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The Power of Silk

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Roopa Pemmaraju and Lily Hargrave's design

Roopa Pemmaraju and Lily Hargraves’ design

A week ago, I walked down to the consignment shop near my house and picked up a fashion mystery.

The mystery came in the form of a long dress of purple-blue printed silk crepe lined in cotton. The stitching was minute and clearly done by hand. Examining the dress, I flashed back to my first long dress and blouse custom-stitched for me at a tailor’s in Hyderabad when I was ten years old.

But the pattern was unusual. The silk was printed with thick black brushstrokes that burst like a tree over my legs. The design was not pretty; it was strong and vibrated in a way that reminded me of something strangely familiar, but that I couldn’t identify. The label read Lily Hargraves for Roopa Pemmaraju.

I’d never heard the names, but the funky silk dress fit perfectly and was an unbelievable $68. I snapped it up and was soon on the Internet searching its provenance.

Within ten minutes I had some solid information that told me I’d made a very special buy. Roopa is an Indian-born designer who’d had her own fashion label, Haldi. She left India to move to Melbourne, Australia, with her husband for his IT job. Roopa became inspired with the idea of bringing Australian aboriginal art into fashion that would be a far cry from the cheap cotton T-shirts sold to tourists. However, her interest wasn’t welcomed by gallery owners and artists. I mentioned T-shirts? Many indigenous artists have been exploited by Australians and others who copied their designs without paying them.

Roopa Pemmaraju

But Roopa had a vision of a business model that was different. I’m going to call it the Indian artisan model. Throughout India, there’s been a longstanding tradition of custom clothing making—and certain villages are known for a certain kind of block printing, or silk weaving, or cotton embroidery.

A Gujarati textile with folk motif has great energy

These niche technique are prized, and the regional artisans are celebrated by contemporary designers who ask them to do finishing touches such as embroidery around a neckline or hem. Mahatma Gandhi, who advocated wearing handspun clothing as a way of resisting the British in the early 20th century, would be smiling today if he could see the “desi chic,” “ethnic-cool and “modern handloom” fashions that are the rage.

The Fab India chain that sells clothes for all ages and sizes stitched from silks and cottons hand-loomed by people in rural communities. Also well-known are Anokhi and Cottons Jaipur, retail chains that specialize in fashion made from cotton woven, dyed and block-printed in Rajasthan. A high-end designer, Ritu Kumar, has spent the last quarter century collaborating with Kala Raksha, an organization in India supporting hereditary artists, and several other regional textile weavers and embroiderers. Last year in India, I was pleased to buy a Ritu Kumar kurti (woman’s tunic) with a meticulously hand embroidered placket typical of the Kutch region of Gujarat. But the coloration is subtle and works well with the modern printed silk fabric.

Fine hand embroidery on a Ritu Kumar kurti

Back to the Australian-Indian collaboration: How could an Indian woman new to Australia convince aboriginal artists to work with her?

Here’s what Roopa did.  She pledged to give credit where it was due. She offered put the artist’s name on each of her garments. Remember the mystery of two women’s names on my dress label? Here is Lily Hargraves, a “desert walker” in her nineties who’s one of Australia’s top aboriginal artists. Her paintings are exhibited around the world and sell for thousands of dollars.

Lily Hargraves

Lily’s full name is Lily Nungarrayi Yirringali Jurrah Hargraves, although she’s most often known in art circles by the short Anglo name. She was born in the Northwest Territory in 1930 and having had a number of very hard jobs throughout her life, began painting in the tradition of her ancestors about thirty years ago. Lily is recognized as a senior Law Woman, which means she is an officiant of Waipiri indigenous culture—and her story is fascinating. And here are some of her paintings from the online museums and galleries in Australia. Looking at her work made me realize that’s a tree on the front of my dress.

Looking through Roopa’s designs since the 2012 collection that included my “Lily Blue Dress,” I’ve noticed that indigenous artist names are continuing to decorate the dress labels. Additionally, the design label is donating 20% of her profits to aboriginal groups. And the India connection also helps artists, because the silk is printed and embroidered in India at Roopa’s artisan workshop in Bangalore. The subtleties of clothing construction are overseen in India by Roopa’s co-artist, the acclaimed designer Sudhir Swain. The most recent collection—Resort 2018—was just shown in Australia a week ago and shows a riot of glorious abstract floral motifs merging with gauzy, gilded Indian silk.

Roopa Pemmaraju 2018 collection

Roopa Pemmaraju 2018

Some might argue that fusing two cultures like this degrades the original. But fashion by its nature is an evolution.

Mahatma Gandhi told his followers a century ago what you choose to wear delivers power.  Just this spring in Europe and America, women have been attacked for wearing traditional Muslim clothing items like the hijab and abaya. Given this context, wearing the textiles of international designers and artisans feels like another way to show resistance.

Bookworm’s Paradise in New York

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

The program ad for my next book!

The program ad for my next book!

Last week, I got caught in a perfect storm: hot weather and hotter books.

I was in New York City for BookExpo—once known as BEA, or Book Expo America. Starting this year, the show’s name was shortened to emphasize the global nature of the event. BookExpo is the largest book trade fair in North America and has bounced between convention centers in Washington DC, Chicago, and New York since 1947. Although it’s not as populated a gathering as those in Frankfurt and London, I was impressed by its scale. I hadn’t known it was possible to produce book banners the size of a house, and that no space could escape advertising: not even the stairs.

Precisely positioned Pullman steps

Precisely positioned Pullman steps

Who's got the biggest banner?

Who’s got the biggest banner?

My marquee event was the Library Reads Dinner at the elegant Yale Club. It was humbling to be invited by a librarians’ association to set on a panel with five other writers with serious credentials. I was there with Corner of Bitter and Sweet bestseller Jamie Ford; powerful National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward; humor memoirist John Hodgman; science journo Annalee Newitz; and debut true crime guy Ben Blum.

