Wrote this piece for Journeys, a new travel quarterly by Smithsonian. You can find it here. Click on the link below for my piece.
Got an email from a reader with some tough questions. I have my answers for them, but plan to write to him separately.
Begin forwarded message:
Date: March 21, 2015 at 1:13:43 AM GMT+5:30
Subject: Regarding – Balance vs Early Retirement
From: Vaibhav Bhosale
Read your article in Mint and frankly loved it. It gives a fresh aroma of freedom. Unclogs the mind blockages. Reminds me that I am not a prisoner of my own device, that I have to draw a line of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable to me.
But the real question is – how do you train your mind not to drift itself in whirlpool of life? It is not easy to stop when you want to win and succeed desperately.
How do you achieve a work-life balance on a regular basis? How do you create a belief that the sacrifice you are going to make in favor of life, is not going to cost you a whole lot in the work aspect? It might actually cost you. But then how do you reconcile your mind to not feel like an underachiever or somebody who didn’t actualize his / her talent?
A retirement letter masquerading as a wise sermon should hardly make news, let alone cause effusive gushing. Yet, that is what happened with a letter that Google’s chief financial officer, Patrick Pichette, wrote. In it, Pichette announced that he was stepping down from his high-powered job and explained why. In terms of life lessons, there was little that was new, but he put it well.
Pichette opens with him standing atop Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with his wife. After a few minutes spent staring at the Serengeti, his wife comes up with a proposition: Why not keep travelling, she asks—from Africa to India to Bali to Australia to Antarctica? Pichette says they have to go back to their jobs and board positions; at which point his wife asks when it will be their time. “So when is it going to be time? Our time? My time. The questions just hung there in the cold morning African air.”
Pichette comes across as a nice man. He has a lyrical turn of phrase. That, along with the fact that he holds a top job in a revered Silicon Valley company, may be why his resignation letter has the drama it does. Man rockets to the top; then drops off the cliff. That’s the story. The Washington Post praised it as “candid” and “reflective”. The Huffington Post called it “inspiring”. Most people admired his desire to seek balance in his life.
But the point is that Pichette didn’t seek balance. The life he describes is no different from the hard-charging worker bees that he manages: people who work long hours; travel constantly; leave their spouse to do much of the child-rearing; are available on call and email constantly, even when they don’t need to be; and suddenly stand atop an African mountain with a wife who is asking tough questions and discover that the children have flown the coop. To step down at that moment isn’t wisdom or a search for balance. It is exhaustion giving way to spousal priorities. It is a simple resignation letter masquerading as a sermon from the mount.
What should make news are executives who choose balance on every step of the corporate ladder. Leaders who make career compromises for the sake of a gifted or dyslexic child; CFOs who choose to forgo more stock options so that they can be home on weekends; heads of divisions who take annual vacations sans the laptop with their families; law firm partners who forgo an exciting assignment so that their spouse can have a turn at the career wheel; and who don’t need to get on a mountain top to understand work-life balance. Except that those people probably don’t become Google CFOs and get its bully pulpit.
Balance in today’s world is mostly about saying “No”. Pichette stepped off his ostensibly fabulous job when he resigned, which is why he is lauded. For the rest of us, it is a series of small negative shakes of the head. A list of things not to do. Small things, but hard to implement. How addicted are you to your mobile device? How much time do you spend checking your messages and email? I do it constantly. Every study says that this frazzled, constant checking of digital data fries your creativity and drowns your concentration. How do you switch off? Are you doing anything about it? That is balance.
Do you surreptitiously check messages when you are helping your child with homework? Why? How can you stop yourself? Parenting happens during pauses; during boredom. Sometimes it is just being at the right place when your child has a certain question. It is the ability to pick up on cues and know what questions to ask. To do that, you cannot be preoccupied all the time. How are you going to achieve a free, open mind that picks up on cues from people you care about? That is balance.
Pichette says he is dropping out of Google to travel the world with his wife. How about going to the corner store with her? Grand gestures make for good storytelling, but it is the small stuff that makes a marriage. Date night is a Western concept, but the notion of doing something with your spouse is a good idea. People of our parents’ generation didn’t make a conscious effort to do an activity together, but we can.
Balance is about saying no to trips that you don’t really need to take; to come up with alternatives such as teleconferencing. Balance is walking away from an assignment that you really love to help a friend get through his illness. Balance is small, incremental choices in a direction that is fair to all the people you care about; that encompasses the physical, mental and spiritual; that incorporates hobbies, passion and purpose. It is not about standing on a mountain and announcing that you are dropping out. That is drama, not balance.
Balance is to have priorities that go beyond immediate family (spouse and children) and your career. Our Indian system is geared for balance. In order to prioritize away from the suction of a career, you need to have things to prioritize towards: family, friends, duty, obligations, these are the stuff of balance. India is full of that. A family wedding falls on the same day of a product roadshow. Which do you choose? A Silicon Valley CFO probably never used the line: “My second cousin’s wedding is on the day of the launch. We grew up together and I have to attend—for four days.”
India is rigged for a balanced life. We each have elderly relatives that we are sort of responsible for. We don’t necessarily like these aunties and uncles but a cousin calls up from Europe and says that they need to be taken for a blood test. What do you do? Having multiple people and obligations in our lives gives us perspective; prevents us from being consumed by one thing: our career.
If you don’t have college classmates who will nudge you to take a trip every year, how will you know the pleasure of friendship or, for that matter, vacations? If you don’t go to church on a regular basis, or have some sort of spiritual affiliation, how do you pause to think about the big things in life? If you don’t look up from your computer to watch a sunset, how will you get a hobby that will engage you after retirement? If you don’t find pleasure in art, gardening, nature or sport, how will you prepare yourself for the solitude that accompanies old age?
Balancing involves choosing between conflicting priorities. For many, there is no conflict. The priority becomes work. To me, Pichette’s letter isn’t an inspiring take on balance. It is an extended apology for all the small things that he didn’t say “No” to. Because, you see, balance isn’t sequential; it is parallel—and constant.
Shoba Narayan has turned off email on her mobile device and uses Freedom and Self Control to limit time on the Internet. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
So every writer aspires to be a photographer or at least I do. Here are the photos I took at Kanha and Pench. You have to be patient and refresh the page many times.
March 12, 2015 Updated: March 12, 2015 02:29 PM
I’m sitting on the deck outside my tent, which perches high above the Banjaar River in central India. Across the river lies Kanha National Park, which at 1,945 square kilometres is one of India’s largest. White egrets pick their way across the bank searching for fish. A male langur cries from within the jungle to establish territoriality. I smile happily. I have spent countless summers trekking and tenting within national parks in four continents. I love the herbal scents in the air; the swaying rustle of leaves; the gurgle of the river. Most of all, I love the spiffy luxury of my tent, so far removed from digging a hole in the ground and using broad teak leaves as toilet paper.
