Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Rajasthan Diaries

Juicy tidbits from our trip to Rajasthan spanning Jaipur, Jaisalmer and Jodhpur.

We were prepared for a riot of colors in Rajasthan but didn't expect to be bowled over by the food as well- after all what can you expect from an arid state with unfavorable conditions for vegetation, right? Well, we were proved wrong and happily so! Read on to find some delicious discoveries and must visit food haunts across Rajasthan.
A meal for two at most of the places mentioned will cost you around Rs 300 except for the ones marked with * which can set you back by Rs 400-600 for a meal for two.

Jaipur: MI Road is where you should be headed to for tasty khana in the Pink City. This street is teeming with restaurants of all shapes and sizes and reminded us of Church Street in namma Bengaluru. The Rajasthani Thali at Surya Mahal is worth every penny. Rotis and rice served with kadi (yogurt based gravy), churma (coarsely ground wheat crushed and cooked in ghee and sugar), dal, aloo ki sabzi, gatte ki sabzi (gram flour dumplings in a yogurt based gravy), raita, dessert, papad and many more items that I don't remember right now make for a wholesome meal. Oh yes - and lassan chutney (garlic chutney) is lipsmackingly good! Wash down this meal with a tall glass of lassi topped with cream from any of the three lassiwalla's across the road. A tip - lassi tastes best in the morning since its freshly set.
Next door to Surya Mahal is Nero's* which is popular among the tourists from outside India - probably because of the not-so-bad Chinese and continental items dished out here.
Another foodie landmark down MI Road is the Moti Mahal* restaurant - a branch of the famous Delhi chain that boasts of having introduced the recipe for tandoori chicken.
Tandoori Chicken at Moti Mahal

The chicken tasted absolutely divine, perfectly tandoored (!) served with green chutney and pickled onions. However, don't waste your time on the butter chicken, even when the waiter insists that it's the most popular dish on their menu. At best, it can be described as bland - slightly tangy but overpoweringly creamy.
Butter Chicken

Another popular joint among the locals (though not known to tourists yet) is Sharma Dhaba in VKI Area.

Always crowded with happy, noisy families it provides a very laid back atmosphere to gorge on excellent dal makhani, dal fry, rotis, naan etc. The cool shikanji and chaach (buttermilk) make for a killer combination with the spicy food served here. The yum rasmalai available here was, in Balaji's words, the creamiest and tastiest he had ever had.
Lakshmi Mishtan Bhandar*, known as LMB, in Johari Bazar is a landmark in Jaipur's culinary history. The sweets here are quite a hit among locals and tourists alike. The story goes that the ghevar - a crunchy honeycomb made of paneer, milk and flour - available here is shipped to eminent sheikhs in the Arab world on popular demand. LMB also has a restaurant attached though we felt the food was overrated and overpriced here. The thali has miniscule helpings of all items and service is a little iffy. The thali at LMB includes the well-known Rajasthani staple - dal bati churma - which was missing in the Surya Mahal thali.
LMB's thali

Try the tea here - spiced with cardamom and a hint of ginger, just right to energize you after hours of shopping in Johari Bazar. Before we forget, coffee is a rarity in Rajasthan but the tea is almost always very good everywhere and is usually served in its masala avataar- with cardamom and ginger in it.
For a typical Rajasthani breakfast, Agarwal Caterers near Vidyadhar nagar is the place to go to. Feast on dhoklas, kachoris (with onion or lentil fillings), samosas and the artery clogging goodness of syrupy jalebis in hot milk! Yes, this is a special breakfast for many families that arrive by the carload on weekends in this nondescript eatery.

Fully loaded at Agarwal Caterers

Chokhi Dhani* on Tonk Road is a must visit attraction for any tourist in Jaipur because of the unique Rajasthani experience it provides. It is designed on the lines of a theme park cum resort with a rustic atmosphere that reflects a typical Rajasthani village or dhani complete with camel rides, astrologers, lassiwallas, chaat wallas, bonfires, folk dancers, game stalls, mud huts, wells, hawkers selling toys and balloons - you name it, they have it. Don't forget to taste rabri here- not the sweet milky dessert we know of but a classic desert dish - bajra mixed with buttermilk in an earthen pot and cooked over dying embers all night long which results in a nutritious porridge. Chokhi Dhani is open from 4-30 pm till 11-30pm on all days and the entry fee of around Rs 300 per person includes a dinner infused with local flavours - bajra and jowar rotis (millet rotis) , kair sangri (locally grown beans cooked in butter milk with spices), dal bati churma, gatta, kadi, salad, malpua (rich, soft pancakes in sugar syrup - a special dessert from Pushkar) and an array of chutneys.
At Chokhi Dhani

Served in desi style on leaves, this meal not only encompasses the ubiquitous Rajasthani dishes but also the warm hospitality of the people - something that we constantly encountered through our trip. Extra rotis, some more butter, a little more of kadi - all pushed on to your plate amidst your wild protestations and their mild chidings - you can't help but stuff yourself at Chokhi Dhani!