Librarians paying attention in the gorgeous Yale Club

Librarians paying attention in the gorgeous Yale Club

Do I sound too buzzy? I guess the marketing and PR focus of BookExpo has gone to my head. We were each charged with pitching our books and speaking of the power of libraries at 13 minutes per writer. I’d practiced with a stopwatch.

Jamie Ford, myself and Annalee Newitz after the pitching

Jamie Ford, myself and Annalee Newitz after the pitching

My turn arrived in the middle of the Library Reads dinner, when the petit fours and coffee were being served. I spoke about my misadventures getting library cards at the National Library of India and the British Library and explained that my new mystery series is inspired by the legal cases of India’s first woman lawyer, Cornelia Sorabji. I told the librarians that I wouldn’t have thought of a woman lawyer series if Cornelia’s early 20th century memoirs hadn’t been preserved. I also went into some detail on how her scanned memoir’s pages were riddled with holes made by a hungry bookworm. I thought my comments about the true origins of the word “bookworm” would get some knowing chuckles, but no luck. Maybe it was because they were trying to eat dessert, or because insect-damaged paper is not a joke for anyone working in a library. Fortunately, they laughed at some other parts.

It was inspiring to hear my fellow panelists talk about their own library experiences—and the next day, to see Annalee with Charlie Jane Anders and Malka Older on a women’s science fiction panel. I also scored a signed copy of Jamie Ford’s next book, picked up ARCs from other writers, had bagels with my agent and hung out with the gang at Soho Press, who are bringing out my new Perveen Mistry series.

Charlie Jane Anders, Malka Older and Annalee Newitz are sci-fi wiz women

Charlie Jane Anders, Malka Older and Annalee Newitz are sci-fi wiz women

Soho Friends: PR Paul Oliver and Managing Editor Rachel Kowal

Soho Friends: PR Paul Oliver and Managing Editor Rachel Kowal

A friendly parade of librarians, journalists and booksellers came by Soho’s booth to chat with us and get signed advance reader copies of The Widows of Malabar Hill. Signing these paperback galleys was a surreal experience. I had to remind myself this wasn’t an actual book event, because the hardcover first editions won’t hit bookshelves until January 2018. That’s seven long months away.

The haul I brought home!

The haul I brought home!

That afternoon, I rode the train home to Baltimore. My nose was already in the galley for Timothy Hallinan’s next Bangkok thriller, Fool’s River, and I had twelve more ARCs jammed into several promotional tote bags.

The bookworm felt rewarded.

Baltimore’s Rap Sheet Grows

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I was as eager as anyone to see Netflix new television miniseries, The Keepers. The program, which investigates an unsolved murder in 1969 Baltimore, has received admiring reviews. It’s the story of former Keough School students—now women in their sixties—trying to identify the killer of their beloved teacher, Sister Catherine Ann Cesnik.

The Keepers is a sensitive, well-produced show which gives proper gravity to the crime and its lifelong impact on family and friends. I was sad at the end of the first episode, but for reasons that go beyond what I’d watched.

You see, The Keepers is just the latest Baltimore crime story.

It follows a wildly successful podcast called Serial that re-investigates the prosecution of Adnan Syed, a young Baltimore man for the 1999 murder of his girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Sarah Koenig, the investigative reporter who wrote the podcast, discover many pieces of suppressed evidence that might have kept Adnan from jail. After the podcast, a series of legal challenges were made, and Adnan was granted a second trial, which will be held next year.

Serial made its splash following David Simon’s The Wire, an internationally celebrated HBO series focusing on Baltimore police’s battle against crime, and before that Homicide, another Simon series with crime on Baltimore’s streets.

Homicide: Life on the Streets

Interestingly, each of these crime dramas involves the hand of an alumnus or alumna of the Baltimore Sun—the great daily newspaper where I began my own writing career. When I was a college intern working at the paper, I had Sunday duty on the “crime desk.” It meant calling the various police stations to learn how many people had died and by what means. What I did was the very opposite of hardboiled beat reporting.

David Simon of Homicide and The Wire, Sarah Koenig of Serial, and Bob Erlandson, who’s interviewed in The Keepers, were highly seasoned Sun writers who followed some homicides for months—or even years.  A freelance journalist, Tom Nugent, collected research on Sister Cathy for years and wrote a 6000-word article about her for the Baltimore City Paper in 2005.

I greatly admire the reporting and editing that went into all of these programs. But the rise of this genre disturbs me. It makes me concerned that Baltimore’s image around the world is nothing but murder.

It would be cool if network executives were interested in a parallel track: dramatic programming about Baltimore that weren’t so deadly. The only non-murder show that comes to mind is Ace of Cakes, a reality show on the Food Network.

Just thirty years ago, the city’s image was charmingly quirky. In the late 1980s, films like The Accidental Tourist, Hairspray, and Diner served up a historic East Coast city short on glamour, but full of characters. People fretted that Baltimore was always typecast as the home of cheerful, blue collar people who spoke with long Os. We all wanted to get beyond that stereotype and diversify.

I wouldn’t mind a few Os, if I could get some back.

A Sour Treat

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Pink rhubarb stalks fill the tables at farmers’ markets in early spring. With the stiff body shape of celery and the tender texture of a fruit, rhubarb is the barb of jokes—a misunderstood and under-appreciated bit of produce.

I speak as a rhubarb convert. The first time I saw the ragged green plant growing near the garages of my first two houses in two different states, I thought it was an inconvenient weed that needed to be dug out. Someone explained it was rhubarb, but I still wasn’t drawn to trying it. For starters, the rhubarb was on a dog-walking route. I’d seen canines appreciating it. I also recalled stories about part of the rhubarb plant being poisonous.

Minnesota-grown rhubarb (Gertens)

But the shunned rhubarb gnawed at me. Cafes and gourmet friends offered me delicious desserts where rhubarb was an ingredient, sometimes mixed in with strawberries or other sweet fruit.  I developed respect for the soft, tangy substance that was proving itself a valuable team player. I felt better knowing just the big green leaves of the plant are full of oxalic acid—the infamous poison. The stems are edible raw or cooked.

