A chat with miniature food artist Shilpa Mitha
Imagine this. After a hectic day, you are so hungry and grab your phone to place an online order but end up checking your Instagram. Then comes a series of mouthwatering dishes flashing on your screen, splashing a fountain of choices that make you hungrier. Suddenly you realise that the pictures you just saw are not real-dishes, it is someone’s creativity out there. That is how I got to know Shilpa Mitha, a self-made food artisan from Chennai, who made me drool over several life – like dishes, mostly at unusual times.
For 32-year-old Shilpa Mitha, a former Sound Engineer from Chennai, making the finest of miniatures of food to get direct entry in to the hearts of people is her second love. On her Instagram page, Sueño Souvenir, food and finely crafted mini-replicas of dishes is what features prominently. From what according to her is the easiest of dishes, Idli, to the toughest of them all, Rice, Shilpa has found her niche on a variety of cuisines from the Asian sub-continent, as well as others from across the globe. Intriguingly, it all started as a side-hustle with her maiden creation being a burger earring. Today, it is a full-time business for Shilpa as she races against time to meet the demands of an ever-expanding clientele base, with almost 30 orders for handiwork of clay every day.
Curious about her art, we ask Shilpa why food art and comes her reply, “It is the sheer variety one finds across the range.” Shilpa has beautifully crafted a variety of Indian cuisines as well as a wide range of world cuisines. Shilpa’s online venture, which also goes by the same name as her page Sueño Souvenir, has Kerala’s famed Onam Sadhya, spice-laden biryanis, crispy medhu vada, carefully rolled masala dosa and alas, just about everything else that will make you drool. The size of all these dishes is just an inch or so bigger than a coin. Yes, you can balance the dishes at the tip of your finger, that is how small it is but she slays every dish with a real looking craft.
Every dish in her horde is carefully crafted. The clay is kneaded with utmost perfection before it comes to Shilpa’s hand to take the shape of the dish she plans to craft. With her secret equipment and mastery to tackle the terracotta, every detail of the dish is taken care of. The vada pav with that spicy-looking chilly on it, the curd rice dotted with pomegranate, the stacked fry with a splash of oil and the whole-spread of traditional Kerala Sadhya look tastier than ever in Shilpa’s spread. But for these dishes to look easy on the plate, Shilpa spends the entire day or more to bring the perfection she craves in each of them. It is this craft that has won her worldwide acclaim with recognition coming over a short span of time. The popularity of her craft is such that she has been flooded with requests to make favourite cuisines of customers from different walks of life. Every miniature of a cuisine the artist makes is an outcome of extensive research before she starts crafting it.
After a scheduled meeting at a breezy café in Indiranagar and the pleasantries of the ways, when we got into the crux of our tête-à-tête, Shilpa opens up to me about a lot of things in her life- the art, the artist in her and her passion. Shilpa Mitha, who breathes Chennai even in discussions, traces her roots back to the Telugu speaking state. “But I can call myself a true-Madrassi because six generations of us have been born in Chennai,” she says.
The artist from Chennai says she can now comfortably pen down a book about her work. That is how you grow in your profession. Once a sound engineer, who no longer wishes to be associated with the profession, she has found her niche and vocation; not many times you find that happening. While many struggle to find gratification in the job, some like her are lucky to have a job, which is also their passion.
“I think that crafting and moulding are in our blood. My grandmother was also into crafting and later my mom too. It has now come to me. Only thing is that I realised it late. Nevertheless, I am happy that now I am into something that gives me a sense of joy and pride.”
Shilpa, after completing her studies worked for some time in Chennai, but always felt the mojo was missing in her job. Though she used to make figurines and sculptures in her formative years too, the Eureka moment in her life arrived when she found a thing for food. “I realised that there are many miniature artists out there in the world, but my speciality is Indian food, and especially south Indian cuisine. I want to show people that there is more to Indian food.” Shilpa being a gastronome herself says, “We south Indians have a huge variety of dishes. Once I zeroed down on it, there was no looking back. Everything fell in place and here I am. I wanted to create something that I am familiar with.”
