Archive for Travel

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).

Malia’s Gap Year

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Malia and her father/photo Yuri Gripas Reuters

Malia and her father/photo Yuri Gripas Reuters

Congratulations to Malia Obama.

She’s made it through the constant observation that began with her entrance to the White House in 5th grade. Both Malia and her 8th grade sister, Sasha, have gracefully stayed the course without acting out and remaining close to their parents. Malia, an excellent student and tennis player, applied to a number of top schools during her senior year at Sidwell Friends School. The end result is that the 17-year-old has accepted Harvard’s offer, but will delay entrance for a year.

Could this start a gap year trend in the U.S.?

While traveling, I’ve always been intrigued by the New Zealand and Australian teens with heavy backpacks on their “walkabouts.” The idea is to have some fun, work jobs around the world and widen horizons before settling down to studies and continued life in the home country. A lot of Europeans do this as well, some using the time to work as au pairs in different countries.

Malia and Sasha have seen more of the world than most of us during their years as daughters of the President. Exposure to other people and places was a value their parents insisted on sharing. The first family’s travels have included India and Argentina, Russia, China, Britain, Italy, South Africa and Botswana. Malia already had her walkabout.

Obamas arrive in Cuba/Pablo Martinez Monsivais AP

Obamas arrive in Cuba/Pablo Martinez Monsivais AP

We don’t really know the reason for Malia’s gap decision, but I think it’s great. And since she’s already gone so far, my fervent wish for Malia is that she takes time in her gap year to dig in close with her family.

After all, Dad’s leaving his job, and Mom will not be pressed with leading campaigns for health and veteran families. President Obama has always valued family first and committed most of his evenings to his children, rather than adult socializing in D.C. But hanging out with your kids in a fishbowl won’t be nearly as relaxed as this forthcoming year.

Firstly, the Obamas must either rent or buy a new house in the DC area. Malia can be part of this search—and since she’ll be around, she can decorate her room the way she wants!

The former First Daughter will also has the chance to apply for a part-time job or an internship, perhaps in the world of film and television that she’s already explored through internships on “Girls” and “Extant.” But I treasure the idea of a teenager occasionally sleeping late, reading for pleasure rather than for tests, helping with groceries and gardening, and playing games.

The Secret Service taught Malia to drive—but now she can learn to trust her own instincts driving everywhere she needs to go. Malia and her family will likely have a lot of time to talk or listen to music when stuck in Beltway traffic on the way to Sasha’s school events. Best of all—Malia will be able to drive Sasha to school!

Malia and Sasha/CNN

Malia and Sasha/CNN

The President said in interviews that Sasha Obama would be the one to decide where the family stayed following his departure from the White House. He—a child who was uprooted and moved many times in life–understood how important feeling comfortable in school was. He didn’t want her to have start over again, as the girls had when they left their lifelong home on Chicago in 2009.

No upbringing is perfect, whether in the White House, or an ordinary suburban cottage. We can’t predict whether our kids will become happily paired or live solo, be financially successful, community-minded, or emotionally stable.But we can do a lot to make our own family systems work—and that’s exactly what the Obamas have managed.

Family including grandmother Marian Robinson in 2009/Getty Images

Family including grandmother Marian Robinson in 2009/Getty Images

Another Excuse for a New Year’s Party!

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

A welcoming Parsi gentleman I will always remember; India International Centre 1989

A welcoming Parsi gentleman I will always remember; India International Centre 1989

A few decades ago, when I was on a father-daughter trip to India, I came fact to face with my future.

Not my sweet husband (although plenty of people I met on that trip offered to find me one).

That fateful evening in March, 1989, I suddenly found myself in the midst of a party celebrating Navroze, or the Persian New Year, a major spiritual and social occurrence based on the spring equinox. Nowrooz, Navroz, Navroze, Naw-Ruz, Nowroz, and several other spellings all mean “New Day” in Persian. This is the date that changes slightly every year: when the length of sunlight equals night.