I bought my first bunch of rhubarb from the Wedge, a Minneapolis co-op grocery. Since rhubarb does very well in places with cold, wet winters, Minnesota turned out to be a prime spot to buy rhubarb. I made a cobbler that I thought was tasty, although nobody in the family clamored for it. Too sour, they said. In my mind, rhubarb’s tang is similar to that of lemon curd—but ever so much more succulent.

And rhubarb’s got more going on that the average fruit or vegetable. Both Chinese and Europeans discovered the stems aid with digestion, so it was used as culinary medicine. Rhubarb is rich in  calcium, and Vitamins C and A; however, its superstar ingredient is Vitamin K, which fosters brain health. A single serving of rhubarb provides 45% of suggested daily Vitamin K.

The stems themselves have a lot of power—they cause the blood to run thin. This means rhubarb is something that shouldn’t be eaten to excess by hemophiliacs or people on blood thinners. But you could make it a regular part of your diet if you’re bulking up on foods to potentially stave off dementia, need calcium to strengthen your bones, or are wishing to be more “regular.”

Rhubarb enthusiasts have their own heaven on earth. The Rhubarb Triangle is a nine-square mile area between three villages in West Yorkshire. For generations, Yorkshire farmers have treated rhubarb like royalty, raising it in barns lit by candles in order to avoid sunlight’s photosynthesis, that would color the leaves and stripe the stems green. This results in a deep red color of the stems, and supposedly sweeter flavor.

Rhubarb Triangle-grown rhubarb plants have leaves that are chartreuse!

The thing about garden-variety rhubarb is one only has to add sugar to make it what you want. Apparently rural children sometimes eat raw rhubarb canes are dipped in sugar and eaten. I tried this, but it was too hard and sour for my taste. It brought me back to thinking about poison.

The mystery writer began pondering exactly how rhubarb could wreak havoc. She imagined an impatient woman in her fifties serving lunch to her eighty-year-old aunt, a wealthy woman who’s a health fanatic and has been living too long for everyone’s taste. The oxalic acid leaves were shredded and went into a salad with a sweet dressing. The evil lady’s idea was that the bitter taste would be misidentified as escarole or another bitter lettuce—greens that the elderly aunt approves of. However, you’d have to eat a LOT of rhubarb leaves to die, rather be sickened. My guess is the old lady would recover and write her niece out of the will.

Ingredients for rhubarb compote

Ingredients for rhubarb-apple chutney

Cooking rhubarb chutney

One farmer’s market bundle of rhubarb can be transformed into one very sweet cobbler or pie. But you can find those recipes everywhere! I took that bundle and divided it to create two non-dessert rhubarb recipes. They’re so easy you can cook them at the same time and have a rhubarb compote with yogurt for breakfast, a cheese-and-rhubarb-apple chutney sandwich for lunch, and a scoop of that chutney with an Indian or Western dinner. If you really wanted to push it, you could put warm compote with ice cream or on cake for dessert.

Rhubarb-Apple Chutney (makes 1 ½ cups)

  • 1 ½ cup diced rhubarb (about 1-inch)
  • ½ cup diced apple (any sweet kind)
  • ½ cup dried cherries
  • ¼ cup finely chopped red onion
  • ¼ cup water
  • ¼ cup honey
  • 1 tsp grated fresh ginger
  • 1 ½ teaspoons red-wine vinegar
  • ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper (1 dried chili pounded)
  1. In a small non-reactive saucepan, add rhubarb, apple, cranberries (or cherries), onion, water, honey, ginger, vinegar and crushed red pepper. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until rhubarb is tender, about 10 minutes. Uncover and simmer about 5 more minutes, until it becomes a thick sauce.
  2. Pour into a glass container with lid and refrigerate.

Rhubarb-Apple Chutney is good with rice and other elements of an Indian meal, or on the side with grilled or roasted meats. It’s also nice on a sharp cheddar cheese sandwich. The chutney will keep in the refrigerator for about a week.

Rhubarb Compote (makes 1 cup)

  • 1 ½ cup diced rhubarb (about 11/2-inch)
  • ¼ cup white sugar
  • ¼ cup fresh orange juice
  • 3 pieces of orange peel
  • 3 whole cloves
  1. Combine all ingredients in a small non-reactive saucepan. Cover, bring to a rapid boil and cook over low heat for 15 minutes, until the rhubarb is tender, stirring occasionally.
  2. After the compote has cooled, taste it for sweetness and add extra sugar if you like. Remove the orange peel.
  3. Pour into a glass container with a lid and refrigerate.

Rhubarb compote stays fresh keeps in the fridge for one week. It’s good with Greek yogurt or whipped cream; mixed into porridge; or spooned over pancakes or  sponge cake. One word to the wise is the two recipes look almost identical, once cooked. So label them—unless you like the taste of red onions mixed with ice cream.

The finished chutney

In Minneapolis, Purple Still Reigns

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

dem atlas covers Prince this past weekend

Last weekend, when I was visiting the “Twin Cities” of Minneapolis and St. Paul, I was hit with an unexpected surge of purple.

Purple was the favorite color of Prince, a Minnesota funk-rock star—and April 21 was the one-year anniversary of his untimely death in 2016 by overdose. I grew up in St. Paul and was just a few years younger than the man born Prince Rogers Nelson. Prince released his first album, Soft and Wet, at the age of 17, and I avidly followed his every move over the next several decades, as did my sisters.  Like Prince, we were young people of color living in a state that was predominantly white. There were no black musicians played on the radio except for on our sole “black” station, KMOJ-FM.

Scene outside First Avenue at Prince Memorial

It was hard to make friends, or find someone willing to date you, when you were a few shades darker than the majority or had an unpronounceable name. It was exhilarating to see Prince—a small, light-skinned black man who wore lace and satin and high heels—fearlessly be himself.

