The spice Indian cuisine serves overflows with royal flavors
From the rooftop, sunlight glinted off windows set into the golden stone of Jaisalmer fort. At my back the sun was setting across the desert, casting shadows across the long table where we enjoyed the soft rays. Earlier, our host announced that we were to have tea with the son of the Maharaj, Prince Yuvraj Chaitanya Raj Singh. After being ushered upstairs in one of the royal residences, I watched two serving-men navigate narrow rooftop stairs while balancing trays and cups, pitchers and pakoras. We sipped and laughed with the young Prince then tea gave way to wine and cocktails as the sky darkened. It was a delicious introduction to Indian hospitality. Whether in a village kitchen, family compound or a royal rooftop, the spice Indian cuisine overflows with colors my memories of visiting Rajasthan.
With spice Indian cuisine is full of regional choices
Before visiting India I had an idea there was a difference between South and Northern cuisine. After visiting I have a better idea. Two weeks traversing Rajasthan, the northwest region of the subcontinent, gave me an incredibly rich idea of how much I’ve taken for granted.
After arriving in New Delhi in the middle of the night, I’d checked into a western style hotel near the airport in Aerocity. Breakfast six hours later offered Western dishes – coffee, eggs, and toast included -but I was delighted to find stuffed flatbreads, roti, fresh chapatis, and even my favorite Idli, the steamed ovals that remind me of sourdough. They’re often served with three chutneys – tomato, chili, and my favorite, fresh ground coconut. A pattern repeated itself over the two weeks I was in the country. Many of my tour mates relished omelets on demand, but I’d return from buffet spreads with a plate piled with papaya, fat guava, and small oranges, long grapes and Idli. I ate Dosas, the paper-thin rice and lentil crepes, as often as I could. They’re a rarity in Southern California.
We visited several of the Sambhali Trust sites. The first was in the Thar desert village of Setrawa. After parading through the town center where we were definitely the center of attention, we were treated to lunch in the Sambhali Women’s center.
Later we were honored at a family home. After taking a tour of the orchard, the family prepared traditional dishes. Of course, beer, wine and the best local whiskey made an appearance. I’ll never forget Auntie grabbing each of us, putting a glass to our lips and laughing as we guzzled. All in good fun.
On our last night in the village two musicians sang and played. Our hosts built a low fire and enlisted our help in preparing the vegetables. Before long the serving table was filled with dishes. I started favoring the milder curries and nan. Sharp, chili paste chutney was available for more daring diners.
In Jodhpur, at the Sambhali Guest House, the courtyard was transformed into a kitchen. The broad central stone floor gave over to chopping, grinding and pounding, then fires and huge pots were stirred. My tummy was so happy.
Not every meal was traditional. On my first evening in New Delhi, my roommate guided us to the Imperial Hotel for her reservation at the Spice Route, which is considered one of the top twenty restaurants in India. Every wall was filled with magnificent murals depicting stages in life. It took seven years to complete the interior. My roommate chose the chef’s tasting menu which focused on Thai specialties. I tried a shrimp Kerala curry and appetizer.
One night in Jodhpur, we dined on the Garden Patio inside the Ajit Bhawan Palace Resort. Mid-meal a small band of gypsies sprang into action on the adjacent lawn. Their percussion and sweet melodies punctuated each bite.
Chai time day and night
Spices were central throughout the trip and nowhere more important than the chai breaks we often paused for. I came home with the recipe for Marsala chai and have been making it daily. Here’s the recipe from Mrs. Rathore at the Guest House that I’ve started making daily since returning home.
1 cup of Milk
1 cup of Water
Half teaspoon of black tea
Half teaspoon of sugar
2 black pepper crushed
2 teaspoon of fresh ground ginger
Boil for five minutes
Strain and serve.
Lassi shops are popular throughout the Rajasthan cities and one afternoon our host, Virendra stopped the bus, jumped out and brought back a clay cup filled with lassi for my seatmate because she had been telling him how much she liked the drink. There are different versions but most are served in single-use clay cups. Vivrendra said they’re thrown away and return to sand. The little Jaisalmer spot served their most popular lassi, a different version, in a beautiful cup.
After dinner in Jaisalmer, we walked into town for a different kind of infusion. In this part of India, marijuana edibles are legal but smoking isn’t. Cannabis is considered to be one of five sacred plants. In Indian lore, Lord Shiva fell asleep under a leafy plant and woke up hungry. The leaves he sampled upon wakening stimulated him sweetly and now many holy men renounce liquor but not cannabis. At our stop, the shop clerk pulled out a tin of cookies and chocolates but the cardamon lassi was the biggest hit. We slept well that night.
The climax of my culinary explorations unfolded in New Delhi. After visiting the largest Mosque, our group peeled off into several pedicabs. My driver was slight but strong. Somehow he shuttled two of us through the city streets and down narrow passages expertly stopping to pull us through the crowds at moments. Virendra pointed out beautiful shops along the way, the overhead tangle of electric wires and once reached out to pat the drivers back with encouragement.
We ended up in the midst of tall bags of chilis and powders opened to the streets and sidewalks. Shops and a milling crowd surrounded us. Men hoisted huge bags on their backs. Carts came and went. Vivrendra took us above the melee to the rooftop and then we slipped into a small shop to buy spices. I, however, thought forward to my long flight home and bought bags of fresh almonds to mix with long golden raisins. They nursed me through melancholy over leaving India.
I’ll never again think of going out for Indian food without wondering which region is featured on the menu and look forward to returning one day to explore other culinary traditions across the vast subcontinent of India. If you’re considering visiting India, read more about highlights of the Rajasthan trip on this earlier post.
Namaste and many thanks for the expert guidance of Rajput Cultural Adventures, Sambhali Trust, and Purposeful Nomads. This was not a hosted trip but the trip of a lifetime.