Leela has nearly been to the four corners of the globe, having lived in South India, Vietnam, Turkey and other distant locales where she discovered new foods and the world around her. Today she lives in Portland, still travels, and highlights the best food, kitchens, and restaurants she comes across. Leela has her own blog, Tea Cup Tea and writes for Apartment Therapy’s The Kitchn. We had the opportunity to chat with her on her inspiration, music playing a part of her daily routine, and how the best travel stories unfold.
Where was your ultimate favorite place you’ve visited in the world and why?
This is just too tough! I got lucky so lucky in that I was born to travel obsessed parents, so from a young age, I’ve been packing my little bag and finding myself on the other side of the globe . . . A place I’ve returned to many times and feel strongly about though is Southern India. The people, colors, tastes, sounds, spirituality and intensity of India is unique. It’s my spiritual home! The generosity and love I was shown there was remarkable. India teaches you things.
What is your wildest travel adventure?
While on a wine press trip in South America last spring, I ducked out of a wine lecture and encountered a delightful motorcycle band of about 40 men. I photographed them taking a break, having wine and pizza and by the end of the afternoon, they lifted me in the air chanting “Ole Ole Ole Ole LEELA!” That was a day when I thought to myself, “well this doesn’t happen very often . . .” It was a lot of fun and we had some big belly laughs together. Not sure this is that wild, but it sticks out as one of my favorite travel memories — anything can happen if you are curious, sip champagne and have a camera around your neck!
What places did you discover the best foods and do you recreate those at home?
Eating unfamiliar foods at hole in the wall places all over the world is one of my greatest passions! Living and eating in Istanbul, Turkey was probably the most surprising, fresh, and exciting experiences of my life. Turkish cuisine is very refined in technique and their flavors are strong and assertive. From the 2 dollar mint/lentil soup on the street to the decadent baklava, everything I ate there was just right. I try to cook with that same Turkish sprit at home, loads of fresh herbs, lemon and plenty of tea alongside.
Favorite photograph you’ve taken and why?
For me, photography is the result of a process I really enjoy first and foremost: discovering another world, learning about someone’s trade/passion and bringing that to life — that is my favorite part — the image is secondary. That being said, I love thinking about composition and design in my images, trying to push them every beyond my current comfort zone . . . the long story short is that my most beloved images are completely biased and emotionally tied to special moments with my family. Right now it’s a photo taken with a 50s toy camera of my husband having a coffee in the Los Angeles sunshine.
How does music play a role in your daily life? Does it help inspire your food choices?
My husband and I love to blast music in the house, especially when cooking and cleaning. We like a good soundtrack running to lip-synch and inspire! And our road trips are completely dominated by certain albums . . . For eating, I love upbeat Soul Music — there’s nothing better than a good meal and some Sam Cooke.
What’s the best music experience you’ve had when traveling?
While living in India, we went to a few mind-bending concerts. The Raga form of masterful musicians riffing off each other with great rhythm, emotion and skill put me in a trance. We’d go to these mess hall type of places and for hours, the 3 or 4 musicians would have us in their palm, even little kids would sit upright, undisturbed, lost in the music. So enchanting!
Since you and Elvis were born on the same day, are you or were you ever a big fan of his music?
I love Elvis! Growing up people used to always give me Elvis gear because of our shared birthday. Do you know he was born with a twin who died at birth? My Mom is from Mississippi, so we visited his birthplace of Tupelo as kids. Mostly I love his early stuff and those gyrating hips of his! Blue Moon is my favorite song.
If you were to pick one place, one dish and one song combo, what would it be?
I’d be sitting in my parent’s backyard in Santa Barbara, California with my husband and all of our family at my side in a fancy picnic, munching away at little appetizer foods — California style with fresh fruits, veggies, grain salads, dips and my Dad’s homemade pizzas going, washed down with Prosecco and lemonade . . . Bob Dylan’s Tomorrow is a Long Time would be playing on the record player crooning for us as we feasted and laughed among the jasmine bushes, orange trees a block from the Pacific ocean.
Thanks for your time Leela! You can follow her on Twitter at @leelacyd and check out her Rhapsody playlist here. And if you happen to be in Florence, Italy in May, she’ll be hosting a photography class.