Jaisalmer: Due to the profusion of foreign tourists in the Golden City of Rajasthan, it is bursting at the seams with restaurants serving cuisines from different corners of the world - Italian, French, Tibetan, German, Chinese, Mexican and Greek apart from several desi eateries. All of them have signboards loudly proclaiming that they are recommended by the Lonely Planet guide though we wonder how much of that is actually true!
Riddhi Siddhi (excellent aloo jeera) at Hanuman Chauraha, Monica (try the laal maas here) near the fort entrance and The Handi are some good Indian restaurants. Hungry after an escapade in the fort? Little Italy*, inside the fort just beside the entrance dishes up some decent Italian food alongside a good view of the impressive fort. The Artist* in Kalakar Colony is another quaint restaurant run by an Austrian gentleman we met on the train. They serve up a mean Hungarian goulash with Swiss rosti. The menu also mentions Indian food though we did not try them. Not to forget the great view of the citadel from here, especially at night when it's all lit up. The Trio seemed to be a trusted restaurant among tourists but we only had the chance to grab a quick breakfast of omelette and toast here which was not too bad. The locals swear by the makahaniya lassi (blended yoghurt with lumps of butter) available at Kanchan Shree, close to Gadisagar lake. Saffron flavoured, thick and creamy, it gives a good respite from the intense heat in the desert. Craving for sweets? You will definitely fall in love with the ghotua- a Jaisalmer speciality- at Dhanraj Bhatia Sweets in Bhatia market - made right before your eyes.
Don't miss the refreshing tea at Prabhu Tea Stall, Hanuman Chauraha. The kadhai doodh here deserves special mention. This is milk left to simmer in an iron kadhai for hours on end, with the milk becoming thicker and slowly imbibing the taste of the kadhai itself. Saffron and almonds are also added to the milk during the process. Try it for a different take to your daily dose of doodh.
Check out the kadhai!

Oh, and for those kids who don't like milk, this seems like an interesting alternative available just outside the fort! ;)

Jodhpur: Janatha Sweet Home with branches at Swastik Gate and Nayi Sadak was highly recommended to us for its mawa kachoris (a speciality of Jodhpur) and mirchi badas (or vadas as we know them). The kachoris are an anorexic's nightmare - filled with khoya (condensed and dehydrated milk) and drowning in sugar syrup! Too sugary for our taste but we guess it fulfils the Rajasthani's penchant for sweets! Mirchi badas, as the name suggests, are batter fried chillies. However, we were surprised to find the chillies in question to be the normal sized green chillies unlike the large ones that we are used to in Bangalore. A doughy mix of masalas makes up for the rest of the spicy bada thus adding to the size of it. The locals eat it with slices of bread, something like the Mumbai vada pav and it makes for a good snack.
Rocktails*, close to The Umaid Bhawan palace is a cozy place for a fantastic meal under shady neem trees. Ajit Bhawan* down the same road has a restaurant thats well worth a try for some very good Indian food. The vintage setting of the hotel premises, which was once the home of Maharaja Ajit Singh, younger brother of Maharaja Umaid Singh of the erstwhile Jodhpur state , added a serene and old world charm to our last meal on this trip. Don't forget to check out the Maharaja's vintage car collection on display here. Absolutley charming!

Rajasthani cuisine is much spicier than what South Indians are used to and the amount of oil used while cooking is enough to send your dietician into a tizzy. But food is serious business here and that reflects in the recipes, carefully selected and passed down from generations, each one ingeniously devised - more out of geographical compulsion than out of a fetish for the taste. Minimum use of water, generous use of milk products and locally available lentils, spices and vegetables, food that can be stored for longer, yet retaining their high nutritional value are the hallmarks of Rajasthani cuisine - judged the most majestic and richest by Indian food connoisseurs.

Did you know.......
................................that Laal Maas (literal translation - red meat) is the unique creation of the Maharaja of Salwar? It was named Junglee maas then and was a great favourite among the Maharajas. Due to the scarcity of exotic ingredients in the camp kitchen, the game brought in from the hunt was simply cooked in pure ghee, salt and plenty of red chillies. However, now this dish has been adapted to the less controversial ingredients like lamb or poultry.
...............................that the Rajasthanis even have a term for the affectionate force feeding of their guests? It is called manuhar or manvar. The adage 'Athithi Devo Bhava' ('The guest is like God' ) is practised very seriously here. It is considered extremely rude to just lay the food on the table and expect guests to serve themselves.