There are 48 recognised tribes in Madhya Pradesh, including Gonds, Bhils, Bastars, Baigas and Ojhas. They live in pockets all over the state, making beautiful sculptures and foraging for medicinal plants. Banjaar Tola’s spaces are enlivened by whimsical metal sculptures created by the local Bastar tribal people. The brass door handles, hanging hooks and water tumblers have tribal faces etched on them. Bottles containing saffron and turmeric conditioner and body wash have metal cork-like closures displaying women with geometric faces and coiled hair. In the middle of my bedroom sits a sculpture of a woman with a telescope turned to the sky. As well she might, because the night sky is glorious, revealing a cross section of the Milky Way and a whole array of constellations. I pick at the lemony salad with home-grown lettuce, bite into coriander-and-yogurt infused kebabs and sigh in satisfaction. I haven’t been on my first drive into the jungle. In fact, I’ve barely arrived.
The human vision of wildlife is romantic and often forgets how inaccessible wildlife is, and should be. Reaching a national park in any continent requires hours of travel by pretty much every mode of transport. So it is with Kanha National Park in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The word “madhya” literally means centre in Hindi.
Getting to Kanha involves flying to Mumbai; then to Nagpur; and then driving five hours into the jungle (if you have time, Bhopal is a beautiful city to visit on the same trip). This long journey forces Type A travellers such as myself into resigned acceptance of a slower rhythm; something of a stupor really. By the time I arrive at Banjaar Tola, I am ready for anything, or rather, nothing.
Wildlife tourism reached a luxury tipping point in India nearly 10 years ago when high-end global players such as the Aman group and Africa’s &Beyond entered the country. In 2006, &Beyond partnered with the Taj group of hotels to establish Taj Safaris, a joint venture with jungle lodges in four national parks in Central India: Pench, Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Panna. The lodges are designed by &Beyond and operated by Taj. The service is warm. The beds are firm. The rangers are superbly trained, the staff attentive but not obsequious. The architecture is rustic and in keeping with the forest – choosing wild flowers rather than manicured lawns. The food is Indian but plated well with grilled meats, dals, birianis and curries, all served with your choice of drinks. Rooms are decorated with local tribal objects but are rustic in sensibility. There is no television, no internet, and barely any phone reception. And really, it’s rather silly to sit in a jungle and poke someone on Facebook. The library has both television and a computer with an internet connection.
Of the four, Bandhavgarh National Park is touted to have a high density of tigers, which translates into “guaranteed” tiger sightings. I choose Kanha and later, Pench – inspired by a BBC documentary, Spy in the Wild, on the tigers of Pench. Narrated by David Attenborough, the superb film uses hidden cameras shaped like tree trunks, that are carried by elephants and placed right beside the tigers, offering unparalleled access into the daily, mating and maternal life of this magnificent animal: Panthera tigris tigris.
Kanha has about 95 tigers in its whole area, but the 300 square kilometres that are open for tourism house barely 10. The 10 four-wheel drives that enter the forest at dawn are chasing these tigers. Of course, we don’t say that. Tiger sightings are rare and cannot be created or conjured up, even by luxury tour operators. Of India’s 27 tiger preserves, I have visited about 15 over the last dozen years. I have seen the tiger in the wild only once: in Ranthambore. I have been to Kanha before and spent days without a tiger sighting. So I don’t dare hope for anything. Still, there is no getting away from the elephant in this particular room: we have all come to Kanha to see the tiger.
The forest in Kanha is dense and moist. Dew drips from the tall sal trees. Sunlight filters through. Mist rises from the grasslands, which are coloured white, pink and purple. Sheet spiders create their webs horizontally like sheets at the bottom of trees, waiting in funnel-like homes to catch the unsuspecting insect that falls down. Brilliant yellow orioles fly across trees, glinting like the sun.
As we drive in, we see Kanha’s biggest success story: the barasingha or swamp deer. In 1970, their count dropped to a precipitous 66 animals because of infection, habitat loss and over-killing by tigers. Park officials cordoned off grasslands and researched the population decline. Of the 25 species of grass available at Kanha, the swamp deer picks at only seven types. Thirty years of conservation later, the count stands at a respectable 450. “The swamp deer and not the tiger is the true hero of this park because you can see the barasingha only in Kanha and it came back from near extinction,” says my naturalist, Dipu from Kerala.
We don’t see a tiger during my time in Kanha. We do see jackals, jungle fowl and other animals; and really, they ought to be enough. But I can’t help feeling disappointed as I drive to Pench, three hours away. Baghvan Lodge in Pench has wooden huts that are raised a little off the ground. The indoor and outdoor showers are nice, but I preferred the old-fashioned bathtub with brass fittings at Banjaar Tola. The best part of Baghvan’s rooms is the machan, a tree house that comes with every room. In the afternoon, I take my laptop there and read, type and doze. All around are trees filled with birds whose cries and screams remind me of home.
Tigers have been part of India’s ecosystem and lore for centuries. Tiger images are seen on Bronze Age seals. The pharaohs and Romans are said to have imported Indian tigers for gladiatorial sport. Indian maharajas hunted the tigers nearly to extinction. In 1972, then prime minister Indira Gandhi started Project Tiger to protect and preserve the Bengal tiger. The project is viewed as a success. The latest tiger census shows a count of about 1,500 tigers across 27 tiger preserves in India. Today, tourists come to India’s parks mainly to see this top predator that cannot be seen in any other continent. Three subspecies – Javan, Caspian, and Balinese – are already extinct; and only a few hundred of the Siberian and Sumatran sub-species exist. Hence the pressure on the Bengal tiger – to save it and to sight it.
Planning early is essential because getting into the park involves getting permission from the forest department. I take a few days to send in my identification card and as a result, am not able to go into Pench on the first morning’s drive. The bookings are full. That happens to be the day of a glorious tiger sighting: a tigress and her three cubs. Wolfgang, a German, regales me with photos of the tigress walking, sitting and even pooping. I show him the photos of birds that I took on a walk. I know that sounds lame but the birds were gorgeous.
I spend two days in Pench, following the typical safari lodge routine: forest drives in the morning and the evening with time in the afternoon to nap, read, swim, or in my case, exercise using the “jungle gym” left in the room: a yoga mat, weights and skipping rope, mostly to prepare for the evening’s labours: dinner. With me at the camp are Belgians, Germans, Americans and British tourists. They compare vegetation across continents: the Indian jungle scores in the dense foliage area.
Why does man seek the jungle? Most of us go for a change from city life, to see the tiger if possible and return refreshed. Being amid ancient trees is invigorating. Pench contains sal, teak, banyan, frankincense, Indian gooseberry, wood apple and mahua trees, all of which come together to form sacred groves that rejuvenate passers-by. The sounds of a jungle are distinct in what they do not offer: no wailing ambulances or annoying horns; no shouting and cursing drivers; no shrieking brakes. Instead, it’s the flutter of dragonflies, the chatter of parakeets and the barking call of the deer. You see creatures big and small and each of them links you back to your genetic ancestry in a way that textbooks never can. If you are lucky, as I wasn’t even on Day 3, you will see a tiger.
