x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

In search of India's royal cuisine

In the first of a series of culinary journeys, we visit the Indian state of Rajasthan, renowned for its ancient royal cuisine.

Devi Garh in Rajasthan. Courtesy Devi Resorts
Devi Garh in Rajasthan. Courtesy Devi Resorts

My quest for the royal cuisine of Rajasthan begins in Chhatrasagar, four-and-a-half hours from Jaipur. I tell a Rajput friend that I am looking for ancient recipes and cooking secrets that have been passed down the generations, rarely revealed and almost never cooked for the average tourist. He puts together an itinerary that takes me to Jaipur, Udaipur and several palaces in between. Royal Rajasthan is a cliché and its cuisine has somehow been gentrified for the droves of western tourists who flock to the state. I am looking for the real thing; the cuisine that the royal khansamas (cooks) once made for their rulers during a time when kings ruled and heritage hotels were actual palaces.

Chhatra Sagar used to be a royal hunting camp, its lakeside location perfect for shooting geese or spearing wild boar. Each of the 11 spacious tents facing the lake are decorated with locally crafted wood furniture, block-printed textiles and slate-grey bathrooms with fragrant toiletries. In the evenings, guests gather for drinks on the deck and watch the birds fly home.

"Our food is actually very simple," says Harsh Vardhan Singh, who runs Chhatra Sagar with his brother, Nandi. "Junglee maas, for instance, was just game rubbed with salt, ghee and red-chilli powder and roasted on the spit."

In his slim-fit jeans, sun hat and boots, Harsh looks like a bounty hunter; an Indian Crocodile Dundee. He shows me his father's grilling set with its handcrafted knives and precisely measured skewers. One evening, it is put to use. In the fading light, skewers of juicy marinated lamb cubes are grilled over an open charcoal fire. An occasional dribble of ghee causes the flames to spit and splutter.

"This is leisure cuisine," laughs the lovely Vasundhara, Harsh's sister-in-law. "It is all about leisure and pleasure."

They tell me about 56-course royal banquets where guests were bedazzled. One recipe - worthy of one of the world's greatest chefs, Ferran Adrià - uses a puri (flatbread), deep-fried into a puffed sphere, then broken open so that a live sparrow could be put inside before quickly resealing, deep-frying and serving to startled guests who would tear it open and encounter a flying bird. Impossible, I say. Ask anyone, they reply.

After two days at Chhatra Sagar, Harsh sends me on to Deogarh Mahal, two hours away, because it is known for its cuisine. When my car enters the picturesque biscuit-coloured palace through an arched entrance, the royal family is engaged in a puja, a ritual to commemorate the last day of the nine-day Dussehra festival that is celebrated to honour Hindu goddesses. Later, Queen Prabha shares her recipes. The Rani Sahiba, as she is called, beckons an army of cooks.

Deogarh Mahal today is a heritage hotel and many of its khansamas wear chef's whites. But there is no question as to who is in charge. Clad in an ethereal pink sari, the delicately beautiful queen inspects the lamb that has been cut into chunks. She chides a cook for not properly roasting the spices, and gives instructions for a dizzying array of dishes. Junglee maas, yakhni pulao (rice cooked in meat stock and marrow), and several vegetarian items. The queen and her son, Shatrunjai, argue over when to add the salt to the meat — he thinks it ought to be later so that the meat won't let out water, while she says that it will cook better if salt is added in the beginning. Finally, son cedes to mother and the salt goes in. The cooks stir and chop under the watchful eye of the queen. Nothing escapes her. Everything that emerges is delicious.

Unlike the Mughals, Rajasthan's royal cuisine has less to do with complicated sauces and rich ingredients such as saffron, almonds and raisins. Instead, it was about eating the choicest game at the perfect time. Ducks, for instance, says Shatrunjai, had the highest flavour after they migrated 4,820 kilometres from Siberia. Foie gras, on the other hand, was best eaten in the season before the geese migrated back because its liver would triple in size. Venison tasted best in the spring because that was when the four-horned deer, famous for its saddle meat, would have eaten fresh berries and fruits, lending its meat a lovely tartness. "And most of Rajasthan will not eat meat in the monsoon or during the breeding season," says Shatrunjai.