Artists who perform at First Ave are celebrated in stars. Only Prince’s is golden

Prince’s biggest local shows were at a large nightclub called First Avenue at the downtown Minneapolis. First Avenue remains one of the top national nightclubs that still showcases local performers. Prince’s first film, Purple Rain, is a fictitious story in which he plays “The Kid,” someone very much like himself, trying to make it in show business, get the girl, and deal with some hard family issues. The 1984 movie was a hit, with Prince’s artistry stealing the show. Watching it later, I notice how mixed-race his audience appeared. People seemed to forget about traditional boundaries and fell in love with his hypnotic beats and daring lyrics. I mark this as the start of a new Minnesota.

Purple Rain, best film score ever

Prince shot to stardom shortly after I’d become 18, the legal age to go to First Avenue’s night shows. When he came to Baltimore’s Civic Center, I was a college student and bought a ticket to his show. I pushed my way to the edge of backstage and gave one of the roadies a note addressed to my high school friend, Susan Moonsie, who’d become a singer in one of his custom-made opening bands: Vanity 6. I was gloriously lucky to find myself escorted backstage, where I hung out with Susan all night and met the other Vanity 6 singers and the men of The Time. However, I didn’t get to exchange words with Prince. Susan didn’t want to introduce me because the two of them were in an argument.

Brenda, Vanity and Susan of Vanity 6

Despite his superstar status, Prince never abandoned Minnesota. He built a massive home and recording studio in the suburb of Chanhassen named Paisley Park, after one of his songs, and often opened it to friends and fans who came for private parties with performances. Prince sometimes showed up to play at Minneapolis’s Dakota jazz club or First Avenue.

Paisley Park is now open to tourists

During Prince’s adult years, Minnesota diversified. The state became the chief home of refugees from Somalia. It became a leader in families with international adoptions and was said to be “the gayest city after San Francisco.”

Last weekend St. Paul, Minneapolis and Edina lit their buildings and bridges purple honoring Prince

Was Prince a symbol of civic change—or was he an agent of change?

I wondered about this as I walked through the Twin Cities last weekend listening to the top favorite 89 Prince Songs on The Current, a Minnesota Public Radio station that, like KMOJ, had a special relationship with the artist. Spring comes late in the upper Midwest—while the grass was green, the tulips were just popping and the trees were taking on a light haze of leaves. In many neighborhoods, the gardens sprouted yard signs: “Black Lives Matter,” and “Falcon Heights: The World is Watching,” a reference to the fatal police shooting of Philando Castile in my own neighborhood that came a few months after Prince’s death.

The most popular sign was in rainbow hues, with the state of Minnesota on one sign and on the other, the phrase, “All Are Welcome Here.” The overt activism reminded me of the growing political and spiritual content of Prince’s work in the years just before his death. He had his eyes on the world, and he wanted to keep building bridges.

In April 2015, I was living in Baltimore during a period that it seemed one black male after another was killed by police. In Baltimore, a young man named Freddie Gray was arrested on suspicion of carrying drugs; he died after a short ride to jail in a police van. During a two-day period after Freddie’s funeral, areas of Baltimore were filled with destructive protestors and hundreds of fires were set. We endured almost a week of curfew and a city takeover by soldiers with the National Guard.

We never dreamed that Prince’s career would end a year later

As the city was stilling itself, the city had stilled—but hardly returned to normal—Prince announced he was coming to Baltimore to perform a free “Rally 4 Peace.” He booked the Royal Farms Arena at his own expense. He wrote a song called “Baltimore” that was compassionate yet had a happy, bopping beat. The song will never be his greatest hit, but it seems a perfectly distilled essence of his style and dogged determination to share joy as the way forward.

A Tale of Two City Festivals

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Thousands of cherry trees blossom every spring in Washington DC, a tradition spanning 105 years. At the same time, brilliant light sculptures and art installations glow along the port promenade in Baltimore. Two festivals I’d never experienced drew me away from my work. Which festival first?

I started out on a gray Thursday morning toward Washington DC, hoping rain wouldn’t come. It was my wedding anniversary, and my husband Tony and I had taken the day off. The traffic gods were kind and the car reached the cherry blossom zone just an hour after leaving Baltimore. We strolled from the parking garage to eat ceviche and amazing tacos at a fine Mexican restaurant, Oyamel, owned by chef Jose Andres. We visited the Building Museum and National Portrait Gallery, spending not enough time because we wanted to reach the nearby cherry blossom trail.

The DC cherry blossom festival has quite a history. The trees would never be there, if it weren’t for a woman’s persistence. Bringing Japanese trees to Washington DC was the idea of a globe-trotting journalist, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, who fell in love with Japan’s signature tree when she was touring the East. Starting in the 1880s, Mrs. Scidmore lobbied the US government for 24 years with her idea of a mass transplantation of Japanese trees to beautify the new parkland in the city that had been reclaimed from the Potomac.

She had no luck until 1909, when she found a fellow cherry blossom enthusiast in David Fairchild, an Agriculture Department official who’d transplanted Japanese cherries to his own home. However, the government only agreed after Eliza reconnected with an American lady she’d once met in Japan. As the nation’s new First Lady, Helen Herren Taft got the cherry tree plan in motion.

However, the first 3000 trees sent from Japan in 1911 were never planted During their shipment, they fell  victim to insect infestation. The only thing that could be done to keep the environment safe was to burn them all. Still, the Tokyo government, and a Japanese chemist named Jokichi Takamine, were willing to send 3020 more trees the next year. This group of healthy trees took root and flourished, even through World War II, when Japan was an enemy and the trees were referred to as “Oriental cherry trees” in the hopes of avoiding their destruction.

Cherry trees typically live 40 to 45 years, so the trees one sees today are not Eliza’s trees. But they are splendid indeed and provide a fairyland feeling when you stand underneath. It was delightful to be walking in the cherry fairyland, rather than being trapped inside one of the many giant tour buses circling around. I was also pleased that the parkland hadn’t been overtaken with more sales vendors than usual. The photo-snapping crowds made me recall Japan’s “Hanami,” a special cherry-blossom viewing time that inspired The Flower Master, my mystery novel set in Tokyo’s flower arranging world.