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My father knows William Blake’s verses by heart. Maybe I should memorize it too.
|TIGER, tiger, burning bright|
|In the forests of the night,|
|What immortal hand or eye|
|Could frame thy fearful symmetry?|
|In what distant deeps or skies||5|
|Burnt the fire of thine eyes?|
|On what wings dare he aspire?|
|What the hand dare seize the fire?|
As a feminist, I was troubled by the brouhaha that erupted when Mayer announced her pregnancy. This piece for Mint is a reaction.
- Posted: Fri, Jul 27 2012. 10:31 PM IST
- Mayer’s miscalculation
The Good Life | Shoba Narayan
Ten years after Betty Friedan was dismissed from her job for being pregnant with her second child, she wrote the bestselling book, “The Feminine Mystique,” that sparked the second wave of feminism. One day after Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo announced on Twitter that she was pregnant; a harsh and judgmental debate broke out among the working-women all over the world about the wisdom of “Marissa’s Choice.” In columns, talk shows, and internet forums, working women (and men) debated and pontificated over whether Mayer was being fair to Yahoo by taking on such a high-pressure job at a vulnerable stage in life; about whether such an issue would have even come up had Mayer been a man; and about whether Mayer was holding up the feminist flag by ‘doing it all,’ or taking on a superhuman challenge and setting herself up for failure; and fail the feminist movement in the process.
Mayer probably expected the brickbats. As a high-profile Silicon Valley senior executive, she was used to questions about competence and leadership abilities: what does a woman who has run a few—admittedly high-profile—divisions at Google know about turning around an ailing company? She probably expected questions about judgment: both hers and Yahoo’s. Why was Yahoo making her a CEO when she was six months pregnant? Why was she leaving a flourishing behemoth where she could coast and experience the pleasure of first-time motherhood for the cauldron-like pressure of being captain of a sinking ship? Was it because she was sidelined at Google? Was it because she was going to chase her ambitions no matter what the cost? Was she going to flame out in a few months?
The wisecracks began on July 16th when Mayer announced that she was pregnant. Without preamble or warning, after a tweet about computer science being Stanford’s largest major and her desire to watch an episode of “Breaking Bad,” the TV show, Mayer tweeted that she was beginning her new role as CEO of Yahoo the following day. Seven hour later, she tweeted news of her pregnancy: “Another piece of good news today — @zackbogue and I are expecting a new baby boy!”
Mayer probably knew that her pregnancy announcement would have created waves. I am not sure she anticipated that it would become the center of a media maelstrom that mostly criticizes her approach. Message board suggestions have ranged from downright nasty (put the baby for adoption since you won’t be able to spend any time with him anyway), to stout defense (just because she has delivered a baby doesn’t mean that her brain will become too garbled to do the job of CEO), to envy (she is a high-achieving, wealthy brainaic who can afford a slew of nannies), to veiled pity (girl, you have no idea what you are getting into). Rather than her appointment, the pregnancy became the focus of the discussion.
My view is that the hue and cry happened, not because of what Mayer said but the way she said it. There are many ways for a public figure to reveal a life-changing event to the world. Twitter is not one of them. Sure, celebrities routinely announce life-events through their Twitter feed. In Mayer’s case, given the confluence of big announcements, a far better method would have been to either write a letter, or issue a press release. The sobriety of a letter would suggest that Mayer knew what she was getting into. It would have cushioned the message, pre-empted the criticism, and allowed Mayer to discuss all the challenges that she has no doubt thought about. The playfulness and immediacy of Twitter made her come across as a dilettante. It did not give motherhood—or being CEO– the respect the role deserves. While Mayer also announced her pregnancy in an interview with Fortune magazine, it was the casual Twitter announcement that opened her up to scrutiny and criticism. It made Mayer seem tone-deaf to her audience.
Some of this has to do with geography. In India, we are used to building consensus on everything: family weddings, how to compost in a community, whether to drink cow’s milk within a family. This kind of communal living makes us adept at fashioning messages while keeping our audience in mind. We are adept at gauging reaction and have an instinct for appropriateness. Silicon Valley and the isolation and hubris it entails had perhaps made Mayer miscalculate the reaction to her message.
Perhaps Mayer’s pregnancy will have one good result: it will skew Silicon Valley’s culture towards the Indian way of doing things. First of all, if you are a 37-year-old woman, the Indian way is to expect her to get pregnant at some point. Why not in Silicon Valley? Why not fashion work-life laws that expect pregnancies rather than be surprised when they happen? Second of all, in India, somehow we know when a couple is trying for a baby. Don’t ask me how, but our entire community is keeping tabs on a couple in my building who has been together for years and are yet to have a baby—even though they have said a single word. So when this particular working woman—let’s call her Melisa—announces that she is pregnant just after taking a high-stress job, there will be chuckles of “I knew it,” rather than, “Oh, girlfriend, you don’t know what you are getting into.” Lastly, the Indian way of announcing a pregnancy involves rituals, warding off the evil eye, wearing black saris and glass bangles, and exchanging sweets. These cultural customs serve one great purpose: they allow for buy-in from the community. The problem with Mayer’s announcement was not that she was pregnant while being CEO. It was that she didn’t allow for buy-in.
Shoba Narayan heartily supports Mayer’s decision. She would like to introduce Mayer to some good Indian music—both for her baby’s sake, and to attune Mayer’s ears to consequences of a wrongly delivered message.
A piece that appeared in Silkroad Airline magazine here
- Posted: Fri, Mar 9 2012. 9:42 PM IST
The Good Life | Shoba Narayan
The lota (a spherical water vessel). Of course. Thanks to American designer Charles Eames’ comment in The India Report, which led to the formation of the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, in 1961. “Of all the objects we have seen and admired during our visit to India, the lota, that simple vessel of everyday use, stands out as perhaps the greatest, the most beautiful,” said Eames.
The thali (plate). Perfectly suited to the multiple courses that are served simultaneously in an Indian kitchen.
The rimmed stainless steel tumbler. Used communally to drink fluids without having the utensil touch the lips. Our elders would say that it is more hygienic and uses fewer resources in terms of washing.
The thali (plate). Perfectly suited to the multiple courses that are served simultaneously in an Indian kitchen.
The rimmed stainless steel tumbler. Used communally to drink fluids without having the utensil touch the lips. Our elders would say that it is more hygienic and uses fewer resources in terms of washing.
The tiffin carrier. A thing of beauty really, used to carry multiple courses in train compartments and for long journeys. Immortalized by Subodh Gupta in his sculptures. Still used in urban India, where caterers carry food in giant tiffin boxes in autorickshaws. Which leads us to the….
The autorickshaw is a ubiquitous object of love and hate. Photo: Muhammad Mahdi Karim/Wikimedia Commons.
Autorickshaw. Inspired by the Italian Piaggio Ape, not as indigenous as the bullock cart, but a ubiquitous object of love and hate nevertheless.
Ambassador car. Not exactly indigenous, but has become an Indian icon. Immortalized by Jitish Kallat in his work.
Kulhad (earthen) cups.Disposable, biodegradable, hygienic. As easy on the eye as the paper plates designed by Japanese design firm Wasara (www.wasara.jp/index_e.html)
Saris. Even though pretty much every Indian apparel is an example of good indigenous design, a few stand out. The sari is intrinsic to India, and conveys the soul of our textile traditions. This unstitched cloth reflects an aesthetic that is rooted in simplicity as the essence of purity. The regional variations possible out of this fabric are mind-boggling in their creativity.
