Meals and Musings: Literature’s Great Plates (and Recipes to Recreate at Home)

Both food and books can be forms of escapism. Inspired by her favourite novels, food designer Imogen Kwok creates four recipes that nourish our minds and bodies. Food for thought, indeed.

Both food and literature have an incredible capacity to immerse us in alternative realities and help us understand perspectives other than our own. Together - by interpreting books in a culinary form - they nourish our minds and bodies.

While our ability to travel is limited, reading helps free us from our routines and surroundings. Exploring the idea of "at-home escapism", I have created recipes in response to food scenes found in four of my favourite novels. These dishes reflect not simply what the characters are eating, but the narrative, themes and settings of each work.

At-home escapism: four recipes inspired by books

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami (1987)

Murakami is known for describing hunger, cooking and eating in his writing - often a description of an everyday dish or ingredient is full of poignant meaning. In Norwegian Wood, the main character, Toru Watanabe, reflects on his tumultuous university days, peppered with uncertainty, untimely deaths and his simultaneous love for two women. One of them, Naoko, suffers nervous breakdowns and is emotionally volatile, while the other, Midori, is outspoken and vivacious.

I'm focusing on the scene in which Midori brings Toru to the hospital, where her father is being treated for cancer. He is weak and frail - "his body was like a dilapidated old house… which awaited now only its final demolition" - and he initially refuses to eat anything offered to him. When Toru starts to eat a cucumber dipped in soy sauce and nori with earnest, unabashed enthusiasm, it motivates the patient to eat too. As the two of them crunch away, Toru proclaims: "It's good when food tastes good. It's kind of like proof you're alive."

In my recipe below, the delicate taste and supple texture of raw scallops represent this touching exchange and the fragile state of Midori's father, who dies five days later. Norwegian Wood revolves around death and its repercussions. The delicate rawness of the crudo, much like the simple, salty cucumber, is a small burst of life, a momentary relief from the loss and grief that otherwise weighs so heavily throughout the book.

Scallop Crudo with Cucumber and Citrus Salad

Serves 4


2 tsp unseasoned rice wine vinegar

1 tsp mirin

1 tbsp Japanese soy sauce

1 lime, juiced

100ml extra virgin olive oil

2 small white grapefruits

4 Persian cucumbers

8 large raw scallops, side muscle removed

Furikake seasoning for garnish (a savoury mixture of dried, ground fish, seeds and nori seaweed - choose a variation without egg as this sometimes is added too)

Flaky sea salt


  1. Make a vinaigrette by whisking together the vinegar, mirin, soy sauce and juice of half the lime, plus a pinch of salt in a large bowl. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary.
  2. Slice off both ends of the grapefruits to expose the flesh. With one flat end down on the cutting board, cut along the curve of the fruit to remove the pith and peel. Then cut into 1cm rounds and place in the bowl of vinaigrette, tossing to combine.
  3. Use a mandolin or sharp knife to carefully cut the cucumbers into very thin rounds and add to the bowl with the vinaigrette and grapefruit.
  4. Cut each scallop into thin rounds - depending on the size, each one should yield 4-5 slices. Squeeze over the remaining lime juice and season with sea salt to taste.
  5. Arrange all the components on a plate, alternating layers of each and garnish with a scattering of the furikake before serving.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)

When it was first published in 1955, Lolita shocked and disturbed many readers - its detailed, harrowing narrative of middle-aged Humbert Humbert's passionate infatuation, seduction and sexual corruption of 12-year-old Dolores "Lolita" Haze remains one of the most controversial books to present day.

In this cocktail, Mela d'Alba (a negroni with apple brandy), sweet calvados is countered by the bitter potency of Campari. It refers to the first time Humbert sexually approaches Lolita as she is eating an "Eden-red apple" - they wrestle over this which leads to her draping her legs across his lap. This fruit is rich with symbolic meaning revolving around temptation, sin and loss of innocence. Despite the reader being repulsed by Humbert's twisted, obsessive adoration, his undeniably beautiful prose and sincerity draws us in, unexpectedly eliciting empathy from the audience. The bittersweet taste of the drink speaks to the nature of the entire affair: filled at once with pleasure, corruption and loneliness.

