“I am a Japanese woman from Tokyo, and an architect by profession. I like designing on a small scale, particularly furniture or interiors.” And so begins the book, Travels Through South Indian Kitchens by Nao Saito.
The author’s interest in the every-day life connection between people, their environment and culture morphed into a research project that resulted in a book. It began with an invitation from the publisher of Tara Books* offering a three-month residency at the publishing house in Chennai (formerly Madras), the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu in India. Saito’s architectural tenet and design philosophy, anchored by her belief that “a space is not just a fixed physical structure – it is also fluid, shaped by the way in which people use it” lead her to focus on a venture related to kitchens – the metaphoric “heart” within a home and a primary key to a broad and deep understanding of people and their cultures.
Through visits to diverse homes in various South Indian communities, interacting with the cooks in their kitchens, sharing food and friendly, intimate chats, writing and sketching her observations, Saito produced a travel diary enhanced with floor plans, photos, conversations with and recipes from the Indian women she met.
Her kitchen explorations result in a broadened understanding of not only the physical structure of kitchens, but its psychological significance. One of her first revelations was her realization that “the kitchen need not be a single room. It can expand to other spaces inside and even outside… beyond what I could have imagined.”
Saito’s illustrative sketches, simple and unadorned (charming, somewhat child-like – but a precocious one), mirror her writing style: accessible, conversational. A tête-à-tête between friends. She has an eye for detail which she shares as she examines the kitchens visited, the food eaten, the people met and the lifestyles lived.
Tamil cuisine, called Chettinad, is often cited as the most renowned cuisine of Tamil Nadu, recognized for its use of fresh ground masalas (spice mixes and blends), sun-dried meats and salted vegetables. The Chettiars were once traditionally vegetarians, but through trade influences, they have also adopted non-vegetarian habits. The recipes in Saito’s book, nearly two dozen in all, are family dishes from the women who cook in the kitchens she visited – wives, mothers, grandmothers, aunties. They include a varied range of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, such as Verkadalai Chutney (peanut chutney), Kathirikai Kootu (stew with eggplant and dal), Puttu (steamed rice and coconut rolls), Shrimp Curry (tamarind stew), and Kuzhi Paniyaram (fried dumplings).
The book, unique in its subject matter, universal in its recounting, is a pleasurable read. For those seeking a respite from the ordinary, a worthy diversion, or a thought-provoking work, Travels Through south Indian Kitchens fits the bill.
*Tara Books is an independent publishing house identified by its website as “a team informed by feminism and other movements for social justice”, and whose guiding principle is embodied in its opening quote:“Pushing the boundaries of the book form in an age that is busy writing its obituary.”