Japanese architect's book 'Travels Through South Indian Kitchens' to release soon

Feb 24, 2018, 10:49 IST | Snigdha Hasan

A Japanese architect and designer set out to explore the kitchens of Tamil Nadu, and through them, the lives of its people. The result is a book of recipes, ethnography and architectural enquiry that comes to Mumbai with an exhibition

Saitu's impression of the kitchens she visited appears in the form of hand-drawn blueprints accompanied by her notes
Saito's impression of the kitchens she visited appears in the form of hand-drawn blueprints accompanied by her notes

Four years ago, when Nao Saito arrived in India for a design residency with Tara Books in Chennai, the kitchenette at the centre of a small apartment that was going to be her home for the next three months left her stumped. There were some technical differences. The Japanese architect and designer, for instance, had to get used to the idea that the stove doesn't come on with just a twist of the knob and requires a gas lighter. But it were the jars lining the shelves with sundry varieties of beans and intriguing vessels — with one resembling "a stacked stainless steel tower, like a futuristic building" — that got her thinking about the people who used them every day to create a culinary world vastly different from her own.

Aishwarya Kumar shared the recipe for this chutney made from pulses, spices and ground coffee-beans for the exhibition
Aishwarya Kumar shared the recipe for this chutney made from pulses, spices and ground coffee-beans for the exhibition

This was the germ of the idea for the design project she was in India for — to visually explore the lives and ways of the people of Tamil Nadu, and to do that, she decided to go to the heart of their homes: the kitchen. For, she believed that "engaging with a region and culture through its kitchens is different than engaging through its monuments and streets". After over three months of extensive groundwork, where she visited 21 kitchens across Chennai, Nagapattinam and Velankanni, she returned to Tokyo with a treasure trove of kitchen blueprints, photographs and recipes, which are now part of her soon-to-release book, Travels Through South Indian Kitchens (Tara Books).

Each recipe in the book appears with snapshots from the kitchen it was prepared in. Pics courtesy/Tara books
Each recipe in the book appears with snapshots from the kitchen it was prepared in. Pics courtesy/Tara books

An absorbing blend of recipes, travelogue, architectural inquiry and cross-cultural ethnography, the title will be launched next week in Mumbai at an event called Expanding Kitchens. An initiative of the publisher and G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture, the programme also includes a day-long exhibition, featuring recipes, anecdotes and stories of South Indian food shared by Mumbaikars, and Saito in conversation with interior designer Radhika Desai, scientist and fiction writer Indira Chandrashekhar, and chef Sandeep Sreedharan about the themes in her book.

Saitu visualises her nostalgia for banana flowers in this illustration
Saito visualises her nostalgia for banana flowers in this illustration

"What I realised when I spent time with people while they prepared a meal was that the kitchen is a truly social space that extends beyond the confines of the four walls it is housed in," shares Saito, giving an example of the first kitchen that appears in the book under the chapter, Expanding Kitchen. It was fascinating to see the elderly lady use the worktop to cook the dish, she says, while she also intermittently sat on the floor of the living room to chop vegetables. The kitchen also extended to the balcony, where she placed a bowl of grains in the sun to get rid of an ant infestation. "If I were her, I would throw the whole thing away. But here she is, sunbathing the ants, and that too with a kind word for them!" Saito writes in the book, which carries a blueprint of the kitchen, with these impressions illustrated in it.

Saitu visualises her nostalgia for banana flowers in this illustration

Another human-food interaction that stood out for Saito was when she visited a school in Nagapattinam, which was established to help Tsunami-affected children resume mainstream education. "The school has made arrangements to feed over 100 teachers and students every day, with their own kitchen garden. The day I visited, a kid had injured his hand. So one of the teachers fed him rice and sambhar balls with her own hands.

Nao Saitu in her Chennai kitchen where it all started
Nao Saito in her Chennai kitchen where it all started

In Japan, we don't use hands to eat food. I felt that doing so nurtures a kind of closeness," she says The memories Saito took back with her to Japan find their way into her cooking, and she can whip up a mean Tamilian meal of sambhar, rasam, wadas and idli that her friends and family, including her 97-year-old grandmother, relish. "I volunteer in a rice field near Tokyo, which also has a cluster of banana trees growing," says Saitu. "And as I walk by those trees, I sometimes smell the scent of banana flowers — and am transported to my beloved Chennai."

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