It is the start of the lunar calendar calculated by Persians about three thousand years ago. In those days, the state religion was Zoroastrianism. However, it seems that anyone whose ancestors spent time in Iran, whether Zoroastrian, Muslim, Baha’i or Kurdish, observes this new year. Some communities celebrate three days…others almost two weeks.

I knew none of this going in. That long ago evening at the India International Centre in New Delhi. I was strolling about, killing time until the dining hall opened and my father and I could get something to eat. I drew near a splendidly decorated pavilion.

Are they twins or just close sisters? Parsi girls at the 1989 Navroze celebration

Are they twins or just close sisters? Parsi girls at the 1989 Navroze celebration

I felt I were gazing into a magic world. Darling little girls wore white lace frocks, ladies were draped in luxurious saris and all the gentlemen were clad traditional white suits with unusual headgear (Later I learned these were lacquered turbans called fetahs). I admired the scene until a kindly elder  insisted I join them. I had my first rapturous taste of spicy, sophisticated Parsi food (Parsi transliterates to “Persian” and refers to the Zoroastrian immigrants who arrived in Gujarat starting in 600 AD).

My first taste of Parsi hospitality must have been auspicious, because many years later, I find myself revisiting the March New Year in fictional form. I’m currently writing a novel starring a Zoroastrian family in 1920s Bombay. Just last week I was writing about the rigorous house cleaning that before the New Year. There’s a lot to it!

Perzen Patel, a Parsi cuisine expert in Mumbai, with her fabulous pantry

Perzen Patel, a Parsi cuisine expert in Mumbai, with her fabulous pantry

My friend Perzen Patel, aka the Bawi Bride, is a Parsi caterer and food blogger in Mumbai. For Perzen, the Persian New Year means a lot of family visiting and a tremendous amount of cooking for friends and customers. Several weeks before the holiday, she sent this enticing email to her friends and blog followers, and customers.

This year to bring in Navroze I thought we’d go the extra mile and really create a menu that is beyond the ordinary. So, I’ve put my thinking cap on and planned a lovely special that you can avail any day from Saturday 19 – Monday 21 March.

Our menu is as follows:

  • Kheema Pattice—savory mashed potato and lamb patties
  • Badam Malai Chicken Pulao—a savory rice pilaf studded with chicken cooked in cream with almonds
  • Masala ni Dar—spicy lentils
  • Kid Gosht—lamb curry
  • Patra ma Prawns—prawns steam-cooked in banana leaves
  • Lagan nu Custard—sweet baked pudding garnished with raisins and cashews

All of this yummy food for the special price of ₹1550 per plate including delivery with each plate as a whole enough for two people.

Translation: that’s about $25 for a New Year’s feast for two! If you’re curious, try Perzen’s custard recipe highlighted above or the many delicious home recipes on the Bawi Bride website.

All these elements appear on a Nawroz table

All these elements appear on a Nawroz table

Perzen says that if the celebratory Navroze meal is home-cooked (which is typical), at least one fish dish would be included for good luck. There might also be a nougat sweet, Gaz, imported from Iran. Perzen’s favorite non-culinary part of the holiday is the Haft Seen table laid out with seven lucky edibles that start with the “S” sound in Persian. These range from sumac to apple and garlic and herbs. A key item on the table is the mirror,  placed there so visiting relatives can look into it and reflect on their past year and any blessings.

The Baltimore Naw-Ruz buffet

The Baltimore Naw-Ruz buffet

A Baltimore friend, Sheila Mohajer Hofert, is a Baha’i who fled Iran with her family in the early 1980s. The Baha’i start their New Year at approximately the same time as Zoroastrians and Iranian-origin Muslims. One difference is the Baha’i fast from sunrise to sunset for the last 19 days before Naw-Ruz. Sheila says the fasting  makes one “more understanding of the people who are hungry in the world—and to become more aware of our bodies and our emotions. For example, working on treating others kindly when you personally don’t feel very well.”

