“Hello!” I spoke excitedly into my phone. 

It was a sunny winter day and we were passing through Jaipur on our umpteenth doing-one-of-the-Rajasthani-circuits trip. Needing to break our journey, we were looking for a hotel to stay the night in. As always, the much-praised Samode seemed ideal. “Would you have one double room for today?” I asked.  As always, the courteous voice informed me regretfully. “No, Ma’am, we’re completely booked.”

 The conversation was the same – every trip we made till this monsoon. Why not make a short trip to Samode all by itself? “Yes Ma’am, there are rooms available at the Samode Bagh,” the courteous voice informed us.

 Some clothes, some books, no rising with the sun, a small breakfast and off we were on a pleasantly easy drive on the Gurgaon-Jaipur highway. Barring the khich-pich at Shahpura and the snarl at Kothputli (both flyover construction zones), the road seems alright if not good. Samode is a tiny village, a little before Jaipur. Some four hours later, driving on a tiny road, we stopped at an ornate gate, tucked behind some high walls. After parking the car, we walked through the 400 year old gardens of Samode Bagh. 

Set against dark monsoon clouds stretching from horizon to horizon, the lawns were an exquisite sight. A few white Laburnum flowers were scattered on some stone steps. Stray peacocks sometimes strutted across the field of your vision or perched proprietarily on your verandah.  

 Fountains fed by underground pipes and water, danced along the way to the 150 year old pavilion where a group of colourfully garbed locals sat with marigold flowers and a dholak. One side of the older part of the garden is lined with stables where horses (with anglicized names like Danny) and ponies live under the relative comfort of electric fans. A little further is a dilapidated old ruin inhabited by what seemed like a million bats. As they make their curious insect-like moaning whistling sounds, you conjure up images that are eerie, especially at dusk. 

 Going forward to an all-white building, we passed the small quaint swimming pool laid with tiles that made an ornate motif underwater. Alongside was a Jacuzzi and all around were white walls shielding it.

 You emerged from the building into another garden with tent-style cottages along the periphery. Paths criss-crossed the entire garden which had countless trees, among them Bael, Amla, Imli and Neem. There were water-troughs for birds and little charpoy-machans while small tented pavilions hosted carrom, pool, table tennis and general sitting areas.

 The rooms’ sit-outs were a bird-watching delight. All manner of feathered creatures would come pecking and looking before moving on to other interesting places. And when it rained, there would be a constant flow of sound and spray.

 One idyllic afternoon, we heard the sound of bugles. Through a huge gate in the wall  was yet another tucked-away garden. And in it was being played an elephant polo match! While not a serious match, the scene was straight out of a Merchant Ivory movie. Hatted white people with teacups in their hands. OK so some were also drinking chilled beer. Huge, caparisoned elephants with decorative motifs painted on them, mahouts with polo sticks, a big ball, two turbaned little men squatting near a rustic score-board on which was chalked in elephant-sized numerals : 1/1. A full-fledged band with shiny instruments and starchy red-and-white uniforms would pipe up at every break, belting out martial tunes. As for the elephants, they would bow, curl their trunk in greeting and sit on the ground to allow the mahout to climb on to their backs using a ladder resting on their side. It’s only when I went really close for a photo that I realized that we were talking gigantic, mammoth-like animals here!   

 The Samode palace is a bumpy four kilometers away. And as you emerge from behind the wall and see the gate, it is a wonderful sight. Rearing up from the hills, the palace was built by a Rawal, not quite a king, but a descendant of the king (in this case none other than Prithviraj Chauhan). Resplendent against a backdrop of rocks, it is now a picture of Mughal-Rajput fusion with mirrored wonders like the Sheesh Mahal and the lounge. Seen from the terrace of the palace, with the swimming pool laid out below and the hills meeting in the horizon, the whole view is an unreal mix of the modern and the ancient. The food here as at the Bagh is average with some dishes standing out.

 In tune with our recent holidays, there really is nothing to do but laze around here. Read. Eat. Walk. Talk. Watch. Laze. When we leave two days later, we take away with us a lazy memory, a little hazy in detail, a short distance from the highway but a long distance from the everyday.

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Marut Sikka’s Kainoosh is as different from his Magique as a pot is from a pan, as pasta is from gatta. On the other hand, Di and I visiting Kainoosh for lunch are completely alike in our love for all things new when it comes to food.

This then was Sikka’s ‘labour of love.’ Recipes collected, innovated on, perfected and presented, a process that apparently took over a decade and took in many different parts of the country – Benares, Hyderabad, Old Delhi, Lucknow and countless others.

We start with the startlingly different bestselling cocktails. The Keya Magic completely brings out the Allahabadi in you no matter where you’re from! With a hearty paan flavour, it had betel leaf muddled with vodka and sambuca. And were those slivers of supaari floating along the length of the glass?

