Picture Perfect?

Mikaela Choo discusses the rising popularity of the Instagram food trend.

Instagram foods aren’t just fads. They’re changing the way we eat. They set the ideal – in the case of breakfast, that means acai bowls and avocado toast. They’re changing the way restaurants serve food. It no longer comes down to flavour or technical skills. Culinary flair has to manifest itself in a new way: it has to be instagrammable.

Restauranteurs are pushed to create new hybrid foods with the magical X factor that will propel their menu to Instagram fame. They ask themselves, “how many different ways can we incorporate sushi into non-sushi foods?”* (*An infinite amount – you’ve heard of the sushi burrito, but have you heard of the sushi croissant? The sushi doughnut? The sushi pizza?) It’s less about flavour and more about presentation. Each dish needs to WOW. These inspired innovation pushes the boundaries of food types into a new frontier. But this can also come at a cost.

Here’s the truth about Instagram foods. Towering burgers are more likely to make your jaw ache than make your jaw drop. Flavourless raindrop cakes give new meaning to the term “transparent gimmick.” And it turns out that eating raw cookie dough might make you sick – or at least, that’s the basis of the class-action lawsuit the Instagram famous store Cookie Do was slapped with in 2017. (Raw food is bad for you? Who would’ve guessed?) Yet, the demand for Instagram foods remains unwavering. So, why do we still eat this stuff up?

The answer lies in presentation. Instagram foods are undeniably visually arresting – just try not to smile whilst looking at a rainbow bagel being cooked in the oven. Presentation has always been a crucial part of the culinary experience. In fact, the saying that “we eat with our eyes first” can be traced back to Apicius, the 1st century Roman gourmand. In a sense, Instagram food trends are simply a modern-day reflection of the age-old importance of presentation, albeit a little more over the top. But the difference is that Instagram, at its core a picture-sharing platform, has created an avenue for the emphasis to be overly skewed towards the visual aesthetics. As the head chef of Lyle’s in London, James Lowe, puts it, Instagram foods might amount to “cooking for pictures” rather than cooking for taste.

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For instagrammers, it’s also about making a statement of status. Instagram foods are a symbol. On the higher end of the spectrum, you have the Manila Social Club’s champagne doughnut, which is decorated with 24 karat edible gold leaf and is priced at an exorbitant 100 US dollars. But even your garden variety Instagram foods are still fundamentally about acquisition, and showing off that acquisition. A drool-worthy post tells your followers that you’ve been there and eaten that. It’s a moment to show off your enviable status, presented in a carefully crafted photo with natural light.All signs point to style beating substance. But this doesn’t mean food is going to have to join homeownership and the diamond industry in the very long list of things millennials have already ruined. At the end of the day, food still has a standard of taste. The novelty of a particular pretty Instagram food trend can only last so long. Restauranteurs are going to have to continue supplying substance to keep people coming back for more. Even then, aesthetic pleasure has its value in and of itself. Seeking out new culinary experiences can be nourishing for the soul. Trying the latest Instagram food trend can inject a sense of fun and excitement into an otherwise monotonous rotation of the dining hall menu. With aesthetic Instagram foods, it looks the way you wished it tasted – and that can be enough. In the anticipation leading up to the actual eating, I’m excited to try something new. In the process of capturing the perfect picture, I’m relishing my food. And sometimes, that’s all I really want out of a culinary experience.

So maybe Instagram food is just a sparkly lie. But if it’s a luxury we can still generally afford to treat ourselves to, then why not indulge in a bit of fantasy?