New book, not by me: The Udipi Kitchen

Geetha Rao is someone I got to know through Stanley Pinto’s The Bangalore Black Tie.  She always wears gorgeous saris and is now President of the Karnataka Crafts Council.  I have written about her sari collection for Mint– search for Kodali Karuppur sari and Geetha Rao.  Now, Geetha has a new book out, co-written with her mother.  She was kind enough to invite me to be part of the launch.  K. Jairaj will release the book.  I am to speak on Food as part of culture.  Priya Bala will converse with the authors as they give a demonstration.

Incidentally, Geetha’s husband Surendra L. Rao is a renowned economist and a mentor for many.  Rama Bijapurkar has praised him in her first book.  Please buy Geetha’s book.


Monsoon Diary

On a flight back from Bhopal, our friend, Manish said that I should put a Google alert on myself. A few weeks ago, I did, and have been getting a whole bunch of stuff about me that I wouldn’t have known or seen.

I am posting these two here because they have a nice blog design and great recipes.

The Hungry Ninja. Hmmm, I feel I should say something instead of baldly (mottayaa) posting the link. Maybe just do an excerpt? Here goes….

“HOW had I been cooking/eating/reading this long and not devoured Monsoon Diary, by Shoba Narayan? It seems unthinkable now that I have read it cover to cover in about a day (the 20 inches of snow outside helped me a little).

Her colorful, scrumptious prose prompted me to venture outside even in these Hoth-like conditions to go to the store and pick up a head of cabbage to make some tasty Bandh Gobhi Achar, or cabbage pickles. Even if the recipe itself isn’t one of the ones Narayan includes in her book, the flavors she mentions over and over: turmeric, coriander, mustard seed, fenugreek, and chiles were enough to make me salivate for some Indian cuisine. Plus, I needed something spicy to kick me out of these winter doldrums.” And then the recipe is posted.

And to the equally imaginative Thirsty Pig. Also an excerpt.
monsoon diary
By Shoba Narayan
A really personal look at growing up in India and what it means to be an outsider living and studying in the United Sates, this book gives its readers a comic but movingly accurate version of things we can all relate to and choices we all have to make. Narayan gives us mouth-watering glimpses of Indian food (and how to make it) as she tells her tale, imprinted so deeply with the spices, smells, textures, and tastes of Indian cooking. With each recipe, Narayan provides a myth that relates to and/or explains the dishes. She also explains how each spice, each topping, each method of cooking has a special use- some of them are to be used when pregnant, some are good for colds, each have their own occasion, and some are even used not only in cooking, but as face cream (and a cure for all ills)- all according to her very ambitious and often overpowering mother. In her memoir, Shoba wishes to study abroad, to the objection of her large family. They make a deal with her that, if she is able to prepare a complete satisfactory Indian meal for the entire family, her wish will be granted. She cooks the meal and off she goes. Within the story she weaves about herself, Narayan contemplates the good and the bad of both the Indian society she has lived in and the American one she moves to. This is a truly entertaining and worthwhile book to read.

No recipe but lots of book suggestions.
Thank you for the plug.


Was in Masinagudi to run a module on “Storytelling in the corporate context: how to use narrative to enhance your pitch.”

It was for SAP Labs.  Thanks to Sunder Madakshira, Head of Marketing at SAP for the connect.

And thanks to Heemanshu Ashar for connecting me with Sunder.

It is always interesting for me to see how corporate teams work– their highs and lows; their deadlines and stresses; delivery and accountability.

Before the session, I went on a safari ride.  Saw some amazing birds: shrikes, Asian Koel, lots of peacocks, Brahminy starlings; hoopoes….but the highlight was…..a sighting of two Greater Coucals.  It was thrilling!!!

Gifts 2014

This could have easily been a photo feature.

The best gifting ideas from 2014

A list of objects that you could consider buying for your near and dear for Christmas
Shoba Narayan

It is just before Christmas. You are probably in the throes of figuring out what to buy for family, friends and co-workers. Here is a list of objects that you could consider buying for your near and dear. The logic of choosing these objects was simply this: I saw them during the course of this past year and they stuck in my head—because they are unique, innovatively designed, and beautiful.

