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

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.

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

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
  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

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
  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
  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
  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
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

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