The Hues of A Palate

The history of food colouring, and how it designed most of what the mind understands and perceives of the plate today. 

By Madhulika Dash

A few years ago when Chef Vikas Seth, Culinary Director, Sanchez, decided to give the popular tortilla a colour upgrade, it seemed like an obvious routine. For decades, doing coloured food to celebrate the spirit and occasion of holi has become a norm of sorts in dining spaces. Chef Seth's move to colour the tacos and tortillas was hence understandable. 

What the Mexican specialist did differently though was the way he went about “Holi-fying” his food. Away from the trend of turning food into a colour palate of the gulal, Chef Seth's decided to laboriously hand paint each of the tortillas before they sat on a griddle resulting in what was described as “art on plate.”

Hand Painted and How

Time consuming though, the decision paid off as three years down that day, this limited edition Holy Taco continues to be a best-seller of the season, and for good reason. The hand painted tortillas aren't just an aesthetic upgrade but deliver in taste as well. Buoyed by the success, Chef Seth's team this year decided to push the envelope further by trying the same with baos. The result was akin to a cassata, just steamed, fluffy and with filling. 

Here too each bao is hand painted with a selection of colours before it is proved and then baked resulting in what can be easily described as a colour palette of pastel colours. But aesthetics of the bao is just one facet of this Holi special that Chef Seth will be serving at its oriental place, Sriracha, the real wonderment of the Chinese bao is in its taste and, adds the chef, “the fact that everything about this limited edition meal is made from scratch, and is au naturel – and that includes the colours too, which are made from various vegetables in-house.”

Like many chefs of his cadre, Chef Seth too has been an early advocate of going local and that includes  using local produce to give dishes its vibrant visual appeal. As someone who comes from a culinarily rich family and has been working closely with researchers, historians and farmers, Chef Seth kitchens are a sustainable example of not only the way to go local without compromising on the taste but also how to turn localisation into a sustainable practice – an aspect for which he heavily draws inspiration from his travels that include understanding traditional technique and its adaptation to present times. 


Cranking Up the Visual & Taste

One such technique that he has his team have spent time understanding, adapting and then mastering is that of natural hues. Says Chef Seth, “the beauty about growing up in an Indian household is that you always are aware of how natural colouring is an integral part of our food system. We have been using the wonderment of turmeric, chillies, saffron, spinach and beetroot for eons to give our tables that burst of colour, and still when it came to the world of modern dining, much of our dependence has been on synthetic dyes courtesy William Henry Perkin who discovered the first coal tar dye called mauve.”

Add to that the frantic creations of new colours and the wide use of them in food units, he continues, “and our idea of food colour and the way we perceive food as a result of the same has been altered. So much so that natural hues often appear to be watered down versions of these dyes that lent a dish or an ingredient its visual appeal and vibrancy. An excellent example of this is the red velvet cake and even the rainbow cake or the puddings, jellies and jams that are so popularly used.”


The History of Food Colour

Which brings us to the question of when and how food colour originated? An obvious answer in the past is Emperor Shah Jahan, who according to most of the accounts available, was the first Mughal king to have loved and even patronised hues on his table – a trend that many believe came from the Middle East where it was a standard fare. 

A further dig into the past brings out the name of Empress Nur Jahan, who is said to have popularised the use of itar, infused water like kewra and gulab, and colour in food. After all, she was the first empress to change the royal fashion from the subtle shades of white, cream and browns into a kaleidoscope of pastel and happy colours. And as per many tales, ran not just Sarais but also natural dye units that used traditional know-how of painters and rangdars to create a variety of hues that a cloth could be dyed into. 

Interestingly, it was a time when natural colours dominated not just the food space, but the art, textile and artiste space as well. Back in the day, the colours used were most extracted from plants or natural rocks and minerals including lead, but care was given while choosing what to colour and in what quantity. 


Dates Beyond The Mughals

Mostly, says late historian Dr Ashish Chopra, “the food colouring used was plant based. Flowers, roots, shoots and even green leafy vegetables were identified that bled their shade and then techniques ranging from boiling, reducing, crushing, fermenting, pureeing and even roasting were used to get the desired shade.”


What came handy were the spices like salt, lemon juice, baking soda, soy, milk and such, says Chef Seth, “that would help create the whole palette of shades of a single colour. Thus, giving a wide range of food colours to use in medieval times, which for India too was a time when food colouring  evolved and shaped much of our understanding and perception about a dish.”

And while medieval times is often described as the era when food became more colourful, courtesy  Nuska e Shahjani and Manasollasa among others who describe such dishes with great gusto and fanfare, including ones where the coconut shell was burned before serving as a vessel for the delicacy as it could impart a different shade and aroma; or where lemon juice or salt were used to create a different shade of yellow, a colour that ancient India extracted from cow's urine that were stuffed on certain mango leaves resulting in a bright yellow secretion. 


The extracted yellow interestingly travelled the world and gave paintings across the world, its bright sunny shade. Likewise was the case with red, which for a long time was extracted from cochineal, a parasite, till we discovered chillies and the Kashmiri cockscomb made its way into mainland India as dried herbs. Of course, food wise there were flowers like tesu ke phool and hibiscus, says culinary adventurist and seasoned Chef Nimish Bhatia, who believes that much of our earlier use of food colouring came from edible sources with flowers and greens leading the foray. 