Mela d’Alba

Serves 1


1 apple

120g granulated sugar

120ml water

60ml calvados

30ml sweet vermouth

30ml Campari


1 lemon


  1. To make the garnish, preheat the oven to 180°C. Set a wire rack in a sheet tray and line with parchment paper.
  2. Use a mandolin or very sharp knife to cut the apple around its equator into very thin slices, about 10mm thick.
  3. Combine the sugar with 120ml cold water in a small saucepan and set over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and whisk until the sugar is completely dissolved then immediately add the cut apple. Cook, swirling the pan often to keep the slices fully submerged until they are translucent and the simple syrup has started to reduce and thicken.
  4. Turn off the heat and use tweezers or tongs to carefully remove the sugar-coated slices and transfer to the prepared sheet tray, spreading them out evenly.
  5. Place the tray in the preheated oven and bake for about 15 minutes until they are golden brown. Set aside and let cool - during this time the sugar glaze will harden and the slices will crisp up nicely.
  6. To make the drink, pour the calvaos, sweet vermouth and Campari into a cocktail shaker (or any tall vessel) with ice and stir to mix. Set a thin-mesh sieve over a glass filled with fresh ice and pour in the cocktail mix.
  7. Add a few squeezes from the lemon, stir again then top with the apple garnish before enjoying.

The Magus by John Fowles (1965)

When Nicholas Urfe, a young Oxford graduate, arrives on a Greek island to teach English at the local school, he is immediately captivated by the landscape. However as he is bathed in sunlight he notices that, while "supremely beautiful… I felt it was hostile. It seemed to corrode, not cleanse". This hints at how Nicholas's world will soon be totally manipulated - dipping in and out of Greek mythology, illusion and theatre - all orchestrated by the mysterious Maurice Conchis, who owns a vast, prosperous estate on the island.

Conchis invites Nicholas to stay with him for the weekend, where he proceeds to entrance him with stories of his past after a dinner of "small fish cooked in wine". This is the inspiration for this recipe of sardines marinated in an aromatic, infused olive oil and red wine vinegar. The distinct briny flavour of sardines recalls the book's seductive island setting and the "shimmering mirageous surface" of the surrounding sea. Slowly pour the oil over the fried fish until they are completely submerged by the viscous liquid - it evokes the insidious way in which Conchis gradually envelops Nicholas into his elaborate "god game".

To truly be transported into the world of The Magus, enjoy this dish with a glass of retsina, the pine-flavoured, light amber wine often being sipped by characters throughout this novel.

Marinated Sardines with Charred Lemon and Red Wine Vinegar

Serves 4


1 lemon, thinly sliced

4 garlic cloves, in their skins and smashed

3 small red chillies

2 fresh bay leaves

1 1/2 tbsp fennel seeds

A few sprigs fresh thyme

100ml olive oil

Red wine vinegar

8 sardines, cleaned, gutted, heads removed and patted dry

1/2 cup AP flour

Olive oil, for frying

Flaky sea salt


  1. Heat a grill pan or cast iron over medium-high heat - once hot, spread out the lemon slices. Don't move until they are caramelised and slightly charred (around 5 minutes). Flip the slices to cook the other side for about 2 minutes, then remove from the pan and set aside.
  2. Combine the garlic, chillies, bay leaf, fennel seeds and thyme in a saucepan and cover with the olive oil. Over low heat, bring the oil up slowly to a simmer then maintain that for 30 minutes, or until the garlic has changed to a light golden brown. Don't let the cloves burn.
  3. Remove from heat then add the red wine vinegar, caramelised lemon slices and season with salt, gently stirring to combine.
  4. Season the flour with a few pinches of salt, whisk to combine, then tip out onto a plate. Cover each sardine on both sides with the flour, tapping off any excess.
  5. Drizzle olive oil into a pan set over medium-high heat, then once the oil is hot, quickly fry each sardine so they are just cooked through - about 3 minutes per side or until the skin is crisp and golden brown. Lay these down in a flat-bottomed vessel, such as a small baking dish.
  6. Pour the infused olive oil over the fried sardines and cover. Let marinate in the fridge at least 8 hours or overnight before serving.
  7. After the sardines have rested in the marinade, enjoy at room temperature or slide them under a grill to crisp up the skin before eating. The oil itself is perfect for dipping bread into as well.
  8. These marinated sardines are delicious enjoyed as an open-faced sandwich made with crusty bread and aioli or thick yoghurt with a fresh salad (shaved fennel or tomatoes and feta go well).

