Nandita Iyer became a household name through her Instagram and Twitter accounts — Saffron Trail — where she discusses all things food and lifestyle. Iyer’s latest book, This Handmade Life, (Penguin Random House) is an encapsulation of “seven skills to enhance and transform your daily life”.
My Kolkata caught up with the Bengaluru-based author after the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival session for a candid chat. Excerpts from the conversation…
My Kolkata: How was This Handmade Life pieced together?
Nandita Iyer: I think the thought about it [writing the book] started during Covid. People worldwide started gardening or making sourdough breads at home or doing online workshops. During the lockdown, when there was no help, everybody was trying out different dishes every day. Like literally making pani puri from scratch, including the puri, because the shops were shut. There was a kind of frenzy that I was seeing around me.
I read reports that the reason people were suddenly into this DIY thing was because they found some solace in that… some sense of control.
Eleven years ago, when I moved to Bangalore I started kitchen gardening. Then, I thought I have so many extra flowers, maybe I could dry them and make soaps. Then I learnt soap-making. So, one by one, I started including various activities in my life. I always found it to be the best way to calm my mind and focus on one activity and not look at my phone or think about something else.
I thought why not write these experiences as chapters and part memoir. So, I talk about seven skills in my book, and it’s almost like attending seven workshops. Whenever I used to post on Instagram, people used to ask for the process. I mean I can’t teach you in the comments of Instagram. That’s when I thought about a book. I feel people go full-on ki mujhe A-Z ek hi baar karna hai (I need to learn A-Z once only). But my book just explores the basics. If it’s gardening, we start with sprouts. That was the whole idea behind this book.
What is the one thing that you miss from your Internet-free childhood? And what is the one thing that the Internet would have made easier back then?
I would say the answer to both is the smartphone. We got so many things done because there was no distraction coming from the smartphone. Earlier, we used to keep newspaper or magazine clippings, thinking we will make a recipe, craft project or a face pack remedy. Now we just save it on our phones. Today, if we have to get anything done, we literally have to lock our phones in the next room to stay distraction-free. Smartphones are both a boon and a bane.
Is there a connection between elementary education and hobbies?
There is, and there should be. I don’t remember even a word of the math, history or geography I learnt in the fifth standard. When I open my son’s book, it all looks like Latin and Greek to me. Teachers teach us that because it helps us grow and expand our mind in subjects. But also teach us something useful. Growing up, when we had needlework in school, they taught us to stitch a full skirt by hand, using needle and thread. I used to think even in the ’70s and ’80s, my aunts were using machines and why are they sending us back to the stone age to do it by hand? Now I realise the importance of that. In this fast-paced Internet age, doing things with your hands helps us slow down living. I think that’s really wonderful.
‘In this fast-paced Internet age, doing things with your hands helps us slow down living. I think that’s really wonderful,’ said NanditaArijit Sen
While upcycling and sustainability in fashion is often discussed; how could one practice the same in kitchens?
The easiest thing is to stop using paper napkins. We all have the old banyans and dupattas. Just stitch the corners and edges, cut off the sleeves and you have a handy square cloth. I think that’s the easiest way to recycle used clothes.
What is your earliest memory of baking?
I tried baking a chocolate cake in a microwave oven that didn’t have the convection mode, so it failed miserably and it turned into a brick! I was scared by that incident and didn’t go back to baking for the longest time. In the ’90s, we thought haan isme [microwave oven] kuch bhi ho sakta hai (anything is possible in a microwave oven) but that is not the case.
The author poses with her bookArijit Sen
There’s an interesting segment about what not to put on the face where you mention Vaseline. Have we been doing it wrong all along?
See, Vaseline is a petroleum jelly. If you apply Vaseline to a leaf it will last forever. That is the kind of artificial preservative it contains. Your skin doesn’t need Vaseline. Also, I think in today’s times we do too many things to our skin. Occasionally, it is wise to take expert opinions from a dermatologist and understand what exactly is going on with our skin. Not everything is fixed with home remedies. Everything that is herbal is not chemical-free. It can trigger adverse reactions. So, we have to be careful.
One life lesson that food has taught you?
I think, being self-reliant. I don’t have a cook, I do all the cooking myself. I feel like I’m not dependent on someone. I can cook whatever I like. If I feel heavy I’ll make a salad or if I’m feeling very hungry, I’ll make a full meal. So, I can customise it as per my need at the moment. Food is not just calories and nutrition. It also feeds the soul and emotions. I feel the way to health is totally through food and one should be in control of that.
One memory about Kolkata that has stayed with you?
I visited Kolkata as a 10-year old, and the smell of mustard oil in my grand aunt’s house in Tollygunge stayed with me. In those days, I was from Mumbai and not exposed to it at all. Now I stock mustard oil in my kitchen; I totally love it.
How was your experience speaking at the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival?
It was very nice. I think the best part is exchanging views with accomplished women from other backgrounds. It was great to have an all-women session [Nandita shared the stage with Dahlia Sen Oberoi, Seema Goswani and Pinky Kenworthy]