This year, on March 19, more than 200 Baha’is and their friends gathered to enjoy food, song, and prayers.

I also asked Sheila her favorite aspect of Naw-Ruz. She wrote: “As winter gradually fades away and the paleness of the world is replaced with fresh colors and fragrance, it brings with the promise of the new day. It remind me of he cyclic nature of our universe and the cyclic nature of our lives, which are constantly filled with crises, followed by victory.”

Young Musicians at the Baha'i Naw-Ruz event

Young Musicians at the Baha’i Naw-Ruz event

Life will always get better. Naw-Ruz Mubarak!

Hawaii Journal Part Two

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Working on team stories with the 5th grade

Working on team stories with the 5th grade

In Hawaiian, the ‘Iolani bird is a heavenly hawk. Queen Emma chose it as the name for the Anglican school she founded for Hawaiian and mixed-race boys in Oahu between 1863 and 1870. Approximately 150 years later, the renaissance royal is gone but not forgotten. Many institutions and places hold her name, and the ambitious boys school now admits girls, and has become the largest co-educational Episcopal school in the United States.

I fell under the heavenly hawk’s gaze for the last two weeks as a writer-in-residence. I was brought in as the annual Harold Keables chair-holder, part of an endowment established about 30 years ago honoring a legendary English teacher.

The 'Iolani Bird, fierce and metallic

The ‘Iolani Bird, fierce and metallic

As a full-time writer who works by herself at home, it was a big shift to move from silent mode into talking about how to write. I arrived daily when it was still dark, and the metal ‘Iolani birds eyes glowed red. Gradually the sky lightened to reveal students and staff exercising or studying at the outdoor tables. It’s an intense school.

My first teaching appearances were in Japanese classes for 7th and 8th grade students, where I showed slides of my early years in Japan and talked (in English) about how I channeled those delightful experiences into my Rei Shimura mystery series. More than half the students in the class had been to Japan, so we chatted a lot about their most dramatic memories. Is it any surprise that Japanese toilets—both the antique variety, and the post-modern—brought gales of laughter?

In the journalism/newspaper classes, students were curious how I chose to weave details into both kinds of writing. I enjoyed their full-color newspaper, Imua ‘Iolani, which was packed with interesting stories, photos and art. With so much activity on campus, there was no shortage of stories.

'Iolani hulu dancers performed at a reception.

‘Iolani hulu dancers performed at a reception.

Most of my time was spent working with creative writing and creative non-fiction classes. I had just one goal: to make them feel writing could be fun, much more than an assignment done for a grade. Okay, there was a second goal, too: to help them tap into the stories that were inside them; great material that they might  never have considered. I spoke about how the places we visit—or the family history we hear about from our relatives—can be springboards for the imagination. I told them only to choose writing about things they were genuinely interested in.

Students work collaboratively in their multi-media study center

Students work collaboratively in their multi-media study center

In one class, I challenged them to brainstorm settings and plots based on situations out of their own or their family’s past. One young woman told us about her family’s historic home in France that had been overtaken by the Nazis during the war years. A high school boy thought of exploring the life of a Japanese picture-bride ancestor; and another male student wanted to write about the dilemma of being raised in a football-centered community, yet feeling the urge to put aside the sport for something cerebral. There were other story synopses set in North Korea, Viet Nam, and Japan: a whole world of creative possibilities.

Student-crafted books on Hawaiian history

Student-crafted books on Hawaiian history

And then there were stories I heard about how the teachers and staff came to Hawaii. Chatting with staff who became good friends, I heard hints of stories of their family histories on the island. Links between Japan and China and Polynesia sparkled like jewels.

