Brown Food Isn’t Photogenic, but It’s Delicious

In our Instagrammable age, are we neglecting flavorful browned dishes?

On July 16, 2010, Kevin Systrom posted a few images taken at a taco stand in Baja California on a new photo-sharing app he had co-founded. The first was a picture of a scrawny-looking yellow puppy. The second showed part of a plate of food on a woven raffia mat. The mat was brown. The food, in what looks like a shallow brown terracotta bowl, was reddish-brown with pieces of something yellow and a smear of something white. It could well have been a plate of chilaquiles — tortilla pieces in a red chile sauce with either crema or an egg on top.

Systrom’s app evolved into something called Instagram, and that unidentified — and mostly brown — image is considered to have been Instagram’s first-ever food photo. It was not the last.

There are more than 210 million Instagram posts with the hashtag #foodporn. According to one survey, 69 percent of Americans between 18 to 34 have taken a photo or video of their food before eating it. Much has been written, of course, about the ways in which chefs have responded to the phenomenon by trying to make their dishes as beautiful and/or unusual-looking as possible — and at least sometimes paying more attention to the way things look than to the way they taste.

I started writing about food a dozen years or so before Systrom was born. In those days, unless they were shooting professionally, almost nobody took pictures of food — because why would your family or friends care what you had for lunch? In that era, if you did want to photograph something you were about to eat, you’d have to load film into your camera, adjust the settings, use a flash or a strobe, shoot up a whole roll, drop it at a camera shop or Fotomat booth, then come back later to pick up the prints.

I’m not saying that nobody paid any attention to the way food looked in those days. It was commonplace to comment on the attractive presentation at sushi bars; French chefs in upscale restaurants had always favored decorative garnishes, and adopted an ever more refined aesthetic with the advent of nouvelle cuisine; “new American” chefs, especially in California, produced beautiful dishes simply by virtue of the brightness of their baby greens, the luminosity of their heirloom tomatoes.

But a lot of food we ate back then was brown — from the French onion soup and the crusty baguette to the charred rare ribeye and the crisp french fries, from the General Tso’s chicken to the cheese enchiladas — and nobody seemed to mind, or even really to notice.

Nice-looking food pleases the eye, but not always the palate. Bright hues and artistic squiggles are sometimes just razzle-dazzle.

Some foods are naturally brown — cinnamon, chestnuts, almonds, some mushrooms, some figs, the skins of some potatoes, soy sauce. Others become brown though enzymatic reactions, as with grapes turning to raisins or coffee or cocoa beans darkening as they age (or, less appealingly, as with apple slices or halved avocados turning color with exposure to the air).

Non-enzymatic reactions have more universally appreciated results. One of these is caramelization, which is the result of pyrolysis. This is a process that occurs when foods are heated beyond their decomposition temperature, shattering the chemical bonds in their molecules. They become sweeter as a result, developing an attractive nutty flavor and often a golden-brown glow. Everything tastes better caramelized.

The Maillard reaction — named for French chemist Louis-Camille Maillard, who first described it in 1912 — is a different kind of non-enzymatic browning. This is the result of an interaction between amino acids and sugars in food, and creates color, flavor, and aroma in everything from steak on the grill to bread in the oven to the malted barley used for brewing beer.

I’m not sure I ever really thought consciously about how much food is brown until the 1980s, when I started working on my first cookbook, “Catalan Cuisine.”

Many Catalan dishes, at least those from the pre-Ferran Adrià era, are based on two things — the sofregit and the picada. The sofregit, related to the sofrito in other parts of Spain and Latin America and to Italy’s soffritto, is typically made by cooking chopped onions long and slow in olive oil, often with tomatoes and sometimes leeks added.

The ingredients in a well-made sofregit caramelize, turning into almost a marmalade, golden-brown in color. The sofregit is the first thing that goes into the pot. It’s the way the dish begins — the “once upon a time” of Catalan cooking.

The picada is the last thing added to a dish, the coda, stirred in a minute or two before it comes off the fire. It takes its name from the verb picar, to crush, and is a coarse paste of ingredients pounded and crushed with a mortar and pestle (or, these days, to be honest, more often made with a food processor). Those ingredients vary according to the dish, the region, and the cook, but typically include garlic, parsley, fried bread, olive oil, almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts, and — the surprise guest — chocolate. It thickens the dish slightly and fills in the flavor.

A cuisine whose definitive dishes are so frequently made with caramelized onions and a paste involving chocolate and almonds is not, in the main, likely to be a pretty one. Eating around Catalonia and testing recipes at home, it dawned on me that much of the food — like much traditional food in other parts of the world — was monochromatic and sort of murky-looking.

Wondering if this was going to be a problem for my readers, I ended up including a section called “The Brown Food Problem” in the introduction to my book. In it, I admitted that “Catalan cuisine isn’t very pretty sometimes.” Then I added, “It is food made to be eaten, not admired from a few steps back. Its aim is not to seduce the jaded but to fill and please the hungry — and sometimes the very act of concentrating flavors to this end demands a smudging of the palette.”

I think that’s worth remembering about food in general. Nice-looking food pleases the eye, but not always the taste buds. Bright hues and artistic squiggles are sometimes just razzle-dazzle. Brown is the color of flavor.

Colman Andrews, the winner of eight James Beard Awards, was the co-founder and an editor-in-chief of Saveur and the founding editorial director of TheDailyMeal.com.

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