A Taste of Chettinad

“One is lucky to eat like a Chettinar” Ancient Tamil saying.

P1050031I’m lucky. A few weeks ago I received an email from Meenakshi Meyyappan. She wrote, “You probably might remember having stayed at The Bangala in Karaikudi in the Chettinad region of South India. At that time, you mentioned that you would be interested in a cookbook, if ever we did one. The Bangala Table a compilation of The Bangalas’ recipes has now been published.”

I bought the book that day and it is exquisite.

The Bangala is a small heritage hotel in Karaikudi one of seventy-six Chettinad villages deep in rural South India. And I will never forget it.IMG_7316

Ross and I arrived late for lunch our first day after a long, bumpy, hot drive through rural Tamil Nadu. Nothing prepared me for the feast of senses I was going to experience.

A calm, refined woman, Umma, greeted us warmly and handed us cool wet towels to freshen our hands and faces, served us tall glasses of lemonade and then invited us to follow her to the lunch area on the porch. They had been waiting for us and our places were ready at a long table set with the traditional fresh banana leaf dishes. A gentle water fountain nearby soothed my road weary head and the sweet scent of jasmine and roses from the garden filled the air. Servers, dressed in soft flowing saris, padded by and serenely spooned, one by one, dollops of the most aromatic and delicately spiced culinary creations I have ever tasted onto my banana leaf–fish curry, chicken Chettinad pepper masala, spinach Masiyal, mixed vegetable Kootu, drumstick sambar, yogurt. Then side dishes arrived. Vegetable fritters, coconut rice, mango. I was in paradise or was it home? It’s true. Home is where the heart is and the Bangala captured my heart.Image

Later Umma took us for a walk around Chettinad villages.Image 8 We talked about food and values, culture and art, family and traditions. We visited a home where a Chettinar family wove vibrant checked and striped cotton saris. IMG_7298

Image 1We shopped for vegetables and I bought a dozen tiny clay candleholders for Diwali in India or Christmas for us at our home in Canada.Image 4

Chettinad is known not only for its fine master chefs and cuisine, but also for its architecture. I listened to Umma’s stories about the eclectic historic palace homes we had never seen before that were built by Nattukottai Chettinar families. The palaces, ornately decorated with treasures–teak from Burma, coloured glass from Belgium, ceramics from Europe–reflect an exchange of ideas and merchandise that their trader/financier owners brought home from Burma, Malaysia, Ceylon and other parts of the world.IMG_7289

Image 5Now I too have a little piece of Chettinad to savour and treasure. The Bangala Table. Flavors and Recipes from Chettinad. The recipes, the photographs and writing are glorious. Thank you Meenakshi Meyyappan and all of you who worked hard to write this book and share your home with us.

The Launch. “Weaving Threads: Travels on the Silk Road” By Nancy M. Hayes and Drawings by Ross E. Hayes

I’ve been dreaming of today ­­– a party for friends and family to celebrate the launch of “Weaving Threads: Travels On the Silk Road.” In my dream it was to be under warm blue skies in Calgary. But today it is cold and raining. It is June 14. It will be very cosy inside our house.

Silk Road treasures that you will read about in the book are carefully placed around our house. The rough copper bowl we bought in the market in Kermanshah is filled with flowers on the dining room table. The Smiling porcelain Buddha has been freshly dusted and sits proudly in my office.  The old espresso coffee pot that we almost used as a weapon is on the kitchen counter and a blue and red sari from a recent trip to India is wrapped around a wicker love seat on the front porch. Patrick’s  Jazz Collegium, with two guitarists and a vocalist tonight, entertain us with easy listening standards we love and Nicole Gourmet’s lively staff prepares samples of Silk Road flavours in my kitchen and passes them around.