Dominicana by Angie Cruz (2019)

Ana Cancion is only 15 years old when she marries Juan Ruiz, who is 17 years her senior, and is taken from the Dominican countryside to live in New York City with him. Ana's youth and sexuality are commodities that provide financial security and citizenships for her family - her story speaks for similar experiences of many other first-generation immigrants in America.

Cooking turns out to be Ana's only form of power: it brings her solace when she is lonely, is her source of income when she starts selling food to factory workers and is how she enacts revenge as she cooks a street pigeon for her abusive husband in an attempt to give him food poisoning.

This braised-chicken dish is not traditionally Dominican but is designed to depict Ana herself. The overall viridescent hue of this dish, created by the corriander marinade and peppers, represents Ana's most alluring feature - her green eyes which are deemed "a winning lottery ticket" and "shinier, more valuable, to be possessed" - recalling how her body and femininity are monetised. The accompanying ingredients derive from the frequent descriptions of the chicken dishes that Ana cooks, inspired by the meals taught by her mother that are full of nostalgia for her home.

Braised Chicken Thighs with Green Sauce and Rice

Serves 4–6



6 garlic cloves, peeled

1 bunch corriander (save a few sprigs for garnish)

3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1-2 tsp granulated sugar

1 lime

1 1/2 tbsp whole coriander seeds, toasted and roughly crushed with a mortar and pestle

6 skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs

1 yellow onion, peeled and diced

2 green bell pepper, diced

1 1/2 cups long-grain white rice

425ml chicken stock

Extra virgin olive oil

2 limes for serving


  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C.
  2. Make the marinade. Roughly chop the garlic, onion and corriander and drop into blender or food processor together with the olive oil, sugar and a couple large pinches of salt. Grate the lime to add the zest then cut in half to squeeze in the juice. Pour in a splash of water and blend into a smooth purée, adding a little more water if necessary to nudge the blade into movement.
  3. Season the chicken pieces liberally on all sides with salt and the coriander seeds then place in a bowl. Pour over the marinade, rubbing into the skin well. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 3 hours.
  4. To start the braise, heat a large skillet over medium-high flame and a drizzle of olive oil, swirling to coat the bottom of the pan. A piece at a time, remove the chicken from the marinade, shaking slightly to allow most of the liquid to drip back into the bowl (remember to reserve for later). Sear the chicken skin-side down, undisturbed, until nicely golden (1-2 minutes) then repeat on the opposite side. Set aside on a sheet tray when they are all cooked off.
  5. In the same pan, reduce the heat to medium and add the onion and pepper along with a pinch of salt. Stirring often, sauté until the onions are translucent and the pepper is starting to soften. Tip in the rice and stir to toast all of the grains for 2-3 minutes. Deglaze a splash of water, scraping the bottom of the pan to release the caramelised brown bits.
  6. Bring back the chicken thighs to the pan, nestling them in the rice mixture in a single layer. Pour in the chicken stock and reserved marinade then increase the heat to high. When the liquid comes to a boil, cover with a lid then transfer the pan into the preheated oven. Braise for approximately 30 minutes until the chicken is fully cooked through and tender.
  7. Garnish with the saved corriander sprigs and squeeze fresh lime wedges over to serve.

The Lowdown

Imogen Kwok sees food as more than a basic human necessity - it moves us emotionally and is a powerful means of communication. She uses culinary practice as an artistic medium to encourage comprehension through consumption. Her projects include interactive dinners, edible installations and bespoke recipe creation; her work is a curated stimulation of all the bodily senses. | @imogenkwok

Special thanks to Native & Co for supplying the props. @nativeandco

Discover More
17 Recipes for the Home Cook from Our Favourite Chefs