Kurta. Called tunic globally, these long tops that we wear all over India are now sold in Stockholm, Sweden, and San Francisco, US.
Bindis. Madonna wears them. Bharti Kher popularized them in her sculptures, although she doesn’t wear them herself.
Lungi. Checked or plain, the lungi, dhoti, veshti and panchakacham, are all variations of a simple cotton cloth that is put to good use by our men. In Kerala, lungis raised to half-mast to reveal hirsute legs is a common sight. Toddy tappers tie them even higher as they clamber up trees and bring down the fluid that lubricates Kerala’s love of fish.
Kolhapuri chappals. Uniquely Indian.
Mojris and Chikan work. Prada is doing a take on these.
Coir. Beds and mats are most common, but the range of objects that the “kalpavriksha” coconut tree offers range in number and drive some of Kerala’s economy.
Chattais. Woven mats. We sit on them. We sleep on them. Now we putzari borders on them and colour them pink and purple.
Jadhu (broomstick). Local materials tied together to make a cleaning object that is user-friendly, biodegradable and does its job.
Tambu. Tent. It’s used all over the country.
Turban. It finds multiple uses in the desert, from keeping your head cool to carrying some food in its folds.
Jhola. These bags have become cool these days, with modern designers putting their own spin on them.
Safety pin. Not necessarily Indian but becomes an Indian woman’s Swiss army knife and is strung in her mangalsutra. Kiran Uttam Ghosh makes tassels out of safety pins in her clothes.
Cradles made of saris in trains. Okay, so these aren’t exactly objects but examples of Indian jugaad (resourcefulness). But they conform to design firm Ideo’s credo of “human-centric design”.
Kaajal-daani. Lovely object from Madhya Pradesh, used to apply kaajal(kohl) in eyes. Comes with a mirror inside. I own one. I bought it for Rs.350 at Dastkar in Bangalore from a craftsman.
Sit-cutting. Called boti in Bengali, addeli in Konkani, kathipeeta in Telugu, aruvamanai in Tamil, pankhi in Oriya, vili or morli in Marathi,thuriyo mane in Kannada, daat in Punjabi, hansua in Bihar and Jharkhand, and kaanthne in Mangalore, this unique cutting instrument implies leisure and camaraderie in the kitchen. A beloved kitchen tool.
What’s your list? Thank you, Sujata Keshavan, co-founder, Ray + Keshavan, and Surya Prakash, managing director, Design Core, for contributing to mine.
Shoba Narayan’s current favourite design object is an uruli-table with a glass on top. Write to her at email@example.com
Also Read | Shoba’s earlier Lounge columns
Just out. Condenast Traveler (US edition). June issue. A piece I wrote about learning tai chi in Shanghai and Beijing. Haven’t seen the hard copy but they took great photos of a tai chi master in New York.
Here is the story in Condenast Traveler’s website
Also pasted below.
Tai Chi Me
by Shoba Narayan | Published June 2011 | See more Condé Nast Traveler articles ›
Tai chi’s graceful hand movements can change in an instant into powerful punches. Its name means “supreme ultimate fist.”
Shoba Narayan travels to Shanghai and Beijing in search of a tai chi master.
Casting aside the yoga of her youth, Shoba Narayan turns to China’s martial arts to tame her wild emotions—”I’m more Rahm Emanuel than Barack Obama”—and get six-pack abs in the bargain.
I have come to China from my home in Bangalore, India, to find a tai chi teacher.
I arrive in Shanghai at night, alone, and decide to go to the movies. Neon lights flash by the taxi’s windows as the driver listens to mournful Chinese music. We pass buses full of commuters on their way home. The theater is almost empty, but the movie—Michelle Yeoh’s latest martial arts adventure, Reign of Assassins—is breathtaking. Watching her dispense would-be killers with praying mantis strikes and wing chun kicks reminds me that Yeoh is heir to a long line of women in Chinese martial arts, something the feminist in me relishes. The earliest reference I’ve found comes from the Zhou period, around 700 b.c., when a young woman, Yuh Niuy, defeated three thousand men in a sword battle lasting seven days. Yuh’s sayings have been passed down the centuries. “When the way is battle,” she wrote, “be full-spirited within, but outwardly show calm and be relaxed. Appear to be as gentle as a fair lady, but react like a vicious tiger.” I sleep well in my hotel that night.
The next morning I jog to the Bund. At 6 a.m. it is quiet, a far cry from night, when throngs of people gather to gawk at the Oriental Pearl Tower and the lights of Pudong. Dawn brings runners like myself, plus dog walkers, photographers, kite-flying men. In the plaza across from The Peninsula hotel, several groups “play” tai chi, as the Chinese say, dressed in cream-colored satin uniforms, wielding swords and fans to strike poses such as “embrace the moon” and “cloud hands.” They are magnificent, crouching low to crawl like a snake and doing “golden cock stands on one leg.” A black-uniformed teacher breaks off occasionally to adjust a stance, demonstrate a parry, and correct a form.
During a water break, I sidle up to a young man whose explosive fa-jin punches—ones that begin fast, then stop abruptly—almost make me weep with envy. “Does your shifu [teacher] speak English?” I ask.
I don’t understand his words, but it’s clear that the answer is no.
My pursuit of tai chi has been punctuated by such cultural challenges. When I informed my conservative Indian family that I was interested in tai chi, they were appalled. Why was their Indian child, heir to an ancient and proud tradition—yoga—leaning toward an alien discipline? “I told you that sending her to America was a bad idea,” said my uncle, who made me do the downward dog every day as a child. He was right. It was as a young woman abroad in America that I’d found myself bumping up against China’s culture: a Chinese roommate, an apprenticeship with an acupuncturist while awaiting my green card, Bette Bao Lord’s novels. Yoga is like my mother; I take it for granted. It is so much a part of me that I am tired of it. I want some distance. Tai chi offers this distance while still being based on the Eastern principles familiar to me.
I am here, in tai chi’s birthplace, to try to take my practice to the next level. Like many modern practitioners of tai chi, I don’t have the free time to spend weeks at one of the intensive martial arts schools in the provinces of China because of work and family responsibilities. Instead, I have seven days. And so I’ve made appointments with tai chi teachers in Shanghai and Beijing. My tai chi teacher in India, who travels frequently to China, tried to manage my expectations. “My teachers cannot be yours,” he said. “Go forth and find your own.”
Having turned forty, I no longer aspire to become a crouching tiger or a hidden dragon. Yes, I want the core strength, flexibility, and balance that tai chi provides. But I also want serenity. Temperamentally I am more Rahm Emanuel than Barack Obama. I hear myself interacting with my family, issuing threats to my daughters that I have no hope of keeping (“Clean your room or no TV for a month”) and subjecting my even-keeled engineer husband to ultimatums (“This is not working—I am leaving”). With tai chi, I can channel my frustrations into black tiger kicks, dragon fists, and eagle claw holds.