The day after our DC excursion, the rains came. And this slowed the beginning of Baltimore’s Light City Festival, which was set to run for 9 days for the second year in a row at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Brooke Hall and Justin Allen, a married arts-and-marketing couple, came up with the idea of a new festival that would bring the arts to the heart of the city. They did their research and crafted a proposal for a spectacular walk filled with lighted sculptures and entertainment. Fortunately, it did not take 24 years to get the Baltimore Office of Promotion to agree to fund Light City Baltimore.

Then the fun began. Artists from many states and countries vied for placement in a very challenging venue—as several of the electric installations are in the harbor’s waters, and all the pieces were subject to high winds and rain at various times during the nine-day festival period. It’s one thing to have your art in an international show—it’s another to realize doing this outdoors could cause its destruction.

The Saturday night we went to Light City Baltimore was the rain date for the delayed opening celebration, with a full line-up of musicians, dancers and magicians. The harbor promenade was edged with vendors selling food and drink, and harbor restaurants and bars were packed. There was a great sense of energy and happiness. Some artists were on hand to explain their work, and other art works were open for exploration, including a field of bright dots, an illuminated see-saw, and a lighted rickshaw with a glamorous Chinese lantern. Among my favorites were a floating installation of 400 umbrellas and an illuminated honeycomb. I’ve been to a lot of festivals over 25 years in Baltimore, and this was the most spectacular.

As I came away from the festivals, I had two thoughts. The Japanese cherry trees were brought to beautify a fledgling city that has subsequently prospered. And the lighted art walk illuminates an old city trying to recast itself in its fourth century.

Takeaways from Paradise

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

This classic cookbook details the heritage of Hawaiian cooking

I’m the last member of Murder is Everywhere to write about the Left Coast Crime convention on the Island of Oahu. Jeffrey shared the people part of the convention and the contrasts between busy Oahu and quiet Kauai. Susan got up insanely early to photograph a sunrise view from Diamond Head crater. Here’s my takeaway from a week in Paradise.

I’ve been coming regularly to Oahu since the early 1990s—five visits so far, and each time I feel more at home. In the early years I  was a military spouse spending time with my husband, who was on TDY (that’s temporary active duty, not tidying). We stayed on the Leeward side  and began developing a long-lasting group of coworkers and friends.

Later on, I came to Hawaii to teach as an artist in residence at the Iolani School, so I stayed at a hotel on the Waikiki tourist strip. And most recently, I was with the mystery convention at the Hilton Hawaiian Village on the edge of downtown. I’ve been to the North Shore, to Kailua and Kanaoehe, to Waimanalo Beach, Hanama Bay, and just about every museum the island has. While it’s easy to deplore the concrete invasion of Honolulu, I enjoy everything else, and I appreciate the fact that Honolulu is a real city with a diversity of jobs that go beyond tourism.

Oahu’s balmy, non-humid, sunny weather with temps mostly in the 80s make it a great island for walkers. I did 10,000-20,000 steps daily on my recent week at Left Coast Crime. This was not part of an exercise plan. I simply woke up early, left the hotel, and walked along the water, whether it was Waikiki Beach or Ala Moana. Then I’d have some breakfast. Last year, I did the same amount of walking on my way to dinner.

Any time of day, the food is quite amazing. Honolulu has developed a regional cuisine with an evolving emphasis on healthy fruits and vegetables. Due to Hawaii’s distance from where most fruit and veg is farmed, food is never going to be dirt-cheap; not even at the Kapiolani College Farmer’s Market, which surely is one of the best farmers markets in the US. My friend Jackie from the Iolani School  brought me to this fabulous Saturday morning market, where we shared a mouthwatering banh mi sandwich prepared by the chef-artisans from Pig & The Lady in Honolulu’s Chinatown. I used to shop weekly at the farmer’s market in Kapolei, on the Leeward side, where I could get a bag of live shrimp to freak out my children and turn into dinner that night.

Jackie and the famous banh mi sandwich

Oahu was once all about sugar farming. On the leeward side of the island, sugar barons recklessly sucked natural moisture from the earth to support their plantations, which wound up all closing down. A lot of people are stuck in the Wainae coast where these plantations were. Jobs are scarce and the ground is too poor too farm. While the windward side of the island has wetter land, there isn’t much space left for it. Typically “local” fruits and vegetables come from other islands in the Hawaiian chain.

This is great, because most food in Oahu’s supermarkets is shipped or flown the 2500 miles from California and beyond. You can see the distance in the indifferent shine and taste of Red Delicious apples. They don’t even taste like apples. But why eat such things when there are local oranges with an interesting green skin? Apple-bananas? Papayas, passionfruit, pineapple and mangoes?

So sweet, so cold, so ripe! Papaya at Tango Contemporary Cafe

This sumptuous, perfectly ripe papaya at Tango Contemporary Cafe was one of the best I’d ever eaten. The other great papaya was a takeaway item from Good Earth, a small organic grocery chain  introduced to me by my friend. Karen helped me pick the perfect local papaya, apple-bananas and oranges to bring back to my fridge at LCC’s hotel, Hyatt Hawaiian Village.

I went bananas for the banana varieties at Good Earth

During the time I stayed in Waikiki, my evening walks made me discover the outdoor farmers’ and chefs’ markets that run Monday through Saturday evenings at either Kings Village Shopping Center or the Hyatt Regency Hotel. On site I devoured delicious pad thai and crisply fried Chinese dumplings, and I set myself up for the next day with luscious green salads and containers of fresh-sliced local fruit. I also bought colorful Hawaiian sea salt smoked with different flavorings that I use on a daily basis in Baltimore.

King’s Village evening farmers’ market in Waikiki

Hawaii’s chefs are working hard to bring local produce, meat and fish into their restaurants. In 1991, 12 chefs committed to developing a new Hawaii Regional Cuisine. The goal was to help local farmers and fishermen grow delicious, sustainable foods that would be the centerpiece of hotel and restaurant fare. These chefs have prospered, and their mission has been supported by so many other cooks. This year, I noticed almost every restaurant and hotel menu boasted about serving locavore or Hawaiian regional food.