Jo Okumoto, "Mrs. O," is a popular staffer many visit early each morning

Jo Okumoto, “Mrs. O,” is a popular staffer many visit early each morning

With my Keables organizer, Frank Briguglio of English, and Jackie Oda, the Special Programs assistant who nominated me.

With my Keables organizer, Frank Briguglio of English, and Jackie Oda, the Special Programs assistant who nominated me.

Stepping out into the sunshine after a day of classes, I could almost hear the great ‘Iolani bird rustling its feathers, readying itself to fly.

Hawaii Journal Part One

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I shouldn’t be in Hawaii right now, watching the waves roll in and basking in sunshine.

The only reason I’m here is because I’m a worrier.

In 2014, I began the application process for an artistic residency at the Iolani School in Honolulu. I worried I wasn’t going to be able to pull myself away from my household—even though the event was two years away. I applied because I thought I couldn’t possibly be chosen. But after several months I was surprised by the exciting news I had been chosen as the Keables chair holder and would travel to teach writing workshops to students for two weeks in the winter of 2016. With more than a year to go, it wasn’t hard to plan out the classes, think about what I’d do for the Community Night Public Lecture, assemblies and other events. The school bought my airline ticket five months in advance and booked a two-week stay at a nearby hotel.

Dwarfed by the palms at Foster Gardens

Dwarfed by the palms at Foster Gardens

About a week before my departure, my worrying spiked. Forecasters were predicting a massive snowstorm for Maryland and Washington, D.C. I had the sinking feeling the snow would ruin the carefully laid plans. And if my flight was cancelled, how long would it be till I found a seat on another one? How many classes and Waikiki sunsets would I miss?

Such worries led me to constantly keep checking with American Airlines the whole week. And then, on a Wednesday, I saw a “travel advisory” pop up button on the airline’s homepage that offered a chance to rebook flights for no charge. I recklessly nabbed a seat on the last flight with any space to Hawaii—which left two days before my scheduled flight on Saturday, Jan. 24. My school contact fixed the hotel reservation so I could check in as soon as I arrived. I started to feel better.

On my right is Jackie, a longtime reader and Iolani School staffer who nominated me for the artistic residency

On my right is Jackie, a longtime reader and Iolani School staffer who nominated me for the artistic residency

I arrived in Honolulu on Thursday evening and had a quick sushi dinner by myself on buzzy Kalakaua Boulevard before crashing. When I rang my husband the next day, he was quick to show pictures of the snowstorm. After we said goodbye, I stared at the waves from my hotel balcony and contemplated the power of nature, for better or worse.

That day I fought jet lag by exploring Waikiki in all directions. I went to dinner with Jackie and Ryan, who picked a great Cantonese restaurant. I ate beyond my usual capacity at a wonderful Cantonese restaurant in the Kaimuki neighborhood called Duk Kee, where I tasted a stir-fry of Chinese New Year’s vegetables.

Duk Kee's owner Cammy talking food with Jackie's son, Ryan Oda, a realtor and Iolani graduate

Duk Kee’s owner Cammy talking food with Jackie’s son, Ryan Oda, a realtor and Iolani graduate

The next day, my mystery convention buddies Marji and Hank who now live full-time in Honolulu brought me to Foster Gardens, a historic botanical garden, where I marveled at trees both huge and small. The palm below was barely ten feet tall after 150 years of growth. Sometimes, writing a novel feels about that slow!

tiny tree foster gardens

I was pleased to see that Honolulu residents were growing vegetables in personal plots set up on Foster Gardens grounds. I saw a lot of kale, ginger, and chilies and began imagining how to mix them.

community garden jpeg

Marji and Hank also brought me to see Honolulu from an excellent vantage point on Sand Island below. A high rise building surge is on. Unfortunately, the new condos are priced for overseas investors, not local people. Not that it was a surprise.