Tai chi—which means “supreme ultimate fist”—is arguably the most popular of the three-hundred-odd Chinese martial arts, known collectively as wushu. Like yoga, tai chi begins with external flexibility and balance before moving inward. The idea is to do the pose repeatedly until it changes your posture, improves your belly breathing, makes your joints flexible, and centers your mind. Legs ground the body and provide balance. Energy originates in the feet before flowing upward to waist, chest, and arms, gaining momentum along the way until it explodes outward through punches or kicks. Tai chi practitioners try to remain relaxed while moving so that this energy can flow without obstruction. In the United States, about 2.3 million people practice tai chi, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Studies show that regular practice can help reduce cholesterol, heart attacks, and high blood pressure as well as osteoarthritis, sleep disorders, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. One study reported a forty percent reduction in the number of falls in an elderly group practicing tai chi.
The Chinese government’s relationship with tai chi is conflicted; the authorities recognize its value as a tool for well-being in a nation enduring a health care crisis, but also fear its cult power. The practice of Falun Gong—which uses the principles of tai chi and qigong, or controlled breathing—was banned by President Jiang Zemin in 1999. The move stemmed from a peaceful protest by ten thousand followers outside the Zhongnanhai government compound against a government-ordered media campaign opposing Falun Gong. Many Falun Gong practitioners remain in prison today.
Shaolin, meaning “Young Forest,” is a monastery in the Song Shan Mountains of Henan Province. Legend has it that an Indian monk, Bodhidharma, traveled there in the sixth century, stared at a wall in silence for nine years, and taught the monks martial arts techniques, which they used to defend the emperor. Shaolin-style wushu, which emphasizes discipline, penance, and brutal practice as a way to achieve superhuman strength and skill, is a “hard external” wushu method that lends itself to combat, in contrast to softer “internal” wushu styles that focus on health and longevity.
For centuries, Shaolin was the only way. Neijia, or internal, styles originated with a Taoist monk, Zhang Sanfeng, in China’s Wudang Mountains in the twelfth century. Zhang observed a snake fighting a crane. Every time the crane struck, the snake would dart its head out of the way and hit the crane with its tail. Even though the crane was bigger and stronger, the snake eventually won. From such observations, Zhang came up with the basis of many of China’s non-Shaolin martial arts: to yield in the face of aggression, to turn your opponent’s strength against him. Tai chi comes under this category.
While I am not a Shaolin student, I want to take a traditional Shaolin class, so I visit Longwu Kungfu Center, an urban day school in Shanghai. Longwu is a large open space with mirrors for walls, like a gymnasium. On one side, a master is teaching Shaolin-style wushu to a group of Chinese and foreigners. Tall and swarthy, he yells his commands in English that sounds like Chinese: “Forwa, fiit togetha, kicku, handsup, whaaa. . . .” A dozen students lift their sticks and strike. “Whaa!”
I stand in the back and follow the class to the best of my ability. Many of the movements overlap with tai chi, but the use of the stick, and the sudden punches, are new to me. Across the hall another master, bare torsoed and balding, is giving a private boxing lesson to a helmeted man who seems unable to dodge his lightning punches.
I ask Longwu’s founder, a former national wushu champion named Alvin Guo, how he manages to attract such high-quality instructors. “An old Chinese saying goes, ‘Once a teacher, always a father,'” is his enigmatic reply.
I spend the next two days in Shanghai taking tai chi lessons at Longwu and two other places, the Jingwu sports training center and the Qingpu school. None of the three tai chi teachers I meet are for me. One is more interested in how much I can pay per hour than in advancing my practice. The other two are better but don’t speak even rudimentary English. (I had e-mailed them before my arrival and their responses were in English, apparently sent through senior students.) They nod approvingly when I show them my techniques, adjust my arms and body, but we don’t progress beyond that. There is no conversation.
Recognizing the right guru is the stuff of lore in Eastern thought. I too have some parameters. There has to be that intangible connection, of course. Beyond that, I seek generosity. In ancient India and China, when it came to spiritual disciplines, knowledge was a gift that gurus offered for free to worthy students. It was understood that the student would then make an offering, to solidify the connection. All of my teachers in India and the United States—the good ones, anyway—taught me for free. I am hoping that this pattern will continue in Beijing, where I fly to next.
Beihai Park is the loveliest in Beijing. Weeping willows border the lake, and with several tai chi groups practicing a variety of forms, you can cherry-pick one that is right for you. I join a gathering of women who move to the sound of tinny Chinese music from a small tape player. One of them, a radiant young mother, offers me her sword as she takes a break to comfort her baby in a nearby pram. I shake my head and try to explain that I am not at her level. She smiles, insisting. I am secretly thrilled. Sword tai chi is more nuanced and subtle because of the strength and speed of a sharp instrument. Movements such as “swallow skims the water” and “black dragon wags its tail” take on more gravitas as I execute them.
Later that day, looking up tai chi classes on the China Culture Center’s Web site, I am distracted by a lecture on “cricket fighting and chirping culture” and decide to attend. I make my way to the center, located in a large, squat building in a quiet neighborhood, where founder Feng Cheng lectures in English, speaking poignantly about how the Chinese love to catch and keep crickets. He tells of cabbies who drive the night shift with a cricket in a box inside their shirt so that they can listen to the comforting sound of their pet during the long, lonely night. Why, I ask Feng, are the Chinese more fond of crickets than of the dragonflies or butterflies I caught as a child in India?
“Because they fight,” he replies simply.
I come back the following evening for a 7:30 tai chi class. The teacher, thirty-eight-year-old Paul Wang, has the light, playful quality you see in Buddhist masters. With his bald head, ascetic appearance, and thin body, he looks like a monk, which he is not. “The baldness is just my hairstyle,” he says with a laugh.
I have high hopes. Perhaps he is the one. After class, we get to talking.
“Sometimes when we meet a difficulty, we have a lot of tension and hurry to fix the problem,” he says. “When you master the way of balance and gentle intention, everything you face will be different. There will be less hurry, your mind will be very clear. When someone is aggressive, you normally become tense. But that is the moment when you must practice your tai chi to release the stress. First, don’t have resistance to yourself; then you won’t have resistance to the other person. If he is aggressive, simply accept his moves and reflect the aggression back at him.”
Wang is a highly accomplished practitioner, but I cannot get past the smoothness that he has cultivated to deal with the expats and foreigners. I crave the artless roughness of the old masters.
I’m looking forward to taking a tai chi class at the Beijing Sport University when I learn that it’s canceled. At the Fairmont Beijing, where I am staying, the tai chi instructor, Link Li, offers to give me a free lesson. I am disdainful. Learning tai chi at a luxury hotel? How good can the instructor be?
But over the course of two lessons, Link improves my technique manifold. He tells me to take “soft heavy steps with flexible strength.” This means that while I must tread softly, I must be firm, be “heavy” with intent. At the same time, I must have flexible strength so that I can move quickly when attacked. I watch as Link does the slower, dancelike moves that most people associate with tai chi, and marvel as he speeds up the same moves to demonstrate how tai chi used to be done in its earlier, more militant incarnation. It’s a revelation to see poses known for their health benefits transformed instantly into weapons.
