The Threads of India: In Sari & Spice

Invisible threads are the strongest ties. That’s what the 20th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) believed. He wrote those words over 100 years ago, and since then, this statement of his has come to take on many different meanings to many different people. Depending on context, mood and circumstance, for some, it suggests spirituality or a sense of place. For others, it describes personal relationships or attachments, affinities to particular objects, or even an inner knowledge of one’s own self. But here in the Vintage Kitchen, this quote always reminds me of history and how we are tied to the past in subtle yet powerful ways.

Today we are embarking on Week 22 of the International Vintage Recipe Tour which takes us to India via the kitchen to discuss fabric, second chances, and a savory chicken dish that is slathered in spice.  Welcome to Week 22 of the Tour! Welcome to India…

It’s impossible to look at photographs of this amazing landscape and not notice all the color. From flower gardens like this cascade of hibiscus tumbling over a brick wall in Utter Pradash…

…to the spice markets of Mapusa where all the shades of the rainbow greet you around every corner…

…to the splendid architecture  of buildings like the Mysore Palace in Karnataka and the Taj Mahal in Agra, which seem to magically change color throughout the day depending on the direction of the sun… 

…pops of color bloom throughout India every minute in delightfully unexpected ways.

In a country that is over 250,000 years old, there is no shortage of source material when it comes to tying in a cultural companion, but ever since the Recipe Tour started I had a definite idea in mind about this particular post and the focal point of it.

Whether you are talking food, fashion, flora or fauna (or all four!) one of the dazzling componants to life in India that float around the landscape like jewels come alive are the traditional saris worn by women of all ages throughout the country. Seen in all shades and patterns, girls typically start wearing saris in their teenage years as a symbol of femininity, independence and equality among all women regardless of social status. 

Made of just one uncut length of fabric (usually 9 yards in total) with the ability to be styled in over 100 different ways depending on folds and drape, the sari has been a part of India’s history for over 5000 years.

Each region throughout the country has its own style and customs surrounding saris and the wearing of them, but Indian women as a whole, view saris as an important part of their national identity. They are even passed down through generations as a source of pride, nostalgia and honor.

Today, they also symbolize strength, resourcefulness, and female empowerment in a new, exciting and creative way that previous generations never knew. 

Last Thursday, I announced a giveaway here on the blog of a special prize tucked inside the white box above that would be awarded to one lucky winner. It’s a gift that was handmade in India and clues hinted at color, purpose, and longevity of use. Tonight, I’m excited to reveal the contents of the box.

Are you ready to see what it is?

Tah-dah! It’s a five-foot-long Happy Scarf (ie table runner) made of two recycled cotton saris.  Repaired, pieced together, and hand-quilted to form a completely new and functional item for the table, this type of Indian handicraft is changing the fate of women all over the country.  Reversible, with a different pattern and color arrangement on each side, this Happy Scarf holds up to its name in more ways than one.  Suitable for all four seasons of display and use, it features colors bright and sunny on both sides. One side contains shades of spring and summer in pink, yellow, peach, white and raspberry…

…while the other side features a warm wash of autumn and winter hues in butternut, marigold, black, white, beige, pink and yellow…

Made in Calcutta by a woman from an impoverished village who was given the opportunity to learn the textile trade, this Happy Scarf represents a new kind of freedom for women in India. By learning skills within the textile and handlooming industry, working with fabric offers women a chance to gain independence and improve the quality of their lives by earning fair wages, receiving health benefits, job training and education, and also by being a part of a community of artisans striving for a future bright with possibility, potential and a fulfilling career. 

Typically it takes a sewer about two days to make a table runner of this size. Like a homemade quilt, distinct signs of each sewer’s handiwork can be seen throughout. In this case, unique touches are found not only in the selection of sari fabrics that she chose to combine but also in her vertical hand stitching of the fabrics as they were joined together and her repair work , which we can see in three different places on the light pink side…

These patches cover over holes made in the fabric that occurred through normal use and wear when the sari was once part of a woman’s wardrobe. The ancient Indian art of textile repair is known as rafoogari and represents a powerful philosophy that sums up the beauty and integrity of the Indian culture. Instead of simply throwing a piece of good fabric away because it is slightly flawed with a hole or worn thin by a frayed area, each garment gets repaired, patched up, so that its life and purpose can be extended for years to come. Some garments in India carry examples of over 200 years of rafoogari repairs. This was not thriftiness at work for the sake of reusing fabric, although that was a beneficial attribute, but instead it was a gesture of respect and honor towards the fabric and the memories it held for all the people that it came in contact with. 

This type of fabric work utilizing recycled saris can be seen in all sorts of Indian handicrafts. Kantha is the type of stitch work featured in the Happy Scarf, which involves sewing together five layers of fabric and highlighting the running stitch that pieced them all together by using brightly colored thread. I first fell in love with this type of Indian textile art when my sister gave me this tote bag for my birthday a few years ago…

Like the Happy Scarf, my tote bag is made from five layers of two different saris, contains patchwork repairs and features lots of bright color. The front and the back both contain different imagery and the fabrics are super soft. 

It even features the name of the sewer inside (which I love!). 

Although the bag and the Happy Scarf are made by women employed by two different companies in India, they both contain similar stories and similiar missions – to help women get out of poverty. Like the curator of the Happy Scarf, the maker of this bag, Arati, experienced a tragic side of life. Involved in human trafficking within the commercial sex trade, Arati through the help of a female empowerment company, Sari Bari was able to escape her cruel circumstance and change her life completely. Through education and training in the textile industry, Arati was able to gain support and financial independence as well as create beautiful works of art that promote a sense of pride and fulfillment within herself and her community by carrying on a centuries-old art form.

