x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Looks good enough to eat: food art for fussy young eaters

A Dubai-based mother has found the way to fussy children's hearts: food that is bright and fun but nutritious, too.

Dharmangi Bhatia creates colourful food art made from healthy ingredients with her daughter Swayam, two, at their home in Dubai.
Dharmangi Bhatia creates colourful food art made from healthy ingredients with her daughter Swayam, two, at their home in Dubai.

Dharmangi Bhatia is desperate to stop her two-year-old daughter, Swayam, from spying a tray of tantalising treats she has just produced. But these are not sugar-loaded nibbles that will spoil her daughter's appetite before supper: they are potato and spinach cupcakes and bumblebees made from almonds, peanut butter, honey and sesame seeds. And Swayam cannot get enough of them. Bhatia, a Dubai-based "food artist", is on a mission to improve the diets of children across the UAE by using healthy ingredients to create artistic, child-friendly food.

The American's philosophy to "make healthy food fun" should come as a welcome relief for exasperated mothers who watch helplessly as their little ones spit out their offerings day after day. From a snake made with a bagel and egg salad to a train made from tofu, potato and courgette stuffed with onion, tomato and cheese, arty food can entertain children and distract them with the pretty picture on their plate to the point where they don't question what's in the meal.

Other colourful delights include ladybirds made from plum tomatoes filled with mozzarella, basil and olives, and snowmen constructed from Cheerios and popcorn. Bhatia's foray into food art was inspired by a determination to ensure that her daughter was eating a nutritious diet that would enhance her development. Her work has become so effective at making children finish their meals that she has launched a catering company, Sway2theHeart, to help mothers desperate to replace the typical birthday-party fare of chicken nuggets and chips.

"I started making the food for my daughter but I had mothers queuing up asking me how I did it, so I helped out at friends' parties and they encouraged me to launch a business," says Bhatia, who plans to open a cafe with a catering facility and space to teach children how to cook using healthy ingredients. The entrepreneur has set aside Dh1 million of her own savings for the venture and is willing to spend more if she can secure a top commercial location in Dubai.

Once the business is up and running, Bhatia wants to take the initiative a step further, using her menus to persuade nurseries and schools, Jamie Oliver-style, to avoid catering companies that supply food saturated in sugar, salt and fat. "Some caterers take a lot of shortcuts, offering things like processed cheese and cookies or cupcakes as a daily snack. And many mothers don't know how to make healthy food themselves, so it would be great if that was introduced to their child through a school setting," she adds.

It's easy to see why the fast-talking Bhatia might succeed in her mission. She has boundless energy, looks a decade younger than her 35 years and starts every day with an hour-long gym session. She's no stranger to business either: her relentless drive comes from a long career as the chief financial officer of a hedge fund for Citigroup Alternative Investments in New York. The high flyer, who admits she thrived on the high-pressure environment, moved to Dubai in May 2008 when her oil trader husband, Sanjeet, 34, secured a promotion. For Bhatia, quitting such a successful career was a tough decision.

"Life was fabulous in New York," she recalls. "Swayam was being looked after by my family and I was back into the swing of things at work. But my husband was suffering so I shut up shop and looked for a job in Dubai. I just assumed it would all go to plan." But finding a job that could match the high-ranking position and Dh1 million salary proved impossible. "There was nothing here for me," she recalls. "I decided that if I was not going to make the same dollar amount, then I should invest my time in Swayam."

Bhatia threw her energy into motherhood, which included introducing her then six-month-old to solid foods. "It was nothing fancy at first, just puréed carrot, sweet potato or broccoli," she says. "Then as she moved from semi-mushed on to semi-solid foods, I read up on foods that stimulated her development, creating dishes out of different things such as mushrooms, spinach and beetroot. "I tried fresh herbs, such as basil and chives for flavour and olive oil because it's good for the digestive system and, once she turned one, used nuts such as almonds to stimulate her brain."

The menu evolved as Bhatia gradually introduced new fruits, vegetables and pulses, but then she hit a stumbling block: birthday parties. "The menu is always the same - nuggets, chips and pizza," she moans. "When Swayam was first exposed to this food, I had to come up with something new." Bhatia went back into the kitchen and spent hours dreaming up imaginative ways to present her daughter's food.

"I made cupcakes out of mashed potato and asparagus and bought lots of different moulds to shape the food," she says. "I took great inspiration from the British children's author Annabel Karmel. I loved her party food but I thought: 'Why can't I just use it for everyday?'" As Bhatia's recipes developed, so did demand from mothers. "They'd ask: 'Does your daughter eat that?' And when their children ate it too, they told me I had to take this further. That's when the really creative party plates came in, where I constructed a scene such as butterflies flying above trees or a Christmas tree with presents underneath."

As well as being inspired by her artistic dinners, Bhatia's friends also felt she needed a new project to focus her energy on. "My friends told me: 'You're going crazy,'" she laughs. "They'd say: 'Your marriage is going to fall apart because he's always working and you're always baby, baby, baby; you're not that sharp, edgy woman we once knew, so get yourself a job.'" Bhatia put her plan into action, first developing the logo Sway2theHeart - inspired by her daughter's name (Sway means "self" in Sanskrit). "It's food straight from the heart, which is what I produce," she explains.

Then she hired a company to design her website and started catering for birthday parties and private events, often working through the night to ensure the food was fresh. But do children eat her food or do they just like looking at it? "Yes they do," says Bhatia. "Of course, some are still fussy; if they've only eaten fries, they will still want fries. But no one has ever turned down my hummus and cucumber cupcakes."

Now in the final stages of developing her brand, Bhatia is looking for a permanent site and applying for a catering licence. So does her new business replace the buzz of the trading floor? "No," she says honestly. "But when I see my daughter and the results my diet has had on her, then yes. "I told my old boss recently what I was up to and he laughed. I was a workaholic; I'd start my day at 9am, get home at 8pm and still be on the BlackBerry at midnight. I miss it more than anything, but if I still had that life I wouldn't have had so much time with my daughter."