When he was just twenty-five, Link tells me, he was authorized by his teacher, a prominent master known as Gao Yong, to take on students. Who knew that this smiling thirty-year-old hotel employee was a bona fide shifu?
At the end of the session, I chat about tai chi with Link. Like Wang, he is highly skilled and eager to cater to my needs. And that’s what’s bothering me, I realize. I don’t want to be treated like a tourist on a tight schedule but rather like a student away from the constraints of time and family. I want a teacher who will be true to himself or herself, not fuss over me. I am looking for someone raw, someone who can bring the mountain air of Wudang into my consciousness.
It is my last day in Beijing, and I am desperate. Fool, I berate myself, questioning my hope of finding a teacher, people train in China for months—how could you expect to accomplish anything in a week? After my morning round of tai chi at Beihai Park, I return to the hotel to find an e-mail from one of my tour guides directing me to a female shifu, Mrs. Shi, who leads tai chi at 10 a.m. every day, rain or shine, by the old city wall on the south part of town.
The concierge gives me detailed directions. The subway ride takes an hour. I get out and promptly lose my way. I call Mrs. Shi on her mobile phone. She is friendly and giggles a lot but speaks mostly Chinese and is unable to guide me to her location. I find an English-speaking girl who shows me the way. I walk across a park cut through by a canal bordered by weeping willows. A manicured lawn on one side is full of seniors ballroom dancing, people playing badminton, mothers pushing babies in prams, young men jogging, and locals sitting on park benches and reading newspapers. Amid the ballroom dancers, I find Mrs. Shi’s tai chi class. Her straight hair pulled back in a ponytail, she has a face appropriate to her fifty-odd years but the body tone of a woman half her age. Her class is just ending. A middle-aged man gives her the fist-to-palm salute that we martial arts students offer our teachers. Mrs. Shi turns to me with a smile. I demonstrate my chen style (the oldest of five tai chi styles) so she can gauge my level. She watches me, and my hair starts to stand on end. It sounds crazy, but I feel a strange electricity—the kind of buzz you get when you are single and meet someone really attractive who could be the one.
I try to remove my jacket so that she can see the way my body moves more clearly. “I can see your form,” she says simply.
Then it is her turn. Her stomach coils (there is no other word for it), her knees turn, her back arches. She does things with her body that I have never seen before. When I marvel at her moves, she says, “Quantity equals quality,” and laughs in the fashion of Chinese people who are aware of, and embarrassed by, their poor English. “Tai chi is a life journey.”
I try to imitate her moves. I am awed by her energy. I am ready to prostrate myself and beg her to accept me as her student. But in order for me to know that she is the right shifu, there is one final test. I offer to pay for a private lesson.
“When do you want to start?” she asks. Now, I reply.
Her face clouds. Tai chi is very “comprehensive,” she says. “Hard to learn in one day, one lesson. I can teach you one form,” she says. “No charge.”
Temple bells ring and sparrows sing. I have found my teacher.
For the next hour, Mrs. Shi takes me through the same stomach-coiling move that will, I know, if done regularly, give me six-pack abs. Her instructions are simple and often repetitive.
“Keep the back relaxed and the front tight. Yang in the back is expansive; yin in front is closed.” She touches my back. “Lower back loose, upper back tight. Quantity equals quality.”
She can see errors in my posture even when I think I am obeying her instructions. She tells me all this with a shining light of compassion and understanding in her eyes. “You are too much in a hurry,” she says. She might be referring to my life. “Wisdom requires patience.”
An hour later, Mrs. Shi says, “Do this movement sixty times a day for sixty days, and then you will begin to feel something. Once you feel something, come back to me and I will teach you the next lesson.”
We chitchat. She has one daughter, she says, who is twenty-one and living in India. What does your daughter do? I ask.
She is a yoga teacher, Mrs. Shi says.
I laugh. I cannot help but appreciate the irony of coming all the way from India to learn tai chi from a Chinese woman whose daughter is in India studying yoga.
I bow to Mrs. Shi, give her the martial arts fist-to-palm salute, and once more offer to pay for the class. Again she refuses. As I walk through the ballroom dancers, I turn back and find her watching me, waving.
I have to offer my shifu something. I am not even sure if I will ever see her again, although of course that isn’t the point. I have encountered a master who has changed my practice and potentially my life. She will reside in my mind, and I will pay homage to her before I begin my daily practice. But what to give her as an offering?
The midday sun is high in the sky, the grass invitingly green. The ballroom dancers turn. Melodious Chinese music wafts from somewhere. On the spur of the moment, I stop. The grass is my yoga mat. I wave at my shifu, who is still watching me. My elbows support my head as I bend and execute a perfect headstand. Years of practice as a child still haven’t left me. I am doing the Sirsasana yoga pose in a Chinese park as an offering for my tai chi teacher. Someone claps. I get back up on my feet, wave at my shifu, turn, and head to the subway for the long ride home.
I know about Qatar because a lot of my friends from the US fly the airline to get a connection straight into Kerala. This was a reaction.
Flying coach class doesn’t have to be a malodorous misery
Last Updated: Mar 26, 2011
Qatar Airways would do well to take another look at coach class.
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I greeted the news that Qatar Airways plans to reverse course and include first-class cabins on new superjumbos with mixed feelings.
On one hand, I can hardly afford Qatar’s first-class fares on my journalist’s salary. Yet, on the other hand, I am a major proponent of the move to bring the glamour back into flying, particularly at a time when invasive searches at airline terminals are becoming more common.
It’s all very well to make flying into a first-class experience, but I have a question for Qatar’s executives: what about us poor passengers in coach?
Wouldn’t it be nice if Qatar or some enterprising airline revamped its thinking about those of us in the back of the bus? This is not hard to do. A few small things will help. Smell, for instance. Walk into the coach-class cabin of any airline, whether Lufthansa or Air India, and you are greeted with an unmistakable yet unnameable odour.
It is a combination of shoe polish, congealed food and stale sweat. As my teenage daughter says, “Coach cabins are the one place in the world where the bathrooms smell better than the rooms.” I think it is because airlines install industrial strength odour removers in the tiny coach bathrooms but don’t think it necessary to do so in the cabins.
If I were Qatar Airways, I would begin by installing the same strong odour-removers in the coach cabins. Something emitting a pleasing aroma would be welcome; which brings me to my next point.
One of the things that arouses first-class envy among us at the back of the bus are those airline pouches with cosmetic freebies. I would feel a lot better about flying coach if as I went towards my seat I saw a gaily-coloured pouch filled with bite-sized goodies. The airline could make this a corporate social responsibility exercise and buy low-cost cosmetics made by underprivileged women.
Qatar could make it a branding exercise and supply native cosmetics used by Arab women for centuries, items such as kohl or rose water, things that are not very expensive but make a woman feel good.
Cloth pouches are not that expensive either. Even I could source them for the airline for about a dirham each. But the appeal of such a perk to us coach-flyers would be priceless.