Friends and family from all the different parts of my life, the yoga group, the book club group, the Easy Writers, neighbours, and old friends find their own space to chat… out of the rain on the front porch, in the hall and on the stairs, in the kitchen where they can watch and in the dining room with the jazz group. Ross welcomes everyone and introduces the musicians and “Take Five” that they are playing (and that you will read about in “Yoga, A Giant Pangolin and Jazz” Chapter XlX.) He talks about its significance to my Silk Road story. I read “Desert Coffee”, Chapter V. Three little girls in have made their way to the front of “the audience” and I can see that they are listening keenly. They don’t take their eyes off me and I can’t help but think about all children and the future they hold. When I’m finished reading “Desert Coffee” our granddaughter Ava and her friend Zoé pass around watermelon. So everyone will remember children and the three little Bedouin boys we met that morning on the desert in Syria in the story about “Desert Coffee”.

Thank you everyone.

“Weaving Threads: Travels on the Silk Road” is available in all major online bookstores and selected bookstores in Calgary – Owls Nest, Shelf Life Books, Pages, Indigo at Signal Hill, Chapters Chinook, Indigo Cross Iron Mills and in Edmonton Chapters Southpoint. I will be at Indigo Cross Iron Mills to sign July 16 and August 6  and at Indigo Signal Hill July 27.

Five dollars from the sale of each paperback edition of “Weaving Threads: Travels on the Silk Road” will be donated to Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan to advance education for Afghan women and their families.

Weaving Threads: Travels on the Silk Road

P1000335They’ve arrived!

My deepest gratitude is to the people I’ve met along the Silk Road who are the subject of this, my first book. Their generous hospitality, friendship and help, when we needed it are my inspiration.

“Weaving Threads: Travels on the Silk Road” by Nancy M. Hayes with drawings and photographs by Ross E. Hayes is now available in all major online bookstores and will be in local bookstores soon. Through rugged mountain passes, blast-furnace deserts, crumbling cities, and lush fertile valleys the reader will be captivated by the majestic landscape, the ancient cultures, and the kind hearted people. Halted by war in India and Pakistan and the Iron Curtain in 1965, we continue the Silk Road journey forty years later.

Nancy and her Beetle at the giant buddhas of Bamyian Afghanistan, 1965

Proceeds from the sale of “Weaving Threads: Travels on the Silk Road” will be donated to Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan to advance education for women and their families.

Enjoy the journey!


Reading India

I love reading about places I visit.  For me, India has a goldmine of fine literature.

It’s no surprise that the country is fertile ground for both writers and readers.

There are thousands of years of history and 1.2 billion people live there. That means there are more than1.2 billion stories to be told and thousands of novelists, poets and other writers available to write them. Even Marco Polo wrote about India. He was so well thought of for his contribution to India that the image of his face is discreetly carved into a sidewall of the majestic Brihadeewarara Temple in Tamil Nadu.

English is the second official language, after Hindi. The towns and countryside are dotted with “English medium” schools and bookstores are filled with a tempting variety of good reading material. There is no shortage of talented, entertaining reporting in English language newspapers.

The Jaipur Literature Festival is held every year in January. In 2006, it’s first year, a hundred people attended. Five years later, in 2011, thirty thousand people went. This year The Hindu newspaper reported, “It looked as though the whole world was there. Except Rushdie, of course.”

Certainly all the other star writers were there. Salman Rushdie cancelled his visit saying death threats to him were the reason. There was rumour that the sales of  “Satanic Verses” skyrocketed after his announcement. Tweet wars were rampant. Oprah Winfrey made an appearance, Michael Ondaatje wowed audiences, and David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker magazine sparked debate when he talked about his book “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barrack Obama.”

Tina Brown called it “The Greatest Literary Show On Earth” 

The festival made the headlines for days while I was in India. I could hardly wait every morning to read and devour all the excitement in the Times of India or the Hindu. The stories go on and on for pages. Even now, several weeks later, I read about it on the Internet and watch the conference sessions on video. You may want to check it out too at http://jaipurliteraturefestival.org/ .  Click on “ Watch Videos.”

In the past few years I’ve delved into a small part of the rich body of literature set in India or partly in India, written by Indians living there, written by the diaspora of Asians who live outside the continent, or written by others who have been touched by India in some way.

