This food can’t be eaten

Artist Shilpa Mitha's appetite for crafting miniature food is big

Mini meals

What happens when electronic engineering is combined with audio engineering razzmatazz, bharatanatyam, Carnatic music, and contemporary Western music? The result is Sueno Souvenir, the brainchild of engineer-turned-artist Shilpa Mitha.

The artist creates miniature food magnets including that of tri-colour vada pav idli, pongal, mini-tiffin (popularised by the likes of Saravana Bhavan) and biriyani.

Mitha sensed an opportunity in this space early on. “While there is a big market for souvenir magnets abroad, in India, this market was almost non-existent,” she says.

And while the beginnings go to 2013, the breakthrough came last year when her sadhya magnets went viral. Sadhya means ‘feast’ in Malayalam and all the items are prepared in large quantities for weddings and special events. The main dishes are plain boiled rice, served with other dishes collectively called kootan. “It is difficult create it because of the many dishes and the intricacies involved,” she recalls. The sadhya magnets were followed by the tri-colour vada pav magnets, which also went viral on Independence Day, 2017.

 In the making

Mitha uses air dry clay, which is translucent, for making the preliminary shape. Post drying, the formation is coloured using acrylic paints. To give an appetising look to the product, she varnishes the miniatures.

With food presentation being the order of the day, Mitha ensures that her miniatures look real. So, the pepper pods and curry leaves for the pongal miniatures are made separately, as are the onion slices for the ‘naan and paneer butter masala’ dish.

Mitha searches extensively for images online before zooming in on the right one for her reference. “One of the toughest to make was biriyani because of its varieties across India, and in a miniature, I had to get every grain accurately. Even making the traditional ellai sappadu (traditional banana leaf meal in Tamil Nadu), miniature is tough as there are many elements involved.”

While she has honed her skills in making these miniatures and can make a dosa using air dry clay in flat 30 minutes, she holds the sadhya magnets and ellai sappadu as real challenges.

Nevertheless, the ‘wedding feast’ miniature was internalised by her in her childhood. Her family has a tradition of keeping golu, the festive display of dolls and figurines, particularly around Navaratri.

“As a child, I  loved the kalyana sappadu set (the wedding feast),” she recollects. The Kumbakarna doll set was another favourite. Here, the sleeping giant was surrounded by mouth-watering dishes on all sides. “Somehow, these images got fixed in my mind,” she remembers.

As the years went by, Mitha graduated in engineering (electronics and communication) from SRM College in Chennai, in 2008. This was followed by a diploma in audio engineering. The engineer-turned-artist worked in a couple of studios. In her free time, she took to quilling. “Passion for arts runs deep in my family. My mother is into craft- making of all kinds, and she has also conducted various hobby classes for it.” Paper quilling gave way to burger earrings in April 2013, and perhaps the big moment also arrived with it. “The burger is a layered food and involves a lot of textures,” says Mitha. After that, there was no looking back. They opened a whole new world of miniatures ranging from idly, dosa, pongal, bajji, biriyani, filter coffee to Chicken 65 magnets.

This was not all. For a lot of items, trial-and-error was involved. “Like cashew nuts. They are used as decoration in many food items. I made my miniature cashew nuts a shade darker. That resulted in the roasted cashew nut colour coming out,” she says. Her customers are mostly 20-plus working professionals who use these as gifts. Mitha is also learning how to sell her wares over the internet effectively. Currently, she uses Instagram to post dates for her next online shopping festival. “This way, I manage my orders much better. When it goes live, it’s like Tatkal booking! I don’t claim to be a good cook, but I can certainly imitate well,” beams Mitha.

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