It is not just about perks; it’s also about basics. In India, IndiGo is a low-cost airline that is gaining fans because of a simple feature of its service. The airline always leaves on time and arrives on time.
You’d think that such a thing should be the norm for every airline, but it is not. Jet Airways offers a full-service experience, even in coach: smart uniforms, professional staff, courteous flight attendants, the works. The problem with Jet is that it takes twice as long to load people into the aircraft as IndiGo. Staff members mill around, carrying bags, passengers bunch up at the entrance, and while ground personnel are solicitous, they also slow things down.
Not so with IndiGo. Quietly and without fuss, the staff get us all into the aircraft. Frequent flyers on expense accounts, people such as my husband, nowadays choose IndiGo over Jet because they are assured of “getting to Delhi for the meeting, even when there is a fog, which cannot be said of any other airline”, as my husband says.
As a foodie, I’ll be the first to admit that airline food isn’t appealing. But here’s a radical thought. How about making coach-class food a buffet instead of a la carte? In other words, how about having us passengers get up and walk to the staff cabin and pick up our trays instead of having to wait like schoolchildren for our food to be handed to us.
Before you protest that chaos will ensue, let me add the caveats. Obviously, this won’t work all the time, and you’d have to set limits about passengers moving around only after reaching cruising altitude. But the point is that most people like choice, and by serving us food on their schedule instead of ours, airlines make the dining experience more like grade school.
Some airline will have to come up with a ground-breaking approach towards in-flight meals – as different from the norm as Southwest Airlines’ humorous flight announcements are from the more staid ones.
I have high hopes for Qatar. I just don’t want to pin it all on their first-class experience. Being a relatively new airline, it should have the nimbleness to change its ways in mid-air.
Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore and the author of Monsoon Diary.
Articles > Newspapers > Financial Times > New Zealand Food Tour
New Zealand Food Tour
– By Shoba Narayan
(This article originally appeared in May 2005)
For being such an isolated faraway country, New Zealand is a veritable culinary cornucopia. There are olives for the pressing, berries for the picking and wines for the sampling all within a span of miles and sometimes within the same village. Happy sheep bound about the bucolic countryside feasting on the verdant meadows, all of which, no doubt, add flavor to New Zealand’s prized lamb. Salmon, trout and whitebait frisk and frolic in pristine lakes and rivers yielding meltingly fresh seafood that grace many a restaurant’s platter. Bluff oysters, Akaroa salmon, Nelson’s King scallops, West Coast whitebait and Kaikoura crayfish—these are the bounty of New Zealand’s waters. There is beef, ham and venison too from cattle reared on rolling hills and wide-open pastures. I’ve never seen such happy animals as I have in New Zealand and they all probably add to the taste of its cuisine.
This is an old land but a young country. The Maori chanced upon it in 1350 A.D. when they rowed across the Pacific from Hawaiiki. The Irish and English discovered it a mere two generations ago bringing with them a hardy ‘food as fuel’ philosophy that was reflected in hearty roasts, potatoes and dark ale. “Used to be that a big night out would be to Barry’s Bistro for Steak Diane and a big cask of Muller Thurgau,” laughs Debbie Baldook, executive chef of the Millbrook Resort in Queenstown. In the last ten years however, Kiwi cuisine has gone from being ‘roast of the day’ to dishes that are startlingly inventive or completely out-of-control depending on your point of view. Mussel soup with passionfruit mousse anyone?
Devoid of a culinary tradition—the Maori hangi feasts don’t seem to have made a dent in the current cooking scene—New Zealand as a country embraces innovation. Chefs are encouraged to experiment and come up with fusion-combinations that borrow from the cuisines of the Pacific Rim. The results can be incredible or inedible. One restaurant served up a giant flax leaf wrapped around a tiny bowl containing an infusion of some sort. I wasn’t sure if the foot-high flax leaf was a wrap or ornament. So I simply sent the dish back. As Chef Michael Maguire at the Lakes restaurant in Christchurch says, “Sometimes you end up paying $36 for what is essentially several layers of garnish.”
Maguire himself is wary of such histrionics. His food is as earthy and harmonious as the Canterbury countryside on which it is based. He scours the world for spices and condiments but uses them sparingly. His pan seared scallops with pineapple salsa and coconut sorbet is a fine reflection of his teenage years in Singapore and his apprenticeship with three-star Michelin chef Marco Russo in the UK. Like most chefs, Maguire has to please two sets of mutually exclusive diners— older Christchurch locals who are wary of spices and a younger, more worldly clientele that seeks nouvelle cuisine. “I run a very flexible kitchen,” says Maguire. “There is no grandstanding. Basically, we’ll cook whatever the customer wants.”
For being a medium-sized city with a population of 366,000, Christchurch has more cafes and bars per head than anywhere else in New Zealand. Moroccan, Mexican, Indian, Turkish, Spanish, Old English, you name it and they have it. Christchurch is also a city that pretends it is in old England with hedge-lined squares where boys in white play cricket and a Victorian tramway that ambles along cobblestone streets. Men in hats can take you on a ‘punt’ along the Avon River in traditional English flat-bottomed boats and Hagley Park is a picture of manicured perfection.
Christchurch’s café and bistro scene, however, is decidedly modern. Black-uniformed wait-staff briskly take your order and come back with sandwiches or paninis stuffed with ingredients that are sourced from around the world: hummus, tzatziki, couscous, kale, miso and curry are all proffered and accepted. Vegetarians and vegans are graciously accommodated without much fuss. And restaurants, even the finest ones resist brocaded stuffiness. The service at 50 on the Park at the George Hotel, one of the city’s oldest dining establishments, for instance, is formal yet friendly. Nathan Bates, the executive chef sources the world for his spices and inspirations and works with over 40 local suppliers including foragers, bakers and beekeepers for ingredients. The results show in his sparkling if pricey cuisine. A duo of Canterbury lamb cutlet and cut of loin costs $32 while mains at the seafood-focused Pescatore restaurant upstairs start at $41.
There is a reason for this high price and it is one that locals rue: the best lamb, seafood, wines and oils are exported. If local chefs want them, they have to pay export prices. Most chefs make do with the B-grade stuff which is quite good by global standards, while the chefs at top restaurants pass on the expense to their customers.
For those willing to pay the price, however, New Zealand offers a bounty of produce, dairy, seafood and meats in the most startling of places. At the tiny mountain village of Geraldine, en route to the glaciers of Mount Cook, I encountered some exceptional cheeses in a tiny store. Talbot Forest Cheese, they were called, and they were all produced locally. I sampled some perfectly ripe Chevre le Blanc—a camembert made from goat’s milk, some aged Gouda, a creamy brie called Canter-brie in a nod to the region, and a smoky Manuka before buying the whole lot for the road.
Right next door, Barker’s Berry barn offered a variety of jams, preserves and chutneys neatly lined up in bottles alongside free samples for tasting. The apricot, boysenberry and blackcurrant jams were fresh and tasty as were the wildberry and orange preserves. But what caught my eye were the chutneys: capsicum and apricot, green tomato and jalapeno, tamarillo and plum and spiced beetroot. I can’t say that I liked all of them but the interesting and sometimes outrageous combinations typified New Zealand’s culinary sensibility.