Perrin Paris: Glove Clutch Eiffel How many of us wrap our hands around a clutch? Now imagine if we could slip our hands into a glove-clutch. I saw this on Instagram and wanted it instantly. The Perrin Paris glove clutch has turned the hand into an ornament. Prices start at $1,850 (around Rs.1.17 lakh).
The Perrin Paris glove clutch;

Sophie Hulme box tote in raspberry Because it has cute animal eyes on it. At $700 a bag, it is reasonably priced compared to what you have to shell out for, say, Dior’s stunning Be Dior Flap bag, which costs about $4,400; or LVMH’s Capucines bag, without the littered logo thankfully, that costs $5,600.


Dibbern China, Black Forest pattern, designed by Bodo Sperlein Dibbern China by Bodo Sperlein I saw this collection at the home of a woman who is part of my book club. It has haunted me since. Of course, at €28 (around Rs.2,200) a teacup, it is likely to remain in my dreams. But what a collection! German precision mixed with Japanese minimalism and a bit of Fornasetti’s whimsy.


Lee Broom’s light bulbs Cut lead crystal bulbs by Lee Broom I saw these light bulbs in a magazine and loved them. They are made of cut lead crystal and the beauty is that you can do away with those ugly lamp shades that we use to hide incandescent bulbs at homes. These are perfect for India because all you need to clean is just the bulb itself. I thought they were made by designer Tom Dixon, but they are not. I discovered the name of the designer by typing in “crystal light bulbs” on the Internet. Lee Broom, take a bow. They are priced at £109 (around Rs.10,900) each.


Akris I don’t own anything by Akris. I don’t know anyone who wears Akris. Actually, not true. I know of a Baltimore, US, based CEO of an Indian pharma company who wears Akris. But I wish I lived in colder climes so I could wear their winter coats. Their summer line doesn’t bust my cockles, but fittingly for a Swiss company, they know their wool. Just buy one of their wool coats and you can very well wear rags inside. You won’t take off the coat and nobody will have eyes for anything else.


Fountain pens I love fountain pens. I own a Ratnam pen, a Lamy and a Parker Sonnet, all gifts. Were I to buy one, I would buy the Monteverde, because it is black, sleek and costs Rs.5,600 at William Penn—a far cry from the Rs.100 Camlin pen I used to write with but cheaper than the cult retractable Pilot fountain pen which retails at around Rs.12,000 on

Champ de Rêves pinot noir 2011 A bottle of Champ de Reves pinot noir 2011 I bought this at a wine store in Washington, DC because the winemaker had signed it. At $45 for a bottle, it is a luscious aromatic wine, particularly if you are one of those who was charmed by that famous monologue in the film, Sideways, about the “haunting” primitive beauty of a good pinot. This winery makes only one type of wine—pinot noir—and they make it well. Eric Johannsen, I have a bottle signed by you and it’s a keeper.

F Pettinaroli, Milano If I lived in Europe I would be writing these words on Pettinaroli’s papers. I tried ordering their Mignon organizers online and had a devil of a time. I satisfied myself with a Moleskine and our own Rubberband Paint Box series notebooks instead. and

Javadhu-scented powder I bought this powder at the Khadi Gramodyog Bhavan in Kumbakonam. It is made in a small town called Mukkudal in Tamil Nadu. It retails in colourfully packaged 5g bottles for the magnificent sum of Rs.55 each. If you are done with khus, vetiver and rose, try javadhu.


Coloured gems and jewellery The Bulgari Sapphire Flower ring Bulgari, Graff, Van Cleef & Arpels, you name it. They are selling jewellery that would match the jewel tones of our Kanjeevarams and Banarasi weaves nicely. Maybe start with a Bulgari Sapphire Flower ring.



Happy shopping!

Shoba Narayan plans to buy a lovely teapot this Christmas season. Suggestions are welcome. Write to her at

Bangalore Club

A simple email I got some time ago.

On Oct 13, 2014, at 10:22 PM, Vikram Rajaram wrote:
Dear Shobha,
We have, in the past, been in touch re the possibility of getting you to speak at the Bangalore Club. Your father-in-law was unwell then and I did not feel it was opportune to push it.
Can we pick up the threads again?
Would a slot in the third week of November work for you?
Please let me know.
With kind regards,
Vikram Rajaram

So Vikram and I went back and forth. It ended in a talk
If you are in town and a member of the Bangalore Club, please come.

Train Diary 3

Man, I love trains!!

