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Food doesn't have to be pretty. Anyone who's had curry and rice slopped onto a banana leaf in southern India would know that. Just because it doesn't look good, doesn't mean it won't taste amazing.
Some of the best food in the world is also the ugliest.
There are, however, countries where they take the presentation of their cuisine just was seriously as the produce itself. The old adage "you eat with your eyes" applies in these places – where food isn't just sustenance and taste, but an art form.
If you like your food to look pretty, this is where you need to travel.
When it comes to immaculately, lovingly presented food, Japan has no peer. It's daylight second. Every single dish in this amazing country, from those served in three-Michelin-star restaurants to those on the shelf of the local convenience store, looks perfect. The attention to detail is almost freakish. Every meal seems to contain at least seven or eight separate elements thoughtfully and neatly arranged to form a visual as well as gastronomic feast. Food truly is an art form in Japan, and you almost feel bad for taking a pair of chopsticks and destroying it. Almost.
If you go down to a local Peruvian "chifa", or Chinese restaurant, you won't get pretty food. Even your average restaurant is not going to produce anything stunning. However, there's a movement in Peru, particularly Lima, led by the likes of Gaston Acurio (Astrid y Gaston) and Virgilio Martinez (Central Restaurant) towards original, affordable haute cuisine, with the sort of presentation you'd expect to find in the fanciest Parisian eatery. Peru leads the way in South American cuisine – it's only a matter of time before the rest of the world discovers it.
You can't have a culinary tradition like that of France with ugly food. It would be like having a shabbily dressed Parisian. It just doesn't happen. This is a nation of style, from fashion to cuisine. From the simple visual perfection of a croissant to the fine-dining dishes created by the likes of Joel Robuchon and Paul Bocuse, the French take time and effort to make delicious food look just as impressive. Add a glass of red wine and you have everything you need.
This diverse country has beautifully presented food in just about every corner. Maybe it's a lovingly prepared paella in Valencia, or a perfect little tapas plate in Seville; it could be a whole Iberico ham on a bar-top in Madrid, or the tiny deliciousness of a single pintxo in San Sebastian. Some of the world's best restaurants are in Spain, the likes of Arzak and Etxebarri, places that have pioneered food styles and presentation. This is a nation that loves and appreciates cuisine – and they take the time to make it look good.
Want the perfect sample of simple, attractive Moroccan food? Order a "nous-nous", or "half-half", a drink that's half coffee and half milk. It will be served in a tulip-shaped glass, a flawless half-and-half of dark coffee and light milk. It's perfection in a glass. And this is stuff served at the dodgiest little streetside café. Wait until you see the restaurants' tajines: conical-lidded pots filled with chicken and preserved lemon, or meatballs and eggs, swimming in tasty oil, and irresistible.
Traditional food is simple in Argentina. Often it's a single hunk of steak, unadorned by vegetables or salad. Just a blackened, charred hunk of meat on a white plate. Fries might be served on the side. And it all looks amazing. Then, of course, you've got the modern cuisine, the Japanese-Peruvian fusion restaurants of Buenos Aires, the molecular gastronomy, the star chefs taking on influences from the Japanese. That makes for some seriously good-looking food.
If you've dined at any of the Din Tai Fung restaurants in Sydney, then you'll already appreciate the attention to detail that goes into Taiwanese cuisine. Dumplings are weighed to 0.1 of a gram; they're presented in exquisite arrays in bamboo steaming pots. Most of the food you find in Taiwan is served in a similarly attractive way, and you don't need to go far to find the good stuff: just check out any food court in a major shopping mall.
Good Italian food is all about simplicity, and presentation is tackled the same way. This isn't a country that goes crazy with bubbles of molecular gastronomy or splashes of squeezy-bottle sauces. It's just great produce – rich red tomatoes, white mozzarella, shavings of prosciutto de San Daniele, fat green Sicilian olives – presented so that it's the food that's the star, not the chef. For the ultimate in foodie voyeurism, take a walk through the Eataly department store in Testaccio, Rome. It's heaven.
How to take better food photos
Want to post pics of your meals while you're travelling to make your friends jealous? Professional food photographer Kristoffer Paulsen offers his top five tips.
Flash. Turn it off. Unless you can replicate the ol' Terry Richardson look, or you're using a DSLR with a bounce head, it'll look awful and you'll annoy other diners. Use natural light. Food almost always looks better with natural light coming from one side (preferably behind). If you know you're going to want to shoot your food, ask for a seat near the window. Natural side light gives texture and contrast, whereas light from above or all around flattens things out and does the opposite. If your shadows are too harsh try using a white napkin to fill the shadows a little (and get ready for the looks).
In my opinion, food never looks good under moody restaurant lighting. It looks yellow and awful; a bad representation of the dish, and insulting to the poor chef if those photos go on social media. If you must take pictures of your food at night with your smart phone, think about getting something like the awesome new Expose light by Melbourne company, Knog. You can side light it and it'll look great.
I almost always tweak my photos with some kind of app before posting them anywhere. This is the same with my professional images from my DSLR, so it makes sense that the images from a phone won't be any better! Spend a few bucks on an app like After Light, VSCO Cam or Alt-Photo and learn how to use it. Think about contrast, white balance and sharpness. It's amazing how even some of the presets in these Apps can bring a dull image to life.
Be sensitive to your surroundings. Don't be the one with the big camera blazing away and forbidding others from eating before you've got "the shot". Leave eating cold food to the professionals (like me!). Eating out is a wonderful thing, and you should enjoy the experience, rather than being a knob with a camera.
I get wannabe foodies follow me on Instagram all the time, and their feeds are awful. Just badly composed sad brown blobs on big white plates. When I shoot food, I want try to make it look like a memory someone could have had. I want to make it look like you could sit down, grab a fork and eat. It's about the story. Rumple a napkin, hang a fork off the side of a plate. Froth up a beer a little. Drop a bit of salt on the table. The key to creating a story in an image is the human element. Without it, it's just a boring plate of food. Have fun with it!
Things like focus point, aperture and shutter speed are really important if you're using a DSLR or even a point and shoot. If you're shooting from the side, try to focus on the protein. If you want to create a sense of depth, go for a smaller depth of field (f stop number). Never go below 1/60th of a second shutter speed to keep things sharp.
Do you post pics of your meals when travelling? Where have you eaten the prettiest meal on your travels? Post your comments below.