Honolulu skyline jpeg

Table views at La Mariana Sailing Club

Table views at La Mariana Sailing Club

We rounded out the night with mai-tais and dinner at La Mariana Sailing Club, a delightful open-air restaurant on a marina filled with sail boats. This hideaway is styled the way it’s always been since its founding by the famous Mariana in 1957. It’s built with with vintage carved tiki and rattan furniture and glowing colored lanterns in the shapes of pufferfish. The menu contains fish, pasta, and other classic indulgences cooked to perfection. It was too dark to get good photos of the interior, so you’ll have to be content with the above view of the marina.

The hilly garden at Spalding House

The hilly garden at Spalding House

On the mellow Sunday that followed, my friend Liz and I visited two locations of the Honolulu Museum of Art. First was the Spalding House in Makiki Heights. This small contemporary art museum has a glorious, rambling garden and an excellent café.

After losing ourselves in the garden, we continued along to Honolulu Museum’s main building. Because this is my fourth time visiting Honolulu, this museum is well-known to me. However, the Japanese decorative arts collection is so huge I’m always entranced by something new. This time, I was captivated by  beautiful painted Japanese screens from the Showa period (1920s and 30s) in immaculate condition. And I was impressed by a brilliantly curated exhibit of  21st century fashion worn by young people in Tokyo’s trendy Harajuku neighborhood. For the last fifteen years or so, designers in Japan have catered to teenage style-setters with astounding dresses riffing on commercial stuffed animals, fairies, Alice in Wonderland, Gothic horror, steam punk, and Elizabethan England. Another museum-goer who was into Cos-Play told me the retail price for one of these modern masterpieces was $700-$800. Wow!

A very spooky rabbit mannequin in a romantic Harajuku fashion

A very spooky rabbit mannequin in a romantic Harajuku fashion

After viewing the fanciful outfits, I had a brief desire to be eighteen again. But then I remembered that Japanese and Hawaiian culture weren’t part of my mental landscape then. I wouldn’t know what Gothic Lolita meant and if you served me sushi, I would have run from the table.

Glorious Spalding House museum garden

Glorious Spalding House museum garden

Sometimes it takes years to arrive at the places you’re meant to go. And after such a highly relaxed weekend, I’m ready to start school.  More about that two weeks from now, in Hawaii Journal Part 2.

A Taste of Literary New York

Book browsers on 4thThis post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

One of the perks of East Coast life is the freedom to visit other cities within just a few hours. Recently I caught a 6:30 charter bus to New York City and was midtown by 9:45. I’d temporarily abandoned my peeps in Baltimore to enact a very pleasant yearly ritual: my New York literary weekend. It was a short walk from my friend’s apartment in Cooper Square to Union Square.

Along Fourth Avenue lies a section once known as Book Row. Only a few bookshops remain out of the 48 that once flourished during the Edwardian era. Still, it was a happy sight to see books and browsers, and the very best bookstore in America is still open nearby.

Strand BookstoreYes, I hit the Strand. Inside, big wooden tables were loaded with thousands of brand new books, in addition to venerable old ones packed tightly on industrial shelving that took up a supposed “18 miles” of space. I was astonished by the hordes of intense-looking employees—a number I couldn’t begin to count. Hundreds of customers swirled around me, and getting near a particular bookshelf was a give-and-take between people as carefully negotiated as entering the subway.

Soho Press was around the corner. I met with my new editor, Juliet Grames, and the marketing and publications staff. An energizing conversation was chased by a tasty lunch at a nearby Japanese restaurant. I left a few hours later with Soho’s cute “Crime Has No Time Zone” bag loaded up with the latest from David Downing, Mette Ivie Harrison and Andromeda Romano-Lax.

Dev Patel plays the lost genius Ramunajan in the film version of "The Man Who Knew Infinity"

Dev Patel plays the lost genius Ramunajan in the film version of “The Man Who Knew Infinity”

My happy publishing afternoon continued with a cup of tea with my literary agent, Vicky Bijur. As we talked about my career and the general future for fiction, our conversation turned to the good news that three of Vicky’s authors have had books turned into major films in the last year… one of these, The Man Who Knew Infinity by Robert Kanigel, is an Indian historical biography of Ramunajan, the mathematician. The film stars two of my favorite guys: Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons.