Ask Shilpa what she likes to be known as and she is quick to respond – “a miniature artist”. “I am fine with that although, in recent times, some have started identifying me with the tag ‘fake chef’. Well, that gives a mistaken identity as people may think that I make a living by making fake food.”
“This year, I am trying to set up space for myself. I am going a bit slow now at work. It’s also because of my hand.” Shilpa shows me her hand, which has developed Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) due to the repetitive movements and overuse. “I end up working a lot most of the times and this is what I get, I love working.” Shilpa grins widely betraying her thoughts on her work and passion. “I get orders for dosas or idlis in bulk and I work straight 16-18 hours sometimes to complete the order.” Interestingly dosa is the bestselling piece in her assortment. Of course, who doesn’t love a perfectly round, golden-hued, crispy dosa? And when it’s in the hands of Shilpa, dosas and idlis come out the best. Unfortunately, it cannot be eaten.
That immediately led to my next question, the real chef in Shilpa! How do you rate the real chef in you? She says “zero”. “While I can make the perfect dosa and idlis at my fingertips, I don’t enter the kitchen where all the actions happen in real life.” “I am supposed to be making a lot of other stuff in “my kitchen”. But I have eventually realised that if I have to keep up the quality and the work, I can’t be making a lot of them.”
Shilpa then pulled a nicely wrapped box [what first seemed like a jewellery box] from her bag, which contained ‘biriyani’. How I wish that was for me or I could chew down without caring for the world. But that was a biriyani which she made for a customer and supposedly also a wedding gift! The dish that she showed me was the size of a coin, which contained biriyani and raita! Oh no, I couldn’t stop drooling over that tiny plate sitting on my palm.
“Making rice is the toughest task because each grain that goes into the plate has to be made individually. I wouldn’t say dosa is the easiest. But I think my hands are just good at it.”
After crafting the pieces, Shilpa herself captures it on camera. “I tried involving a professional photographer, but it didn’t work out. While they come up with so many other technicalities, my only aim is to capture it artistically and want it to look real. I am doing it all alone now and it is going fine.” Shilpa also does not like to involve anybody in the process of making her dishes as well. “I think somewhere I am a quibbler. Though my mom helps with the kneading of the clay, I don’t involve her in making it.” Shilpa no longer keeps a count of the pieces she makes. “Dosa alone must have crossed 2,000,” she struts her stuff with a proud smile on her face. “Then this thought of not having a personal life started to bother me,” Shilpa laughs loudly and continues, “I no longer have that feeling. I took some time out of my work to pamper myself and now I desperately want to get back to my work. I have realised that work is the only thing that gives me immense pleasure.”
Shilpa has been creating food miniatures for eight years now. It started in 2011 after her friends appreciated a burger earring which she made. She is now learning pottery making so that she can advance her skills in her art. “Maybe then I can start making coastal cuisines in the earthen pot, how they actually make that in Kerala,” she says.
Yet she is not ready to rest on her laurels.
“I get ideas mostly from the food I eat or sometimes what I see. It’s not always that I have to look for it. It just happens. I make something and then I click a picture and see if that’s what I wanted. Sometimes I also put up on Instagram and get feedback.” Ask Shilpa what tools she uses to make these amazing works of art, she just laughs. “Many are actually surprised to see my tools. I have these needle-kind of tools which I use for rolling and other stuff.”
Though the tools and crafts she makes are small in appearance, making them is not an easy task. “Everything in that plate has to be perfect, the colour and the texture. I have to keep all that in mind when I am at work.” A lot of research also goes into making each of these pieces that we drool over. Shilpa’s Facebook and Instagram pictures can make you go hungry.
Shilpa also has plans to expand her online business. “I want the brand to be known by my name. That is my next stop.” Sueno, the name she has opted to use means ‘dream’ in Spanish. And true to the name, she is living her dream with miniature pieces that are incredible. Coming to the end of our conversation, I am prodded to toss her a picture of another famed north Kerala dish that I often crave. It is a challenge I am sure Shilpa will make a mockery of in sometime and put it up there on her wall for the world to relish, literally.