Making memories

Why do so few people talk to their fellow travellers on planes and why do some many talk to their neighbours on trains? I think it is because we view planes as mobile offices while train travel is time away from work; more like a vacation; a time to exhale and take stock; a time for diffused thought rather than focus; a time to relax.  Planes produce the opposite effect.  With no interruptions from colleagues or relatives, we pull out our computers and phones and get work done.  Why is this? What is it about trains that promote community and conversation and what is it about planes that doesn’t?

I think it is the physical space and its design.  Seats face each other on trains, engendering conversation.  In planes, we are crammed like in a school bus, all facing the stewardesses in front, who point their hands left and right to demonstrate what could well be theorems or equations. Train compartments are ecosystems that force you to engage with your neighbours.  Babies—and bananas– get passed around.  Health tips are freely dispensed along with roti-sabzi or idli-chutney.  Information and opinions are shared.  People get drawn into conversation.  Here’s how it happens.

I am returning from Kumbakonam to Bangalore– tapping away at my computer and listening desultorily to the conversation around me.  The elderly gent sitting beside me is chatting with the elderly couple across us.  The lady has a round face and a pleasant smile.  Her husband is aquiline and thoughtful. They carry a blue Estee Lauder canvas bag that their niece has brought “from foreign.”  The man beside me is travelling alone to visit grandchildren in Bangalore. They have been talking for an hour.  I hear random phrases as I type.

“I had an angiogram last year.  Lost 10 kgs.”  Trains are like group therapy.  You offer details of your life to perfect strangers with impunity.  You take comfort from the knowledge that you’ll never see them again.  Until you do and become friends.

Some time later: “What is the point of building canals if there is no water? No wonder farmers are committing suicide.”

Mostly, the two men talk.  The woman smiles and nods.  She looks maternal and comforting.  The toddler with jingling anklets gravitates towards her.  She is wearing a pink sari and has flowers in her hair but no bindi.  She reminds me of my childhood doctor, Almas Rasheed, who had “white skin and black, black hair,” as my grandmother said.  Indian women of the previous generation exude a certain contentment; a lack of bitterness certainly; an acceptance of life.  They have their priorities right.  They may not comment on world affairs but they know how to make a toddler smile.

The irony, I think.  Here I am writing about community and conversation, and behaving exactly as I would in a plane.  I am retreating behind a computer screen.

Suddenly the gent beside me asks, “What is the purpose of cursive, Madam?”  He looks to be about sixty.  “My grandson is in first standard and they are torturing him with cursive.”

“Heh?” I blink.  The elderly couple sitting opposite us smile gently.  They have been exchanging notes about grandchildren and await my answer.  “Cursive?” I repeat stupidly.

“In my day, there was capital letters and small letters,” continues the man who asked the question.  “Nowadays, the school says to write in cursive.  What is cursive?” He knows what cursive writing is, of course.  His fingers draw cursive letters in the air.  His question is rhetorical so I don’t answer it.

“I know,” I agree.  “Too much homework for little kids these days.  Too much competition.”

“Tooooo much competition,” he agrees, drawing out the “ooo” for emphasis.

We complain congenially about how difficult schools are these days; and how many books children have to carry; and how their grandchildren have to go from tuition to tuition; and how there is no time for play.  We close the topic with no resolution because more immediate concerns take over: specifically, our stomachs.  It is 7:30 and dinner is discussed.  They have both brought their dinner.

“I bought it from Ganesh Bhavan in Thanjavur station,” says the man beside me.

“That has become very expensive.  You should stick to Krishna Bhavan,” says the man opposite us.  “Our son is bringing us dinner at Trichy station.  Call Rukhsana and tell her the train is running late,” he instructs his wife.

She calls her daughter-in-law.  They advise me to buy biriyani packets in Trichy.  The train stops.  We all get out.  Rukhsana is wearing a red salwar kameez. There is hugging and smiles. This time, it is the mother-in-law who talks, leaning forward animatedly.  Devoid of discussions about world affairs, her husband stands there smiling and nodding—just as she had done in the train.

The family spots me staring at them from the door of the compartment.  They wave.  I wave back and return to my seat.  Soon, the grandfather comes in with his grandsons.  One is called Aatish and is at “Alpha School in Class 2 Section B.”  His elder brother is Ahmed.  They stare with frank curiosity at my vegetable biriyani.  I offer some.  They shake their head.  They offer me idlis and garlic chutney, neatly packed by the daughter-in-law in a stainless steel tiffin box.  I accept the chutney, which smells of mint and garlic.  The horn sounds.  They all rush out of the train.  The grandparents peer out of the window, smiling and waving.  The train gains speed.  Half an hour passes.