We sit down to a private lunch — the queen and I. Shatrunjai's wife, a slim stylish woman called Bhavna, arrives with their two young sons, who bound up to give their grandmother a hug. "Hello, sweetie," she cooes, and orders ice creams for her grandsons. A band of hovering helpers jumps into action. Tourists from Argentina and the US arrive. Shatrunjai and his wife step outside to greet them. A royal welcome, as the brochures say.

There are no royals in India today. In 1971, they were "de-recognised" by a constitutional amendment that discontinued their privy purses and privileges as rulers. Today's maharajas are mostly innkeepers, converting their palaces into heritage hotels. "What royals? We are all butlers," laughs Harsh. Still, the tenets of Indian law trickle slowly into rural Rajasthan, and so in Deogarh, Rani Bhooratna Prabha Kumari is still queen and her son a prince.

From Deogarh, I speed towards nearby Udaipur. I am to meet a fairly private couple who hold a treasury of ancient recipes. Vijay Singh Bedla and his wife, Sugan Kumari, have conducted food festivals at top hotels in India and abroad using the 20,000 recipes in their family repertoire. Yet they do it with a sentiment that is more noblesse oblige than marketing. "Please, we are not cooks," says Bedla. "We have inherited a great culinary legacy, one that we want the world to enjoy."

I am sitting inside their modish bungalow in the heart of bustling Udaipur. Sugan recalls stepping into the cavernous stone kitchen as a bride of 18. The wrinkled khansama glanced up from his smoking coal oven. "Are you here to cook or garnish?" he asked querulously, having seen generations of royal brides enter the kitchen just to put finishing touches so that they could get credit for the meal. Sugan was different. She actually wanted to cook, she said. Wordlessly, the grizzled veteran handed her some rock salt and a mortar and told her to grind it. Stung by the uselessness of the chore, Sugan held her tongue and thus began her apprenticeship.

Like most royal khansamas, Kallu-dada was fiercely proprietary about his food, jealously guarding recipes. When asked, he would leave out an ingredient or change it. In fact, the late Maharaja Digvijaya Singh who wrote a seminal book that I found in every household, Cooking Delights of the Maharajas, didn't even bother asking for recipes. He knew they wouldn't be forthcoming. Instead, he would present his gold spice box with precisely measured quantities of fennel, cumin, coriander, fenugreek, red-chilli powder and salt to the royal khansama and ask for a signature dish. Once the dish was made, the Maharaja calculated how much each spice had reduced in quantity and thus came up with the recipe.

Sugan too endured several trials by fire to learn the recipes. Today, she is a confident cook training a new generation of khansamas. I watch her effortlessly whip up a dozen dishes with two young assistants in her small kitchen. She waits till the oil is smoking hot before dropping in the spices: whole cumin and fennel for the most part. A moment after the seeds have released their flavours and fragrances into the hot oil, she seals them again by sprinkling drops of water into the hot oil. "You have to bring the temperature down right away otherwise the spices will burn," she says. The long hand of Kallu-dada, her chef cum teacher, hasn't left her, however. When asked about the ingredients in her famous Bedla sauce, she says with an impish grin: "It's a secret."

The Bedlas' ancestral home is outside the city but they offer private dinners at their Udaipur bungalow to select guests, booked through high-end travel agents or concierges from the city's luxury hotels. After a delicious home-cooked lunch, I leave them to drive to drive two hours through the Aravalli hills to the princely state of Dungarpur.

Udai Bilas palace is powder-puff white and rises above the landscape. As I climb up the steps, I encounter a German film crew that has taken over the entire palace for a shoot. Princess Priya meets me in the central courtyard and leads me into the cavernous kitchen in the back. Attendants and servants bow low to the ground as she sweeps by and call her "Yuvrani", meaning princess. A passionate foodie, Priya and her retinue of khansamas have conducted food festivals as far away as Switzerland. Just as Europe has its classic meat and herb combinations, she says, so does Rajasthan. Ginger and lamb is one; ajwain (carom seeds) with chicken is another. Once the meat is marinated with spices, it is slow-cooked over coals and occasionally smoked using dungar, a technique that gives her princely state its name, Dungarpur. Smoking imbues the meats with depth and complexity, says Priya. Adding dungar or smoke to meat is done by inserting a ghee-doused smoking coal into the dish and sealing it with aluminium foil or dough. Sometimes a single clove or cinnamon is dropped on the coal, thus infusing the fragrance of the spice into the dish. "You can smoke anything, even liquids, by putting the coal on top of a floating cabbage leaf or onion peel," says Priya. Her husband, Prince Harsh Vardhan Singh, drops in. I ask him what his favourite dish is. "I love junglee maas because I am a man of the jungle," he says with a laugh.

