, Guwahati, Assam, INDIA
Thali is a circular metal plate or banana leaf in which lunch and dinner is served in India. It consists of small bowls, each containing different delicacies harmoniously clubbed together to form a single meal. Eating from a thali is quite common in most parts of India and usually, name of the state precedes the word thali for it to be identified from that particular state for e.g., a thali from ‘Assam’ (a state in the northeastern part of India), will be termed as ‘Assamese thali’*. Having lunch or dinner from a thali in an Indian restaurant could be a more meaningful experience, if designers consider the ramifications of Indian cuisines, which can lead through cultural journeys, much and more beyond, than just serving one’s appetite. Dining can be made a more engaging experience if we are able to sense and feel the traditional scents of Indian cuisine, which are currently void in the restaurant menu cards. The aim is of finding a way into the Indian cuisine and culture through a thali.

*Though the Assamese culture did not have a concept of thali, and the visual arrangement is borrowed from the other parts of India, as tourists flocked to these regions of the country. Assamese have a plate raised from the ground similar to a ‘Xorai’ (the traditional artefact), and smaller vessels around the main plate with the same raised structure but on a smaller scale. You can see such plates only in Assamese marriages but have become a rare scene these days.  
Visual appetite booklet photograph

Manacles of Language 

Every ‘name’ has its own inherent strength to express what it signifies. With this strength, the name tries to encapsulate its meaning and picture in the viewer’s mind. It often happens that we know someone by his name, but actually have never met him. Unless we meet him in person, we keep on trying to visualize/ guess his personality, which sometimes meets our expectations or leaves us surprised. This is quite applicable to anything, be it, a place, person or a thing.
Figure 2. A diner at a restaurant struggling to visualize a food item in verbal medium (menu-card) against the visual (reality).

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UPDATED: 16 JULY. 2021
Mandar Rane
Prof. Mandar Rane
Communication Design
Faculty IDC, IIT Bombay
The paper discusses rationalizing visual design decisions which appear subjective.
Students of the Department of Design, IIT Guwahati, Assam, INDIA