Memories of train journeys are made through granular interactions such as this.  Spend 36 hours on a train with someone as you travel from Kanyakumari to Kathgodam and you might as well marry into their family.  After all, you have broken bread together; met their relatives at various stations; and have displayed the products and goods that make up your home—that have now been transformed into water bottles, food containers, and paan-daanis or paan holders.  What else do good relationships need?

Shoba Narayan carries saunf (fennel) in sample-sized containers of Crème de la Mer.


This one’s for you, Mahen-uncle and Vina-aunty.

Can paradise be regained by arresting development in Kashmir?


I left Kashmir on September 1st after attending a 75th birthday celebration in Srinagar. The event was held near the Dal Lake and the famed Chinar trees (Platanus Orietalis) were resplendent. Kashmiris clad in saris and pashmina shawls gathered to reminisce about the land that they called home. It was raining as my plane took off from Srinagar. I remember worrying about whether that would cause flight delays. The rain continued the next day. At that time, I told my friend that when good events happen, the rain Gods would send their benevolent blessing with a shower. In the Carnatic music tradition, which I belong to, there is a raga called Amritavarshini that brings rain to parched tropical earth when sung. It was this that I had in mind when I made the comment about auspicious rain. I didn’t realize then that this was no gentle shower. The heavens were unleashing their fury; and this, combined with the global warming that caused surface temperatures to rise by a degree and glaciers to break out into water, would result in an apocalyptic flood, the likes of which the Kashmir valley had not seen in over a century.


Two weeks hence, the floods are slowly receding but the numbers keep growing. The Indian government has to spend an estimated 6000-crore for rebuilding efforts in Kashmir. Thanks to the speed with which this natural catastrophe overtook the state, there has been no concerted coordination of international relief and response to the disaster. Instead, there are terrific grassroots efforts by organizations such as, run by volunteers; Uber, the global taxi service that uses its cars to pick up medicines and other relief material from Delhi; Goonj, an NGO that collects and distributes vaccines, blankets, and other rehabilitation materials; Uday Foundation and several others. The state government, which was overwhelmed at the scale of the disaster, is now limping back into action. And questions are being asked. Why did the floods happen? Who is to blame? How can this be prevented?


One of the reasons is staring at Kashmiris quite literally in the face: the Himalayan mountains. Thanks to climate change, Himalayan glaciers are shattering and spooling downwards into the valley, causing its rivers to overflow. Combine this with poor urban planning and a disregard for the environment, and the Kashmir floods, as some experts say, were a “disaster waiting to happen.” Rains proved to be the tipping point and rampant construction was the chief culprit. Comparisons to our neighbor across the border didn’t help either.

In India, it is fashionable to say that we have to focus on growth above all. China is viewed as the model when it comes to infrastructure and growth. Environmental sustainability is seen as old fashioned and slow. Some builders dismiss talk of sustainability as a “rich country’s problem that India must only tackle after we have provided a roof over every citizen’s head.” As the Kashmir and Uttarakhand floods have shown, this approach is short-sighted and economically unviable.

Part of the reason why over 500,000 people were left stranded without homes was because of rampant construction in river embankments, bed, and flood zones. Massive deforestation on the mountains increased the flow of water down to the valley. Kashmir’s countless lakes that were once catchment areas for water are now choked with human waste and filth. Nature, normally an ally against natural disasters was dismissed and run roughshod over. This week, the government stated that the construction on river beds would be under scrutiny. This is an important first step in moving Kashmir to the paradise that it once was.


Kashmir occupies a conflicted yet sacred place in the Indian imagination. Much of Indian philosophy came from the Hindu scholars who populated Kashmir from the 8th to the 12th centuries. This beauteous land inspired numerous Mughal emperors, including Jahangir who called it paradise on earth. Even today, the land inspires fierce loyalty. My friend’s father flew thousands of miles to spend his 75th birthday in the land that nurtured him. Had he known how much the floods would ravage his beloved land, I imagine that he and his wife would never had left Srinagar.

Shoba Narayan is the author of “Return to India: a memoir.”

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