Colour Coding For Effect 

So when did colour become a part of our food perception? Turns out that colour since the beginning of our civilisation has been a predominant factor in not just attracting us to food as early hunters and foragers but also the indicators of what to avoid. It is this inherent knowledge that for most part of the early history shaped our understanding and perception about food, and in some manner still does. Colour coding that began early on, says Chef Bhatia, “eventually went on to shape the many ethos of the dining space today. Like for instance, red wine with red meat. The sauces with certain pastas, and in the Indian context, the difference in one mutton curry to another. In fact, that colour coding which encapsulated both visual appeal and taste context determined how colouring would be used in certain dishes.”


It is that understanding, says Chef Seth, “that determines where purees are used or where the puree needs a little help with flavourings that change the colour. Like for instance the pastel shade of purple in our baos and tortillas come from the use of a bit of soya in the extraction of purple cabbage, likewise the nice burgundy tone and that natural green hue, is created by adding baking powder, salt or lemon juice to a certain vegetable puree.”

Colouring Moods and Taste 

The secret that our ancestors not only helped us devise but used the knowledge effectively to create food that became the gold standard of not just how we perceive food, taste and pairing but also experience the sensory-wellness pattern too. Today that colour coding remains in the realm of rituals where Sundays are for red and pink, and Wednesdays for greens and so forth. 


Kamasutra, one of the easily misunderstood art of living books, Samhitas and Vedas in fact bring forth as to how colours were used in food for the all round effect. A simple ritualistic drink like the haldi ka doodh or modern day turmeric latte that was created to utilise the healing, warm properties of turmeric was tweaked to serve a variety of purposes for different occasions. 

That was until kesar or saffron came into the picture and took a more prominent role as an aphrodisiac. Similarly with buttermilk. While the curd by-product was a popular,  easy on the stomach dairy variant back in the day, was used to create the earliest examples of how colour became the benchmark for both appeal and taste. And the variant that did was panaka, where berries and fruits would be pulverised along with buttermilk to create the first smoothie that was identified with its colour. 

The Evolution of Food Hues


The brilliance of early years of food colouring vis-a-vis today, say Chef Seth and Chef Bhatia together, “was its natural or by need use. Haldi that today seems to be a defacto flavourant and colourant in every dish was used when the need arose or if moved the healing properties a notch higher. 

A lot of aroma and fragrance came from the use of the right vessel, camphor, jaggery, sour fruits like kodampuli, citrus fruit like lime and lemon and of course flowers that served the dual purpose of visual brilliance, aroma and appetite building. The discovery of new ingredients like chillies and tomatoes only added to this traditional practice.”

Food cooked much into the Middle Ages in India depended on the region one lived in. As per the ancient Tamil literature like Canka llakkiyam, it was divided thus: Direct fire cooking for those in Kurinji and Mullar (Mountain and Forest) regions; Frying and drying (curing too) for those in Pala and Nathal (desert and coastal regions) and steaming and boiling in Murutham (agriculture mainland). Food colouring followed the same pattern too. 

Mostly, says Dr Chopra, “cooking time and technique was devised to keep the natural colour intact with an exception for stews that took on hues as per the vegetables and meat/rice blend.” 

Of Great Dynasties & Colour Palette 

Much like culture, food colouring too came into prominence with dynasty rules, especially the great ones who could harbour peace and maintain a large empire. Both the factors ensured flourishing culture and trade (and marriage alliance) that opened the field to different influences across the country for cooks to experiment with colours. 

To the north, it was the Mughals and Rajputs who took precedence during medieval times, and down South, that was shared by the trinity or Chola Chalukyas and Pandyas. Later on, the baton of creating colourful dishes was taken up by the Nawabs, not just of Awadh but across India, Begums of Bhopal, and the Nizams with heavy influence from Europe and later industrialisation as well. 

Fascinatingly, says Chef Seth, “much of what came as part of our later colonial era influence was driven by industrialisation and was heavy on commercial made superficial dyes. Even the yellowness of butter and the wine red jams and jellies, and chocolate hue (or at least what we identify today as) was the handiwork of a lab produced dye. So was the pink of strawberry and blueberries that wasn't simply possible naturally.”

The result, our modern perception of food designed by these colours as the natural hues began taking a backseat. Thankfully much like France where the use of lead in food colouring caused a ban in as early as the 17th century, Indians too woke up to the disaster of artificial food colouring, albeit in the recent past. 

Novelty no more

The reason, say the experts, “was a combination of both convenience and the miniscule amount used to create brilliant, happy, appetite building perception that works the memory bank into finding a food exciting – that is till you taste.”


The change from synthetic to natural came in the past few years, says Chef Seth, “initially due to the novelty, then trend, and then as a need to change to healthier choices. And while natural hues are just at a furlong of where the synthetic food colouring is today, with very little working on its side, courtesy the laborious process of making it and the final result, it still continues to hold the one thing that hues in food are meant to do: make the dish visually attractive that helps the mind to create the excitement of taste, which leads to the anticipation of a happy experience.”

Much like Chef Seth's Holi Bao!