Here are a few of my favourite reads.

The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga. This dark comedy really spoke to me of the India I know and the issues that come up regularly in conversation and reading – corruption, struggles to make ends meet, relations between India and China, and difficult family matters such as arranging marriages for children. The author grew up in Mangalore and now lives in Mumbai. This is his debut novel and it won the Booker prize in 2008.  The Booker Prize is awarded each year for the best novel written in the English language by a citizen the Commonwealth.

Life of Pi, Yann Martel is about a young boy, from Pondicherry on the Bay of Bengal. I remembered this book when we visited Pondicherry this year just after Cyclone Thane hit and devastated the area. The young lad, Pi, explores spirituality and what life means when he is shipwrecked and stranded on a small boat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal Tiger. This fantasy-adventure book won the Man Booker prize in 2002. The author is a Canadian who has travelled extensively and has lived in India.

A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry. This Giller prize-winning novel, written by an Indian-born Canadian, is set in Mumbai between 1975 and 1984. The story of a changing society is told through four diverse main characters who bond together during the time of Indira Ghandi, the “Emergency,” and increased government powers and crack down on civil liberties.

Miss New India, Bharati Mukherjee. I read a good review of this book in the Globe and Mail so I downloaded it onto my e-reader while I was travelling. It’s a compelling novel – lots of action, description, and a unique look at the new India. The story is of Anjali, a young woman who leaves her small town to find a high paying job in the high tech industry in Bangalore. The author, who was born in Calcutta, skilfully connects the high tech world of the call centre industry, snazzy coffee shops and bars to the other world of tradition and coping with change.

The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje. I’m putting this on my list because Kip, the Indian Sikh sapper, for me, is one of the memorable characters in Literature. The setting is WWll.  Kip’s comment about the west never being able to reconcile with the east, and America never doing anything like dropping an atom bomb on a white population stuck with me. The book won the Booker award for fiction and Ondaatje was one of the stars at this year’s Jaipur Festival.

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy. The author was awarded the Booker prize in 1997 for this, her debut (and only) novel. It is semi-autobiographical, set in Kottayam, Kerala from 1969 to 1993, where Roy grew up. This is one of my favourite places in India, close to the world renowned “backwaters.” The story is about “small things” that affect lives. Themes of the caste system, forbidden love, communism, and Kerala’s Syrian Christian community are superbly woven into the story of fraternal twins who are separated.

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie. This book won the “Booker of Booker” prize  (i.e. the best all time winner) to celebrate the award’s 40th anniversary. It is also on Penguin’s list of “Great Books of the 20th Century.” Using a mix of magic realism and historical events, the story of Saleem Sinai, who was born with magical powers at the exact moment of Independence, is embedded in an account of India’s transition from Colonial times to Independence and Partition.

A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth. This is the story of four families as a mother searches for a suitable boy to marry her daughter. It is peppered with delightfully solemn and satirical views of national politics. Published in 1993, this book is 1488 pages long so it takes commitment to read. It has won several prizes. It’s worth the time.

Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire, Alex vonTunzelmann. This is a history book that reads like a novel. It’s full of romance, intrigue, religion, and disputes surrounding the political end of the British Empire in India. For me it was an important read to help me understand India and today’s politics.

Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese. The author was born in Ethiopia while his parents, teachers from Kerala India, lived there. The main characters in this gripping family saga, set in Ethiopia and the United States, are two physicians from India. It is on my list because it helped me understand better the issues facing expatriates and the Indian diaspora from Africa that now lives in North America.

What are some of the books you’ve read about the places you visit (vicariously or otherwise)?  Please click on comment and tell us about them.  I’d love to read your stories. 

Update March 20. Eleanor Wachtel’s CBC Writers and Company interview with the Indian writer and politician Sashi Tharoor is brilliant. If you missed it  click  http://www.cbc.ca/writersandcompany/episode/2012/03/18/south-asian-conversations-part-5/