Nao Saito, author of Travels Through The Tamil Kitchen, marvels at the goings-on in this special space in a Tamil household

It is with an increasing sense of déjà vu that I listen to Nao Saito, award-winning architect and designer with a crowded list of projects on her résumé. She has been visiting kitchens of different households in Tamil Nadu, she says, and has found heart-warming aspects of the place. As she describes the virtues of our pre-modular cooking areas, my head droops: Here goes another reminder from outside how good our lifestyles were!

Saito is researching for her book Travels Through The Tamil Kitchen to be published by Tara Books. After graduation in Architecture at Waseda University, Japan, and Masters in Sand Furniture Design from the University of Art and Design, Helsinki, Saito has been working with furniture design and installation in public buildings. The book will record personal memories involving the five senses and conversation around food and travel, set in architectural spaces. Unrolling her sketch sheets, Saito talks of the aspects of kitchen we take for granted.

The many challenges

“I like cooking, baking bread,” she says, implying the topic is a natural choice. “When you cook in a foreign country, as I’m doing, you feel like you are home” — but only after you’ve dealt with the “shocking” challenges. “I didn’t know how to organise things, use a gas stove, pans, which water to use, cook dals.” After about three months, she has learnt the rudiments, the experience giving her a better understanding of how our kitchens work.

She carries a note book and a measuring tape to kitchens to measure things, including stainless-steel cooking pots of various shapes. She sketches, makes floor plans. After visiting 20 kitchens, she is compelled to view them as landscapes. They are often like a whole village, she says, the base for people to float in and out. They open to people outside family, they tell you how people live. “Cooking and living are combined in a private Indian family kitchen.” The Indian kitchen is flexible, meant to include family / friends, unlike Western ones which are closed, functional, modern, with all amenities.

And no two traditional kitchens are wholly alike. She watched a fisherwoman cook fish curry and serve it to everyone around. “The kitchen was small, but big enough to cook for 10. It is a rich culture.” She marvels at the way the kitchen space spreads out to accommodate other activities. “In an apartment in Chennai, the woman sat in the living room floor to cut vegetables, put grains on the window sill for ‘sun bathing’.” The floor in the next room is part of the kitchen “to share, for children to sit next to you”.

She saw this use of the floor in a community-hostel kitchen. The older girls, “sit around those cutting vegetables, have chai, chat, then leave — not possible when you stand in a narrow kitchen”. In a kitchen for bachelors, she found the boys taking turns to cook. “Cooking is the first thing they learn when they join the mansion.” In a school kitchen in Nagapattinam, food is cooked for a hundred people on a wood stove (“my note book smells of it!”). “It’s non-stop work — breakfast, lunch, snack…(the puttu was very tasty!).”

The arivaalmanai, which she has learnt to pronounce, is an object of fascination. “I’ve never seen a chopping plank like this!” she marvels. “Using it means you keep the floor clean. It’s artistic with a decorated head.” A grinding stone floored her in a Srinivasapuram kitchen. “The woman taught me how to grind coconut chutney on it.”

Kitchens give her different perspectives of India, she says. A gentleman who is renovating his ancestral home drew the old kitchen from memory. He would come home from his trips abroad and his jetlag would keep him awake. His mother would be up early and they would talk. In a gypsy kitchen, water was brought from an outside pump, a sight strange to her. A farmer’s “organic” kitchen cooked simple, tasty meals with produce from pesticide-free soil. “The kitchen was small in contrast to the farm.”

In India, kitchens are microcosms of family life, she says. Women cook every day, there is a lot of respect for home-made food. Everyday food, not the exotic variety, is popular here. “It’s very similar to how I feel.” The book will have Saito’s sketches and stories; it will be a travelogue with aspects of architecture, anthropology, cookery and travel, says Gita Wolf, the publisher.

(Catch Saito in a conversation with architect Mahesh Radhakrishnan, at Book Building, Tara Books, Thiruvanmiyur, at 7 p.m. on February 15)