The genuine HRC came onto my plate at the restaurants I’m about to describe.

One night I went to Honolulu’s artistic district known as SALT to eat a Peter Merriman restaurant called Moku Kitchen. Led by my intrepid gourmet friend Jackie, we enjoyed a pizza topped with wild Hamakua mushrooms and fresh herbs. I sampled a chopped poke appetizer of local ahi tuna mixed with shoyu and ginger, and tiny tacos filled with roasted bulgogi pork and crisp raw vegetables. A high point were the dumplings stuffed with pumpkin, spinach and chèvre. The small plates were so intensely tasteful that we finished them up, but had no room for dessert. It’s always hard to walk away from a great restaurant without tasting dessert, but it would have been too much!

Goofy’s is a casual cafe on top of a beach goods shop

Goofy’s is a tiny second story restaurant just outside the Hilton Hawaiian Village. A long line of people is usually waiting outside its doors. Many of them are Japanese tourists who have read about Goofy’s in guidebooks and have come for the “local first, organic whenever possible” casual gourmet cuisine. It’s a peaceable wait in line, because the weather’s so pleasant.

Susan Spann and I walked over to Goofy’s for a quick lunch on Sunday. I got a bibimbap bowl with an egg on top and she went for the loco moco, which is what I’d call a heritage Hawaiian dish: the kind of recipe you’ll find in the definitive food memoir/recipe book, The Food of Paradise by Rachel Laudan. Loco moco is a garlic-and-onion flavored beef patty atop a scoop of moist fried rice that floats in a sumptuous meat gravy. And why not put an egg on top?

Bibimbap bowl mixes Korea and Hawaii at Goofy’s

Fusion’s scrambled my brain. I think I’m going to try the loco moco concept at home, but do it vegetarian. I’ll keep the sunny-side up egg, but substitute leftover vegetable paella for the fried rice, and use sambar, a spicy Indian vegetable soup, for the meat gravy. Is that a travesty?

Goofy’s was so good I went back with my friend Vallery a few hours later for dinner. I wanted to try a dish that had sounded enticing: green spaghetti. The pasta was tossed with a pesto made from local green herbs and macadamia nuts. It was as good as it sounded.

One of my favorite restaurant discoveries this time was the Tango Contemporary Cafe at the Queen Street and Ala Moana Boulevard intersection. It’s owned by a Finnish chef who participates in the Hawaiian Island Chefs group supporting sustainable local agriculture, aquaculture and education. One cafe breakfast specialty, Pytt-i-panna, translates to “stuff in a pan” and offers variations with a lot of vegetables and meats, including loco moco beef and smoked salmon. I decided to go for the vegetarian version: a nicely browned hash of grilled vegetables with spinach, kale and tomatoes, topped with you-guessed-it.

Vegetable pytt-i-panna at Tango Contemporary Cafe

I breakfasted at Tango one Sunday morning and found almost 20 people waiting for the 8 am opening. I was seated near a Japanese couple who ordered the regular pancakes with maple syrup. Twenty minutes later, my order for Swedish pancakes with fresh fruit, berry compote and whipped cream arrived at my table. The Japanese man called over the waitress and told her she had brought him the wrong dish. He preferred the pancakes that I had, which were ever so petite and enticing. Of course, he had not specified Swedish pancakes. Yet with utmost courtesy, the waitress brought him his request.

Swedish pancake platter at Tango Contemporary Cafe

Some restaurants aren’t being buzzed about, but continue to reward eaters. Quite a few of them are in Chinatown. Consider Duc’s Bistro, where classic Vietnamese ingredients combine with meat and fish and vegetables prepared with French techniques. Duc’s is a favored spot for locals out for a quiet, elegant, and delicious meal, and the fish I had there was delicious.

Duc’s window beckons in Chinatown

Duc’s takes Asian ingredients and molds them with French elegance

On the old favorites trail, I went with with my new friend Diana to Little Village Noodle House. This is an inexpensive Szechuan Chinese restaurant that played a stake-out role in my Hawaii mystery novel, Shimura Trouble. I always get the crispy green onion pancakes pictured below. This savory vegetarian dish always surprises me with its similarity to a fried Indian paratha bread. Of course, China and India aren’t that far apart. And as Hawaii teaches us, you may as well take influences from all around the world, mix them loco moco, and offer with a dash of aloha (peace).

Bollywood Adventures

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

It had been a challenging week. The shooting of two Indian professionals in a Kansas bar was followed by the knifing of an Indian-American outside his home and the news that a number of  South Asian business owners have had their shops torched. Whether or not the attackers misjudged these South Asians as “Arabic” or “Muslim” doesn’t matter. It only means that the danger to immigrants has become very personal for me.

I felt the need for a temporary retreat from bad news, so I went looking for a Bollywood movie.

Fortunately, it’s easy to find Indian movies in my state. These days, if you want to catch a film in Hindi, Tamil, Kannada or Bengali, it’s likely that a megaplex in the AMC or Regal chain  is screening it—often late at night, or just a few times a week. A great way to hunt for Indian movies is through Pragathi.com.

You may have heard that Indian movies take some time to watch. They are typically three hours long with a 20-minute intermission (observed in India, but skipped in the US and Canada). On a Tuesday afternoon in Arundel Mills, Maryland, I paid a whopping $5.64 to be the sole viewer for the afternoon matinee of Rangoon.

Rangoon hit India’s screens in late February and made it here within the same week. The title is rather misleading, because nothing happens in the former capital city of Burma, now Myanmar. Yes, there are plenty of nature scenes in the jungle along the Irrawaddy River between Burma and India. I suspect the vague name was give to draw male viewership, because the film’s central focus is a fictional 1940s film star called “Miss Julia” played by Kangana Ranaut.