Whenever I go on a trip via plane or car, my Indian art bag joins me.  By taking it on as many adventures as possible, I like to think that the spirit of Arati herself is out there traveling the world too via her talent and creativity. It’s always fun to imagine stories about her.  I like to think about the possibility of one day traveling to India and running into Arati on the street. If that happened we would only know each other solely by her recognition of the bag.  Wouldn’t it be fun to stop and chat with her for a bit!  To find out more about what her life was like when she made this bag and to see how it differs now. Wouldn’t it be fun to thank her in person for making a piece of art I absolutely adore and to share with her all the adventures we have had together so far?  

The visual beauty of each of these recycled sari creations, whether they are transformed into blankets or bags or table runners or napkins or, is that each one is one-of-a-kind. True works of art based on each sewer’s skill, fabric selection, and choice of color arrangement.  The emotional beauty of these creations is that they helped improve one particular person’s life, one piece at a time. 

In the Hindu religion, to which 95% of India’s population belongs, the color yellow symbolizes learning and knowledge. That makes the Happy scarf an ideal companion for a table full of diners ready to engage in interesting conversation. Sized at 5′ feet in length x 15.75″ inches in width, it fits practically every table shape from long to short and is ready for a wide variety of styling fun. Here, I paired it with antique serving platters and flatware, vintage hotelware plates and midcentury napkins. The change in color palette from side to side adds a nice change in mood and aesthetic too…

Tonight’s recipe is as equally colorful in sight and history as our table setting. The previous stop on the International Vintage Recipe Tour took us to Hungary, via the kitchen, where we explored the bright red world of paprika, but this time in India we are diving into the sunshine shades in all areas of the culinary experience. 

On the menu tonight it’s Chicken Bengal, a warm and saucy stewed chicken featuring five distinct spices – coriander,  cumin, cloves, ginger, and turmeric. But before any of those flavors are introduced, the chicken marinates in a yogurt and garlic bath in the fridge for a few hours. After that point, the whole marinade,  yogurt and all, slips into a sizzling pan of spices where it cooks for some additional hours over a low simmer until it reaches the point of falling-of-the-bone tenderness.

Easy to make, low maintenance, and wholly satisfying, the end result is a saucy blend of spice and chicken that can be adjusted to your liking for heat or enjoyed mild but nuanced in a pool of sweet, savory and salty flavor. Total cook time including prep work and marinating is 4 1/2 hours, so make this on a cozy day when you have some time to spend at home.  Pair it with our favorite historical BBC drama, Indian Summers, and you have a theme night all wrapped up in one fun package. 

Chicken Bengal

Serves 4-6

1 large chicken (4-6 lbs), cut in eight pieces

1 cup yogurt ( I used 2% milkfat Greek yogurt)

2 tablespoons finely minced garlic

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 cups finely minced onion

1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger

3 cloves

1 hot red pepper – optional ( I did not use)

2 teaspoons ground coriander

1 teaspoon powdered turmeric

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

Basmati rice for serving 

Toss the chicken in a large mixing bowl with the yogurt, salt, and pepper, and half the garlic. Toss until the chicken is well coated…

and then transfer to a Ziploc bag and refrigerate for two hours. 

Melt the butter in a heavy casserole and add the oil and onion. Cook until the onion starts to brown, add the remaining garlic and spices, and cook over low heat stirring frequently (about 2 minutes). 

Add the chicken and marinating liquid.

Cover and simmer until the chicken is fork-tender (approximately 2 hours). About thirty minutes before the chicken is done make the rice and set it aside, but keep it covered so that it stays warm. When the chicken is fork-tender and falling off the bone, remove it from the heat and let it rest for several minutes before serving it atop a bed of rice along with whatever juices are leftover in the pan. 

Not quite as creamy/saucy as the Hungarian Shrimp Paprika recipe, the basmati rice in this dish acts as more of an aromatic companion than a vehicle to soak up juices. The main stars of the show here in this recipe are the turmeric, which gives the whole dish that bright yellow color, and the coriander, which adds a foundation of flavor.

Coriander, according to the language of flowers, symbolizes hidden worth. The Bengali region of India from which our recipe is named is where the ancient art of Kantha originated. The predominant color yellow in the saris symbolizes learning.  The woman who sewed the Happy Scarf together, escaped an unhappy environment and discovered her own self-worth through learning an ancient art. When you think about all that goes into making a meal, from the food to the place settings to the company that sits around the table with you, it is mind-boggling how much connects us to other people in other parts of the world in other eras of history in a myriad of unsuspecting ways. This post started out as just a simple Indian dinner. But the more I dug into the history of India, the more transparent the relationships between fabric, food, color, country and symbolism all seemed to go hand in hand. Completely unexpected, all the elements of this post practically connected themselves. It formed a perfect symbiotic relationship.  It formed the words that Nietzsche wrote. Invisible threads truly are the strongest ties.

On Monday, the winner of the Happy Scarf will be announced on the blog. My fingers are crossed for everyone that entered. In the meantime, cheers to India. Cheers to all their beautifully artistic ways of carrying on the color of their culture with the memories of their past. Cheers to strong women and to bright futures.

 Join us next time for Week 23 of the International Vintage Recipe Tour as we head to Indonesia via the kitchen!

 

India photos courtesy of Lewis J. Goetz, Varnan Guba, Aditya Joshi, Claudette Bleijenberg, Bhim Chauhan, Vivek Dashi, Hari Nandakumar, Tiago Rosado, Joshuva Daniel, Akhil Chandran, Ashim D’Silva