As Friday wound down, I sat in a Union Square coffee shop with my cousin, Suman Bhattacharya, who also writes fiction. I was intrigued to hear about Suman’s latest novel-in-progress set in a modern slum in Kolkata. The American agent who received his query asked whether there was a white male character in the storyline. My cousin’s depressing report reminded me of some chats with screenwriters interested in transferring my Japanese mysteries to US locations and characters. I encouraged him not to give up.

Sujata Massey, Maya Lang, Tania James and Mira Jacob

Sujata Massey, Maya Lang, Tania James and Mira Jacob

Still, this quandary was on my mind as I headed over to the Indo-American Arts Council’s second annual literary festival. I was so eager for the festival that I was one of the first people to arrive at the new location at Hunter College. The challenge of getting decision-makers to accept diverse works of fiction was a recurring topic on many panels, including one on how to break into publishing, and another about writing for film.

I moderated a panel on Sunday with three terrific women literary fiction authors. We discussed whether we thought we wrote different kinds of books because of our gender, and how audiences reacted when several of us chose to write about characters and places that didn’t seem to match up with our Asian names. It was a lively roundtable discussion. One of the panelists, Mira Jacob, recently wrote a Buzzfeed commentary about her odd experience of being talked over while giving a speech on race at a Publishers Weekly event. Mira said the net result of the ignoring drew more far more attention to the issue than a successful speech would have.

How do we create original, creative books that will be embraced by the English-language publishing universe? Believe it or not, this concern also applies to cookbook authors. Many big Indian foodies abhor the way food is typically photographed in brass dishes, and old-time Punjabi recipes are served a continuous loop. They want to convince us to cook differently.

Food writer Suvir Saran and India's TV journo Saransh Goila react to a question from from novelist/blogger Pia Padukone

Food writer Suvir Saran and India’s TV journo Saransh Goila react to a question from from novelist/blogger Pia Padukone

At a panel titled “The Hot New Genre of Food Writing,” a couple of Michelin-rated chefs, an Indian culinary TV host, and a US-based food writer shared tales of beloved family members who set them on their paths and the joy of using with spices with local, organic fruits and vegetables particular to North America. My appetite was whetted, and I wished I’d had a chance to eat at the panelists’ restaurants: Vikas Khanna’s Junoon, and Suvir Saran’s Devi. I also regretted missing the big interview with food writer/actress Madhur Jaffrey on Thursday, and another book talk with writer/actress/Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi.

A final bite and drink at Morrell's with Suvir Saran's "Masala Farm"

A final bite and drink at Morrell’s with Suvir Saran’s “Masala Farm”

Ten new books barely fit in the three bags I packed at festival’s end. As I awaited my bus at a bar near Rockefeller Center,  I realized that, for me, books are the seventh food group. Visiting one of the world’s great publishing capitals each year replenishes the pantry within my heart.

Some Favorite Travel Locations in Japan and India

The following is bonus material from Sujata’s latest newsletter. You can subscribe by clicking here.

INDIA

houseboat-bigThe Kerala backwaters are hundreds of miles of brackish waterways that you can travel for an hour or days on houseboats. The gateway for arranging all this is in the town of Alleppey (also known as Alappuzha).

Fort Cochin, the historic section of the major business city, Cochin/Kochi, is a great area for historic exploration. Brunton Boatyard, an old boatyard that has been converted into a lovely hotel, is a stately haven in the midst of everything. This is the first place I brought my then-one-year-old son Neel to stay. We were treated like royalty. I just checked and saw that non-sea-view rooms are quite affordable!

