This beautiful state of Rajasthan, situated in the north-western region of India, home to the harsh yet exquisite Thar desert, land of bright colors, folklores, music, forts and palaces, occupies a very special corner in my heart. Amongst other things, it is known for its generous hospitality and unique cuisine influenced by the extreme climate.
My early brush with the people and culture from here came in the form of our neighbors in Bombay: The Chauhan family who hailed from Rajasthan. It was a large 'joint-family', where several nuclear families comprising of several generations lived under one roof. It consisted of the patriarch, Baoji and his wife, Ma, at the apex of this hierarchy. Next, were their three sons, their respective wives and children, who assumed their corresponding positions in this pyramid as per seniority in age. While the men took on their roles in the family business, the wives ran the household. The grandmother was the CEO, the oldest daughter-in-law was the manager and the rest were the work force. As a young six year old, I was fascinated by this set-up, which was vastly different from my own family of four. I would often tag along with my mother to their home for the afternoon chai. It was an elaborate affair. Chai was served with special Rajasthani Snacks; Kachoris, Mathris, Kanji Vadas, to name a few. Then there was a special sweet they had called Ghevar at Teej, to celebrate the onset of monsoons. What I vividly remember is a food mill in their kitchen. This machine looked like a mini top-loading washing machine used to grind wheat into atta. But there was a distinct aroma of a spice that was ground in this mill. At the time, I didn't know its name, but as I started to cook, I realized it was the humble coriander seed. Clearly, it formed an integral part of this cuisine. Upon some investigative reading, I learnt that it increases the shelf life of food, which explains its extensive use in the food of this hot land.
Since then, I've had many Rajasthani feasts; at roadside Dhabas or food stalls, to lavish spreads at weddings and everything in between. Each one has been more memorable than the previous one.
During college days I spent a summer with friends as the (royal) guests of the Maharaja of Pokaran. He had proposed to host us at his fort palace and in return we agreed to survey and document the complex for him. As young students, we were thrilled to be a part of this assignment. It was a very long one month. The scorching sun and the dry air gave me a sense of the hardship of the locals. The meals were prepared by the khansamas or chefs in the kitchens built in the 14th century. They still used the old methods of cooking. The meals consisted of several dried berries, papad veggie sides, innovative use of Besan and grains to mimic veggies and extensive use of spices and ghee to cool the body and aid digestion. Often our meals were served at the Baradari or an open pavilion to catch some breeze. The Maharaja of Pokaran joined us for our last dinner. It was a lavish spread; his staff very attentive. I recollect tasting to the famous Laal Maas or Red mutton curry. It looked more menacing than it tasted. It owed its bright red hot color to the local dried red Mathania chili paste cooked in oodles of ghee.
Almost twenty years later, I had the good fortune of visiting this fort again for a college reunion and rekindling old memories. This time, we took a bus ride to the national border. On the way we stopped at a chai stall by the roadside and relished some freshly fried Kachoris by the dozens! Pure bliss!
With so many wonderful experiences and memories of the people and food of Rajasthan, I was eager to present this cuisine at the Verandah in its full splendor. My sister-in-law hails from Rajasthan. Her mother and family's cook generously shared their recipes and grandma's tricks. On a personal note, in this particular cuisine, I enjoyed the vegetarian food more. The Pyaaz ki kachori and Gatte ki sabzi were my absolute favorite. What I learnt was that it is easier to eat ghee laden food than to cook with it. My initial hesitation to use the copious amounts of Ghee in cooking soon dissipated. By the end of the month, not just me, but my head cook also was thoroughly enjoying herself while cooking like the Rajasthanis.