South Indian kitchen tales

In her new travelogue on South India, architect-designer Nao Saito traces not the streets, but the kitchens of the region

March 01, 2018 04:13 pm | Updated 05:33 pm IST

Her visit to Velankanni may have happened somewhat serendipitously, but it is here that Japanese architect and designer, Nao Saito, had one of her favourite Indian meals: shrimp and okra stewed together in tangy coconut and tamarind curry. “It still tasted of the sea,” smiles Saito, adding that since seafood is an essential part of the Japanese diet, the meal was, “very close to my heart”.

A chance meeting with an anthropologist propelled Saito to this South Indian seaside town. At that point, she was already involved in her project: a meditation on multiculturalism through the kitchens, the food and the lives of the people she had dined with, captured in her recently-released book, Travels Through South Indian Kitchens. “We got talking, and when I mentioned my kitchen project to her, she invited me to a town called Velankanni, where her team of architects was currently working (assessing the life situation of tsunami victims),” she later recalls in the book.

But it wasn’t just the meal at this Velankanni fisherman’s home, in a region affected by the 2004 Tsunami, that made this visit such a cherished memory. It was a conversation with an elderly lady peeling shrimp for the curry which made the difference.

“I was in such a far-off place and the grandmother here started talking about the Tohoku earthquake and how she wishes she could help the people of Japan the way other people helped her people after the tsunami,” she says, admitting to being immensely moved by the lady’s generosity of spirit.

There are many such stories in this quaint, beautiful book that defies classification — with recipes, stories, architectural blueprints, photographs, sketches and more — culled from 21-odd kitchens she visited.

Beyond taste and flavour

“The information comes from different directions, because I want the reader to trace the smell, the sound, the feel of things I cannot describe in text,” says the Tokyo-based Saito, a graduate in Architecture from Japan’s Waseda University.

She also holds a Masters degree in Sand Furniture Design from the University of Art and Design, Helsinki, and has worked for several years in both Tokyo and Finland.

Invited for a three-month-long residency with Tara Books, she recalls her first impression of Chennai. “I was walking on the street, as a traveller, and seeing the façade of the architecture. I wanted to have a reason to get inside the house, behind the façade,” she says.

Soon after she arrived, she was invited to a friend’s place for a meal. “I was sitting near the kitchen corner and seeing this couple cooking for us. It was a bit like theatre; I thought that this is a space I wanted to see.”

A number of interests came together — food, kitchen tools, architecture and people — and she decided to, “travel through a place, not by exploring its public spaces, but through the heart of people’s homes: their kitchens,” she says, adding that she hoped to, “focus not only on architecture, but also capture a lived sense of space, cooking, people and conversation.”

By obtaining invites from the people she worked with, and later their friends and relatives, she gained access to their homes and kitchens and lives. “I used to visit with my tape measure, sketchbook and camera,” she grins.

What she found especially fascinating about Indian kitchens was their flexibility, she says. “A lady first works on a kitchen platform and then moves to the living room and sits on the floor to cut vegetables, “ she says, referring to the Indian kitchen as an “expanding” space grounded in a lot of tradition. “There is a kind of openness to the space that I am very attracted to.”

Another thing she is attracted to? The flavour of Indian food. “I love idlis that are a bit like rice cakes,” grins Saito, who has mastered a few Indian dishes herself, including sambar and rasam . “When I go back to Japan, I make these things. Surprisingly, it is my grandma who really enjoys it.”

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