Calcutta, now known as Kolkata, is a such a vibrant city with lots of theater, film and bookshops. Any traveler should stop by Oxford Bookstore, where a reader can browse for hours and in the evenings, attend exciting readings or sip coffee right at the inhouse coffee lounge. Nearby is Flury’s, a historic European pastry restaurant, and a streetcart selling delicious khati kababs.

To stay overnight in Calcutta, I recommend the very civilized, but not stratospherically priced, New Kenilworth Hotel. It’s an old British bungalow that’s been converted into a hotel with excellent food. It’s a pleasant walking distance to Park Street, Chowringhee, the Victoria Memorial and the city’s excellent, clean subway system. It’s also a few minutes’ walk from Middleton Street—the home of Mr. Simon Lewes in The Sleeping Dictionary.

JAPAN

The Zen temple town of Kamakura is very close to Tokyo and much less crowded than Kyoto. If you want to see dozens of historic Buddhist sanctuaries without the expense of Kyoto travel, just hop on a southbound Yokosuka Line train and explore my favorite Japanese town. You’ll get a great lunch in town and be able to buy lacquer, washi paper, blue-and-white textiles and all kinds of antiques. Zen Attitude is set in Kamakura and has specific mentions of real places to visit, so use that as your guide.

Nezu is a walkable, historic Tokyo neighborhood that abuts a better-known neighborhood called Yanaka. You will find tofu and sembei cracker shops, shrines and temples just by walking out the door. Staying in a minshuku in Nezu or Yanaka is a great idea for any traveler who doesn’t need things to be super-comfortable. Also, Hotel Asia Center of Japan in Akasaka near Roppongi is inexpensive, clean, modern and safe.

More Tokyo Treasures: the whole neighborhood of Asakusa for delicious, well-priced food and shrines; Omote-Sando Avenue for cappuccino and cosmetics shopping; and  Harajuku neighborhood for youth culture, cheap fashion and food. Roppongi is a must, not just for the fun musical nightlife, but for daytime shopping at clothing boutiques and Kurofune Antiques. If you want to shop at a Sunday morning flea market, the vendors move to a different shrine location each week, so check with the Japanese Tourist Board for the latest information.

CAN A SOPHISTICATED AUTHORESS TRAVEL TWO WEEKS IN EUROPE WITH ONE CARRY-ON?

libby_leatherMy friend Libby Fischer Hellmann, writer of fabulous mystery and international suspense fiction, is traveling in Germany, Austria and Eastern Europe for two weeks using a single carry-on suitcase. I used to work in fashion journalism so I find this idea of limiting oneself severely, especially when traveling in cities, pretty hard. So I asked Libby what she would squeeze into her expanding Samsonite case for an itinerary of six countries.

Sujata: Libby, what goes into your carry-on?

Libby: 4 pairs of pants, 2 skirts, 1 dress (both skirts and dress can be rolled up without wrinkling, a la Kinsey Millhone; assorted tank tops, 3 scarves, 3 sweaters, 2 pairs of tights. And two T-shirts ;). Toiletries go in the zippered outside compartments.

Q: What about shoes? Do you have a favorite brand or two of comfortable walking shoes that are not sneakers?

A. I’m taking a pair of walking shoes and a pair of black suede ankle boots for evening. Black WaveWalk shoes by Clark were suggested by another international traveler, mystery author Cara Black. They are the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn.

Q: Are you bringing a raincoat?

A: I bought a Scottesvest trench jacket with 18 pockets, also at Cara’s suggestion. And an across-the-chest Baggolini as a purse. If it’s not enough, I guess I’ll have to buy a jacket.

Q: Do you buy clothes when you travel? What are some favorite purchases and where did they happen?

A: Libby: Love to buy clothes and accessories… the UK for scarves, Paris for skirts, Italy for shoe and purchases, and, curiously, Gibraltar for a leather jacket!

Thanks for the intel, Libby. To find out more about her travels and books, click here:

http://www.libbyhellmann.com/blog/