W Power 2024

An Onam feast featuring AI and a jackfruit murder

A modern-day sadhya brings two star chefs and a historian together, as they use food and artificial intelligence to tell stories set in Travancore, in the world of one of India's finest painters, Raja Ravi Varma. Expect lust, betrayal, murder... and a surprising banana-leaf spread

Pankti Mehta Kadakia
Published: Aug 29, 2023 01:01:28 PM IST
Updated: Aug 29, 2023 01:31:34 PM IST

An Onam feast featuring AI and a jackfruit murderAI-generated image: While the menu strays from a traditional Onam sadhya, it aims to represent more than just the Malayali community of Kerala. It looks to highlight the state’s diversity, which includes, for instance, its Muslim and Christian populace too.
 
When you think of an Onam feast, it’s unlikely that you will expect blood spatters on your plate.

Enter the world of Raja Ravi Varma, one of India’s most celebrated artists, who was born into an aristocratic family at the Kilimanoor Palace in Travancore, now part of Kerala. Screens set across The Bombay Canteen in Mumbai will use artificial intelligence (AI) and digital art to transport those who walk in to the palace courtyards of the 1800s, for an Onam with a twist.

In a ‘dinner with a show’ experience, historian Manu Pillai will orate the hidden histories of Kerala, using AI images for visual effect, and along with each story, diners will be served a related food item, crafted by chefs Hussain Shahzad (executive chef, Hunger Inc, which runs The Bombay Canteen) and Manu Chandra (founder-partner at Manu Chandra enterprises, which runs Lupa in Bengaluru).

While the menu strays from a traditional Onam sadhya, it aims to represent more than just the Malayali community of Kerala. It looks to highlight the state’s diversity, which includes, for instance, its Muslim and Christian populace too.

“There’s a particular story centred on a Raja Ravi Varma painting, which is about a murder that took place in Travancore, in the royal family,” Shahzad says. “So the key ingredient of that dish is also the key ingredient of the murder—jackfruit. It’s a take on the steamed rice dumpling of the Malabar Muslim community, which you don’t often find in mainstream restaurants. The dish tells the story of the murder in different ways too.”

The menu, then, features creations including ‘banana-kappa crackling’, erissery hummus, inji puli choux with curry leaf cream, for appetisers. For mains, diners can expect morning glory and mung parippu curry along with broccoli olan gratin with ash gourd mornay and chargrilled broccoli; bone marrow and short rib ularthiyathu, with 18 hour-braised ribs, charred chilly and fennel spice. And for dessert, jaggery chatti pathiri 'crepe cake' with black jaggery caramel, and more.

Also read: Sacred simplicity and the Tamizh way of life

Spotlight on the South

This Onam event is the first of a series called ‘True South’, which aims to marry food, technology and storytelling to propagate the rich culture of South India, beyond the clichés. The series is the result of a collaboration between news explainer platform Splainer, food magazine Enthucutlet (run by Hunger Inc), and Stumble, a platform to foster culture and creativity.

An Onam feast featuring AI and a jackfruit murderRaja Ravi Varma’s Feast of Wonders AI Art by artist Ari Jayaprakash

The AI artworks are by Ari Jayaprakash, a prominent member of the underground art movement in India, who hails from the endangered Badaga tribe in the Nilgiris. The series is supported by Zomato Live, Godawan, and Bailey’s Irish Cream.

“The idea is to reveal the hidden histories of South India, and use them to break through stereotypes. I think South India has been reduced to Kanjivaram saris and Kamal Haasan and KGF; we want to show what a rich and wonderful history and culture the southern region has,” says Lakshmi Chaudhry, founder and CEO of Splainer. “Raja Ravi Varma is intimately woven into Kerala’s culture. You can’t talk about Kerala without talking about him.”

What the team was clear about, says Chandra, was that the events would need to be a ‘bit of a production’.

“The North has been done to death in cultural representations, especially as far as food is concerned,” he adds. “In the past few years, people are suddenly sitting up and taking notice of the south, genuinely curious about the culture, especially thanks to its cinema. We wanted to create an intellectual property that takes that narrative into a very tangible format, one that addresses intellectualism but also creates an immersive experience. And Onam is just a starting point.”

The team hopes to take True South across the country, and to leverage technology in ways that bring fresh experiential dining formats. “We want people to feel a little dazzle, a sense of wonder that’s missing these days,” Chaudhry says.

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