Most of the meat is called maas - junglee maas, for instance, simply means meat of the jungle. Nowadays it is mostly mutton (sheep) and lamb. There is lal (red) maas: chopped lamb marinated with yogurt and a liberal dose of red chillies so that it emerges from the tandoor looking blood red. Safed (white) maas gets its name because the white gravy is made from cream, ground cashew nuts and yogurt. The lamb is slow-cooked with whole spices like cardamom, mace and ginger till it almost falls off the bone. The spices are strained out before serving. "When the maharaja put it in his mouth, all he could taste was the tender meat and a smooth sauce, almost like a velouté but with an undercurrent of spices and heat," the chef of the Oberoi Udaivilas hotel, who has trained all across Europe, later tells me.

I leave Dungarpur the next morning for the last leg of my journey: Jaipur. Narain Niwas Palace is right in the heart of Jaipur. Its owner, Man Singh, is a dignified man with a handlebar moustache. He is known far and wide for his talents as a cook. Most of his recipes are tight, with a handful of ingredients that reflect the stark contours of this arid land, washed as it is by the blood of countless battles. The desert here isn't bountiful. Its dishes aren't expansive. Vegetables are scarce, or rather, they used to be before trucks and planes made everything accessible. Milk and yoghurt were more available than water and widely used in marinades. Game was easier to come by than vegetables, which were dried and preserved for months.

Among his friends, Man Singh is famous for his maas dishes, particularly lal maas. When he invites friends for an evening on the ramparts of his fort, Castle Kanota, also a heritage hotel, he says the only thing they ask for are lal maas and lots of drinks. His wife and daughter help chop onions and set the table but he does the actual cooking himself. The sun sets; the meat cooks. An hour later, the group digs in with oohs and aahs of delight. When I ask Man Singh what the secret of his lal maas is, he fumbles for words. "The secret is the scent of my hands," he says finally. "Give any two cooks the exact same ingredients for the exact same dish and it will taste different, no?"

Man Singh brings out a book of handwritten recipes that belonged to his forefathers. It is a treasure trove of unusual recipes. He tells me free-range village pheasants taste better than lamb. They roam the countryside, eat ants and have a flavour that is more nuanced than bred chicken. The meal ends with a homemade beverage called chadr haas made with 76 herbs, including saffron, rose and anise - Man Singh won't divulge the exact recipe. He has it patented, he says. As the evening wanes, Man Singh becomes expansive. "The taste of the meat depends what the animal eats," he says. "Mitti ka khushboo hai. It is the fragrance of the soil."

That, and the scent of a cook's hands.

 

If You Go

The flight Return flights with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Mumbai cost from Dh1,315, including taxes. Jet Airways (www.jetairways.com) flies from Mumbai to Jaipur from 7,703 Indian rupees (Dh620) return.

The hotels A double tent at Chhatra Sagar costs 19,800 rupees (Dh1,593) per night, including meals, soft drinks, a village tour by Jeep or a birdwatching tour, and sundowners. Complimentary cooking classes are on offer. Double rooms at Deogarh Mahal cost 7,000 rupees (Dh563) per night with breakfast and taxes. A full package with accommodation in a deluxe suite, breakfast, a welcome drink, one therapy session andprivate yoga class per day, a private cooking lesson, a drive to a lakeside sunset, an audio tour of the Mahal, and a private dinner held on the fort's ramparts costs 15,000 rupees (Dh1,207) per night, based on two sharing. At Udai Bilas Palace, double rooms cost6,050 rupees (Dh490) per night, including taxes. Dinner costs 650 rupees (Dh52) per person. Visitors can request a visit to the kitchen to watch the khansamas at work. Halal food is available on request.