If I had to sum up Nao Saito’s travelogue cookbook Travels Through South Indian Kitchens (published by Tara Books) in a single word it would be ‘simple’. The premise is simple. Nao, a Japanese architect and designer, attends a Tara Books workshop in Tokyo. She gets invited for a three-month residency at their publishing house in Chennai. When she moves here, she decides to discover the place and its people through their kitchens because the kitchen “is not just a fixed physical structure—it is also fluid, shaped by the way in which people use it”. She begins this culinary travel by visiting the kitchens of colleagues at the publishing house and then expands it to their friends and so forth.
Another word I would use to enhance my single-word summary would be ‘delightful’. It is delightful in its simplicity. The artwork is minimalist. Saito uses simple line drawings of swings, kitchen equipments, coconuts, vegetables, jasmine garlands and other kitchen sights to enrich her narrations. Being an architect, she draws out the floor plan of every kitchen she visits, sometimes musing over the impractical use of space like the kitchen sink tucked away in a corner beyond reach. “Indian kitchens are not concerned with practicalities”, her hosts respond.
How many kinds of kitchens can there be in South India? Turns out, a lot more than we realise. Saito chronicles 22 kitchens beginning with her own, in the guest house she is put up in. “I turn on the gas, but the stove doesn’t light up”, writes Saito, a stranger to the concept of lighters. The idea for this book comes to her as she stands shocked in her kitchen on her very first day in Chennai, surrounded by a variety of spices and lentils. She goes on to visit traditional domestic kitchens, a girls’ kitchen and a bachelors’ kitchen, a Chettinad kitchen, a school kitchen, a “power-cut” kitchen of Tsunami survivors and most interestingly a kitchen without cooking among others. Even as a South Indian, it made me appreciate anew the diversity around us.
At first, the book threw me for its premise was a stranger writing about kitchens I am familiar with. It seemed like a convenient excuse of a book, narrating anecdotes from kitchens of colleagues. It took me a while to grasp that this is exactly how we understand the world. We maneuver from our own points of reference through a bridge of commonality over baffling cultural anomalies to finally reach a place of acceptance. Saito’s master stroke is her perspective. She brings to the local reader a fresh set of eyes to review our way of life -- an introspection.
It’s not everyday that one finds a travelogue-cookbook with not-so-special recipes. Almost magically, the author manages to remove herself from the centre of the plot. Not all dishes are made especially for her visit. In many instances, Saito seems to drop by, showing the household in its natural setting. Modern cooks will definitely identify with some of the short-cuts the hosts use in their kitchen like a pressure cooker sambar where all the ingredients are pressure cooked together like a one-pot dish. This way of condensing many processes into one gives Nao faith that she too can cook Tamil food soon. And it gave me faith that cooking need not be a herculean task.
However, I found two chords of dissonance in this book. Saito’s use of initials in place of names of her hosts, possibly to maintain their privacy, was jarring. Using their full names could only have added to the richness of the text. Also, the kitchens she visits are not representative of all the regions of South India, choosing to focus mainly on Tamil Nadu and its cuisine.
In her travels, the author includes home cooks from different castes, religions, socio-economic backgrounds and marital status including a bilingual and a bi-racial couple. The effects of these parameters on the use or disuse of ingredients and preferred ways of cooking are hard to miss. The most interesting kitchen she visits is the “Kitchen Without Cooking” where a sprouts salad is being made. There, when asked if she prefers raw food, Nao’s host says, “Not really. I’m simply not interested in cooking”. I was struck by how matter-of-factly Nao establishes that kitchen need not just be a place for cooking in traditional terms. It gains focus also because of how central kitchens are to the South Indian way of life. In narrating stories from a variety of kitchens, Saito shows the reader that your relationship with your kitchen is your own to create.
The recipes themselves are pretty basic like sambar, chutney, puttu, kuzhi paniyaram, maavu and filter coffee, but the stories that lead up to them and the author’s musings make for interesting reading. In every kitchen, Saito also outlines the implements used along with measurements. Ammi the stone grinder, arivalmanai the traditional cutting and grating tool, puttu kutti for making puttu are all illustrated to capture the reader’s imagination. It’s delightful to see what catches her eye. She is taken by the idea that South Indian cooking is not confined to our kitchens. Cooks often chop vegetables in the living room and eat while watching television.
We realise how different we are from the narrator when Saito observes with surprise the use of hands in cooking and eating. She talks about the closeness of a teacher feeding a child with a fractured arm. Even in shared kitchens and large scale kitchens, the use of hands as a measure reminds her of the distance between her hosts and her. In these differences, she manages to find connections to Japan and Finland where she has lived for a while.
She discusses in detail the times when most kitchens come alive -- during festivals. She captures the festivities of Christmas preparations with a family making fried sweet kal-kals and the early morning hustle and bustle of sweet and savoury pongal-making for the eponymous harvest festival of Pongal. The conversations and anecdotes by themselves make this book recommendable. In true filmy style, her bachelor hosts tell her the story of how everything in their kitchen was acquired from a film set! In a relatable tale, the same set of bachelors describe how they were vegetarians till they moved to Chennai but took to eating eggs everyday because they are easy to make.
One of Saito’s trips out of Chennai is to the south-eastern fishing villages of Velankanni, destroyed by the 2004 Tsunami. To her surprise she discovers that everyone in Velankanni knows of the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011. One of the grandmothers she meets says, “People in Japan must have had a terrible time, just like us! [...] When it happened to us, we had help from all over the world. I wish we could help the Japanese people like others helped us”. As readers, we are as stunned by the grandmother’s generosity as is the author.
I recommend Travels Through South Indian Kitchens for how it makes you notice the obvious. Most of the recipes are everyday affairs, things many of us would know without a recipe or have our own recipes for. But it’s the perspective of a stranger from a faraway land looking in that makes us sit up and take notice of the peculiar ways in which the kitchen rules our lives.
It’s the openness with which she accepts a culture unknown to her that makes this a goodread. With its quirky illustrations and jotted instructions, it’s one of those books I will never forget I read.