A promotional poster for Rangoon that references late colonial Indian cinema

Julia is a beautiful Anglo-Indian actress best known for the line “Bloody Hell!” though her songs and dialogue are all in Hindi. As the top stuntwoman actress in Bollywood, she’s in love with Rusi Billimoria, a former film star who lost his right hand performing a film stunt. Rusi and his father are wealthy Parsis (Indian Zoroastrians) who own the cinema company; Rusi directs while his father sits in Bombay and tells him what to do. Their studio is pro-British, so when an army general tells Rusi he’d like Miss Julia to come to the Burma front to perform for the soldiers, Rusi’s father says she must go. Julia is horrified by the idea of going into the jungle, but she’s packed on a train with a handsome bodyguard from the army who attempts to prevent her escape.

True to the romantic-adventure genre, there are plenty of song and dance scenes, made even better because of the historical references in some numbers to Hitler and Churchill. The visions of late colonial homes and film studios are gorgeous, not to mention the river and jungle. Kangana Ranaut in the star role is beautiful and haughty, and a kick-ass pilot, motorcyclist, horseback rider, dart thrower, and dancer. A dance scene on top of a train is film convention—however, Miss Julia’s fights atop a vintage Northwest Frontier Train reprised and beat actor Shah Rukh Khan’s famous “Chaiyya Chaiyya” dance scene from the late 1990s. Her songs, sung by Bollywood legend Farah Khan, are great.

Kangana gets on top of the train and really rocks it!

And now for a brief intermission into some facts:

Miss Julia, the actress character, has historic origins. Soon after silent pictures began, a subgenre developed wherein actresses played physically daring roles, often fighting men with their fists, knives, swords, and guns. In Bollywood, these actresses were typically Anglo-Indian, Jewish or American rather than 100% Indian. Film producers feared offending India’s religious communities by subjecting Hindu, Muslim or Parsi women to the male gaze. These outsider actresses typically had Hindu names and played Indians. And at a time when the British were in control—and Indian men couldn’t act out—sword-wielding women were a very subtle way of expressing nationalism. You can read more about the history of Indian women actresses in Wanted: Cultured Ladies Only! by Neepa Majumdar.

From Majumdar’s excellent book, I learned that one of the first action stars of Indian cinema was Sulochana, originally named Ruby Myers, who began in silent films and transitioned to talkies. Sulochana who was considered both a beauty and a flapper, acted in five to six films a year during her heyday. Many of her roles involved the idea of giving up a debauched Western existence for a more simple and honorable Indian identity.

Sulochana’s best-known film was Cinema Queen (1925) which is about the travails of a movie actress—just like Rangoon.

Some articles in the Indian press compare “Miss Julia” character in Rangoon with the famous 1930s stunt actress known as Fearless Nadia. The woman who was born in Australia and had Scottish-Australian-Greek ethnicity came to India when her father was a soldier in the Indian Army. After his death, she was first a circus performer and later an actress in over 50 movies produced by Wadia Tone pictures run by two Parsi brothers. Her most famous film, Hunterwali, tells the story of a princess who dons a mask and cracks a whip when she goes forward to avenge injustice.

Descendants of the Wadia brothers are concerned the film may have breeched the trademarks they hold on the character of Fearless Nadia. But in addition to Sulochana, there were other Indian women stars in the genre with names like Miss Zebunissa and Miss Padma. And Fearless Nadia was a blonde who never disguised her European origins. In Rangoon, Miss Julia bluntly explains to a snobbish maharani that she was born to an unmarried Indian mother.

Okay, the intermission on Indian film history is over and we are back to Rangoon—the modern remake of a 1940’s woman-centric action picture.

Every good Indian film must have a villain, and the British general takes on that role with such awful lines as “Because I’m white I’m right.” There’s also a love triangle; Julia goes missing and is rescued by handsome Sergeant Nawab Malik, her mysterious bodyguard. Nobody will be surprised by the love triangle that develops between these two and Rusi; but the grand finale, where the battle for loyalty and India’s future plays out on a rope bridge, is simply breathtaking. For a look at some videos of dance scenes, check out this Times of India review.

Kangana Rangaut, Shahid Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan are the film’s leads

The story’s underlying theme is the battle between the Indian Army (British-government controlled) and the Indian National Army (INA) sponsored by the Japanese. These forces really did fight along the Burma-India border during the late years of the war. In this film, there’s a secret mission to deliver a jewel-encrusted Indian prince’s sword to ensure this army of rebels would have funds they needed to support an invasion without needing the Japanese.  I wrote about the INA in my books The Sleeping Dictionary and India Gray, so it was exciting to see a partially accurate depiction of the forgotten army.

I walked into Rangoon feeling like a person at risk, but left singing Jana Gana Mana, the Tagore poem  that later became the anthem of independent India. Miss Julia and her comrades had stood up to those who wanted to keep them in their place. Onward I’ll go.

The East Coast’s Steamy Springtime

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

T-shirt weather in February!

“Want to go for a walk?”

My daughter surprised me with this request last week. During the Baltimore winter, nobody in the family walks together—even the dog doesn’t want to be out more than five minutes.

While Maryland winters are not fierce like the seasons I spent in Minnesota, they are still cold. There are always a few snowfalls and a cold wind blowing off the Atlantic. The difference between winter in Maryland and other places is that the damp wind can chill you to the bones. February is a good month for making soup.

It certainly hasn’t been the usual kind of February. Last December, meteorologists predicted this would be another warm winter, just like 2016. The forces at work were an especially strong El Nino wind and an Arctic Oscillation, a stream of winds above Canada and Alaska that has chosen to trap the cold weather far to the north of us. The US Geological Survey says spring arrived to the Washington DC area 22 days early.

I’m not ready to say that we are in spring (official date of Spring Equinox is March 20). In Baltimore—an hour’s drive from DC—this winter brought only a slight, powdered-sugar style dusting of snow: less than an inch. The mountainous areas in Western Maryland where people ski had a tremendous melt of the small amount of snow that fell.  The ski resorts are all but closed up for the season, when they ordinarily would have had business for at least another month. It’s weird. Just like the active calls of birds to each other, seeking mates, just a little bit too early.