After fifteen days of driving around the South Island, we realized that the climate and scenery seemed to encourage artisanal products. In obscure small towns, we found chocolatiers, cheese-mongers, herb and lavender farmers, butchers, bakers and icecream-makers practicing and perfecting their craft. Beesonline mixes vinegar and honey and sells its ‘honeygars’ nationwide. Prenzel Distilling Company sells apricot, peach and sour apple schnapps with butterscotch cream at the Grape Escape gourmet outlet in Nelson. Kinaki Wild Herbs sells herbs that the Maori used such as koru, pikopiko, horopito and kawakawa, all of which can be infused into native avocado oil to give an instant Kiwi flavor to dishes. Pacific Harvest company promotes kelp and seaweed. And Salumeria Fontana seasons sausages with Sicilian sea salt, black pepper, Southland elephant garlic and Italian wine. Organic vineyards such as Sunset Valley in Nelson follow biodynamic sustainable viticultural practices.
Outside Queenstown, we found a line of berry and fruit orchards lining the road and stopped to pick cherries and sun-ripened strawberries. We sampled extra virgin olive oil at numerous presses all over the country, a legacy of the late Israeli horticulturist Gideon Blumenfeld who planted his first olive trees in 1985 and is now considered the godfather of New Zealand’s burgeoning olive oil industry. Athena Olive oil serves up some wonderfully fruity lemon-infused olive oil that are stocked in the Canterbury region. Up near Nelson, we stopped in at the Stafford Lane Estate, which grows olive and native fejoia trees beside its vineyards. I bought a peppery picholine olive oil which worked well for the Indian cuisine I cooked. As for the fejoia jam, all I have to say is that it is an acquired taste. Stafford Lane also stocked Dukkah, which is an spice-mix made of hazelnuts, coriander, cumin and sesame, somewhat reminiscent of the Israeli Za’atar. But all these were expensive. A small bottle of olive oil was $12.95.
Bread is booming in New Zealand perfected in family-owned bakeries that have, in some cases, carried sourdough starters from the old country. Rachel Scott breads have a cult following around Christchurch, while Redwood Bakkerij specializes in moist ‘half-baked’ baguettes. A minor revolution is the widespread availability of savory scones, pies and muffins. Unlike the US where muffins are cloyingly sweet, New Zealand has mastered the savory counterpart. At the Founder’s Organic Brewery in Nelson, where I sampled pints of micro-brewed beer with chirpy names like Tall Blonde, Redhead and Long Black, the in-house café sold a delicious feta cheese and sundried tomato muffin. At the Riverside Café which is part of the Riverside Community that “promotes peace through cooperative and sustainable living,” we wolfed down some savory spice-encrusted muffins while waiting for our lunch. When our crisp French fries and thin pizzas finally arrived, we could barely do justice to them. At the Hislops café in the whale-watching crayfish-eating haven that is Kaikoura township, we became smarter and lunched on a tasty burger along with some onion and cheese muffins, all washed down with a few glasses of sauvignon blanc.
Wineries are of course a major driver of the food revolution in New Zealand. After all, when the quality of the wine improves, you need food to go with it. Many wineries have in-house cafes and restaurants that serve to showcase their product. The in-house restaurant at the Pegasus Bay winery takes its cuisine very seriously and was in fact shortlisted for one of the top ten restaurants in New Zealand by Cuisine, New Zealand’s foodie magazine. The food at Pegasus Bay was deep on flavor and a perfect foil for their wines. We walked in without reservations and were told that there was a 45-minute wait. The same was true at the Carrick Winery restaurant near Queenstown. After a while, we got the message: if you want to lunch at these immensely popular winery restaurants, you’d do best to call ahead. At Pegasus Bay, our wait was rewarded with a cool apple and celery soup with truffle scented Athena oil and a handmade pumpkin and marjoram tortellini with a summer vegetable nage, all washed down with Pegasus Bay Reisling.
The Gibbston Valley winery goes one step further. In addition to the wine-tasting and full-service restaurant, there is an in-house cheesery that sells a variety of homegrown cheeses. We sampled their cheese board that offered its washed-rind cheese called ‘Monk’s Gold,’ its savory cheddar and soft brie.
Artisanal cheeses are being perfected all over the country ranging from the venerable and large Kapiti cheeses from the North Island too smaller producers like Whitestone, Talbot and others. With milk and butter being so abundant, cheese is only the natural next step. Most New Zealand cheesemakers go for the more straightforward cheeses however, rather than the more obscure ‘smelly’ European cheeses. They seem content perfect a smooth brie instead of attempting a complex gruyere. And why not? This after all is most definitely not a nation with 536 varieites of cheeses. New Zealand has 53,000 sheep and for the Kiwis, perfecting a few world-class sheep’s milk cheese is just as satisfying as trying their hand at the tricky ones. In his website, Kapiti cheese’s chairman says,
So there you have it, two culinary trends running parallel to each other. On the one hand, the Kiwi inclination towards self-effacement, restraint and quietitude and yet, on the other, this inventive playfulness, this constant innovation towards extreme-cuisine as it were from a nation that invented bungy-jumping and thrives on extreme-sports. The taciturn mountaineer a la Edmund Hillary, the national icon is just as much a Kiwi stereotype as is the voluble adrenaline-junkie Prime Minister Helen Clark who didn’t know about the Asian tsunami disaster because she was heli-skiing in Norway over Boxing Day. The question for the future is which will win out—extreme cuisine or restrained roasts.
Debbie Baldook, executive chef at the Millbrook Resort thinks that her country is over fusion, Pacific Rim and incessant invention. “Now it is all about putting clean, clear flavors on the plate,” she said while at the same time appealing to the ever-growing sophistication of the Kiwi palate. Perhaps because they are so isolated, New Zealanders are more attuned to global goings-on than other countries. They travel the world and sample its wares. They are open-minded and accepting of new things, be it spices or flavors. Baldook for instance, offers tahini sauce with her veal tenderloin and none of her clients—local or tourist—bat an eyelid, she says.
“New Zealanders are much more innovative than, say in the UK,” says Alan Hibberts, originally from London. “They are open to new flavors in a way that the English aren’t.”
“We are a shy people,” says Richard Tanner, chef-owner of Malabar, an Asian fusion restaurant in the alpine spa-outpost of Hamner Springs where vacationers come to take in the waters at the region’s hot and thermal springs. Tanner has lived and cooked in 88 countries across the globe including New York, London, Spain, India and Thailand. Originally from Hanmer Springs, he came back home to roost and roast here. His cuisine reflects his global travels and Kiwi moorings.
Chefs such as Tanner reflect the new Kiwi: world-travelled, sophisticated, open-minded, blessed with a bounty of ingredients and finally knowing what to do with them. “For the first time, I think we aren’t looking to Europe or America or Asia for inspiration,” says Bates. “We aren’t look inward. We are figuring out what we as New Zealanders can cook and eat.”
And my, what a feast that will be.
This article originally appeared in may 2005.
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