When I say this is a hot winter, I mean that it’s been like California on many days. My husband, perhaps out of loyalty to his birthplace, says it’s a “New Orleans winter.” Instead of the typical temperatures in the 30s, it’s been in the 60s and 70s Fahrenheit for many days in the past weeks. It reached 77 last Friday when I went walking with the dog and my daughter. At Johns Hopkins, the school set up signs encouraging students to practice mindfulness while outdoors. The staff arranged beach chairs to encourage meditating in nature, but the Hopkins students seemed more intent on getting to class.

No time to sit and sun oneself at Hopkins!

Daffodils springing up at Johns Hopkins Homewood campus

For me, the national news has been so chilling, that the warm weather gives me a sort of fragile happiness—the feeling that life still is good. Walking in nature is good for mental health, as well as physical.

I invited my husband to walk with me last Sunday afternoon and we took a 45 minute stroll through the neighborhood. Crocus in February are par for the course. However, we saw sights we would normally not see for a month: magnolia trees in bud, and pink hellebores in bloom. I planted a few hundred bulbs in my own garden around Thanksgiving week, and they are starting to show their faces. That seems hardly enough time underground to get their roots established.

Magnolia buds

Hellebores

Apparently Japanese apricot trees and some early-blooming cherry trees are already in flower. I’m worried that a cold snap will kill the display; just as I feel nervous for any birds laying eggs. I also wonder what might happen if birds and rabbits decide to procreate early. Could their eggs survive a freeze?

Well-naturalized crocuses

My fingers are crossed that the steamy early spring will not lead to a silent spring later on.

Gochujang Glory

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I’ve had a little too much Thai, Indian and Vietnamese restaurant food lately. Even good food can become boring. Looking for another Asian taste, I decided to go after the obvious: Korean food.

Fortunately, there are a lot of Korean immigrants around Baltimore. I’ve dined at places ranging from multi-starred restaurants in the suburbs to the casual Korean take-out counter at R House, the great new food hall in Baltimore’s Remington neighborhood. This has been a fun project.

I’ve noticed that in almost every dish, a special flavor tickled my tastebuds. That is the taste of gochujang.

BeBim at R House does fast casual Korean

I first tasted gochujang in the delicious marinated grilled meat dish called bulgogi. It gives the robust red color and flavor to Korean stew dishes known as jigae and is also stirred up and served as a condiment.

The elevator pitch for gochujang is “a cross between miso paste and Asian chili sauce.” But this paste is not nosebud-clearing spiky-hot like Sriracha sauce, another favorite condiment of mine. Gochujang has a good, deep kind of hot and a complex, almost-meaty dimension foodies call umami.

Watch a short video of how to make gorgeous gochujang at http://www.maangchi.com/recipe/gochujang

Gochujang has become buzzy in the West for the last five years, although it dates back to at least the sixteenth century in Korea. Someone clever took the mellow Korean chili known as gochu, dried it, and crushed it. This was mixed with powdered rice, powdered fermented dried soybeans, sprouted barley and salt. Fresh gochujang paste is stored in a ceramic crock outdoors for six months before eating. The fermentation creates the healthy lactobacillus to support healthy digestion; and the chili element within the food inhibits spoilage. Chilies contain capsicum, which some say helps fight obesity.  In any case, gochujang has some other great nutrients: Vitamin B2, Vitamin C, protein and carotene. It tastes like heaven, but it isn’t junk food.

Korean purists still make gochujang by hand, just as people in Japan still make tofu and miso. Fortunately, there are a few potters interested in making the proper jars, which must be screened at the top to allow ventilation. It’s almost like the composting I’m trying to do in an old trashcan in my yard.

I wanted to get a gochujang fix the easy way. That meant shopping. I found many tubs of it on the shelf of the Asian supermarket a few miles from my house. After the gochujang tub opened, it needs to go into the refrigerator. I put it there while I pondered what to do next.

There were many choices. I can’t count the ways I’ve seen gochujang as an ingredient in non-Korean recipes, particularly as a drizzling sauce or mixed in with mayonnaise. One of the first things I did was make gochujang mayonnaise that was used for many purposes.

I also decided to put a spoonful of gochujang in the soy-stock mixture I use for vegetable stir-fry. A dish with Chinese origins was changed—and not for the worse!

While I was taking baby spoonfuls out of my pepper paste tub, the food people have crafted grand new recipes.

British cooking author and TV host Nigella Lawson blended Italy and Korea in her original recipe for Korean Calamari and then she blended India and Korea in Korean Keema.

Nigella’s Korean Calamari

Turkey and gochujang are a popular combination. I like the ingredients in Blogger Lemon Lime Lisa’s gochujang turkey meatballs which would be a great party hors d’oeuvre.

Here’s a great slideshow roundup of gochujang-flavored dishes from Bon Appetit.

Without realizing it, I used up my whole gochujang tub on silly little ideas. I wanted to do something big. One Saturday, I went shopping for a new container of gochujang and decided to lavish it on a small pork loin.

First, I browned the 3-lb. hunk of pork in a little oil. Then I added in 1/3 cup gochujang paste, 1/8 cup soy sauce, 1/8 cup of honey and ½ cup of chicken stock. I let the loin braise in the spicy potion for 8 hours, until cooked through and very soft. I took out the loin to rest and boiled down the remaining red-brown cooking liquid to make a velvety brown sauce. Okay, I apologize for the lack of photograph; when the pork was ready, I had no impulse control.

The pork loin was a bit too much for just my husband and me to eat. Still, it was excellent, from the first night, when it was presented like a roast with polenta on the side; to the next day’s lunch, when it went inside a tortilla wrap along with lettuce and radishes; to the grand finale two days later, soft tacos with fresh chopped vegetables.

By the end of my gochujang experiment, I wasn’t bored. I was filled by another of capsicum’s supposed benefits: euphoria.