Aam Panna (all cocktails are Rs. 400) had a refreshingly different vodka twist. The Cucumber Caprioska had a icy, summery, fresh kheera flavour with actual pulp.

Meanwhile the dishes had started arriving. The kebabs were good. Each of the Trio of Tandoori Prawns (Rs. 550)was delicately laced with flavours – Coriander Fennel, Cumin – so delicate that even the indomitable Peri Peri was subdued. The Ajwaini and Kashundi pieces in the Trio of Tandoori Fish Tikka (Rs. 375) were superb with assertive mustard and ajwain overtones.

The Shad Rus is an assortment of six sauces each highlighting a different flavour—sweet, salty, bitter, sour, hot, astringent. Especially interesting were the soaked methi seeds coupled with raisins. A glass plate was put before us and around it a circular assortment of six small bowls. This then was the Bespoke Thali (Rs.1100), a masterpiece for sampling-freaks like me. You could choose the dish in each bowl from the vegetarian menu or the non-vegetarian menu or you could flirt between the two. Or you could choose to go a la carte`. The portions are small enough and priced to induce you to try many different things.

Di told me that the delightful crispy okra raita tempered with mustard seeds and curry leaves owed its origins to her home, Kerala. The prawns simmered in cinnamon, clove and cardamom infused tomato gravy were topped with cumin cream was good. The black Urad Daal cooked Makhani style was well, Daal Makhani.

It was the lamb cubes cooked with roasted almond paste, saffron, cinnamon and cloves that was divine, the ingredients married seamlessly into a subtle yet rich-tasting dish – the kind of flavours that delight at the Dum Pukht in Maurya.

For me the piece de resistance was the Kofti Boti Biryani, aged basmati dum-cooked with nutmeg-gy lamb kofta, a very clever dish with a clear Kashmiri influence. And a dish which seduces your taste-buds, very, very gently.

The gentleness continued though to where it was not wanted – the chilli lachha paratha that disappointingly had no fire, not even a spark in it. And there was no steamed rice on offer in case you felt like mopping up a bowl with some comfortably plain carbs.

Long after I left Kainoosh, the taste that stayed with me was the one that was loudest – the Aam Panna iced dessert – spicy, salty, sweet, it burst like a frozen churan ki goli in your mouth! In contrast, the kulfi was robust and heartily creamy.

The wonderfully inventive menu is what charms you into indecision. And when I go back, it will be for the dish that is now stuck in my imagination – lamb with jamun?!

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‘Scorpion’ Soup at Shringi Vatika

Shringi Vatika. It’s a small signpost in the middle of nowhere. But on the worldwide web, it’s a name you come across often when you’re exploring the Tirthan Valley. Which is why we stopped for a taste of Himachali food. “But betey, I don’t have it ready right now. If you want, I can make it for lunch tomorrow.”

And that’s how we sat down to one of the few local, home-cooked meals I have had in Himachal. Built above a section of gurgling water, Shringi Vatika is a simple home-stay, run by Aunty who’s from Delhi (rumoured to have had a ‘love-marriage’) and her husband who helps her and who had actually cooked for us. The settlement is named after Shringi Rishi and Uncle belongs to a long line of priests designated as mediums to the Rishi. But now that he helps Aunty with her business, he has relinquished duties to a nephew.

Which is good for us because the dishes being served one after the other are a family tradition. First comes the deliciously evil-sounding Bichhoobooti Soup (Nettle Soup)!! Made from tender nettle plucked with an implement (plucking by hand would make the skin itch), it is a delicious green in colour and is flavoured with a hint of mint. We’re told how lucky we were to have eaten it at all! If the electricity had failed, the grinder wouldn’t have worked and grinding by hand was not an option.

Next up is Siddu. The Gujiya-shaped envelope of whole-wheat flour (ground in their personal little flour mill powered by the stream below) is stuffed with an exotic paste of walnut (from the tree behind the house), poppy-seed and some condiments. Steamed, it has an understated flavour and is served with chutney or ghee. Chicken/lamb variants are available at most restaurants around the valley.

And then comes the Sweet Rajma. It has kidney beans and that’s where the similarity to any Rajma or Chilli dish you’ve ever had ends! The Rajma comes in a sweet gulab-jamun-like syrup and is rich with raisins and dry fruits. Eaten with with plain white rice, it is a royal dish served on very special occasions like weddings. And Delhi-type tourists looking for some culinary adventure!

After our very novel meal, we walk down to the little room Uncle has carved out of a rock, we sit on the swing set against the backdrop of mountains, hear teh river tinkling below, ooh-aah over the weeds (exotic lilies for Rs.150 a stem when accompanied by Big-City-Bright-Lights, free when accompanied by mountain air). Looking up at the house from its apricot, plum and walnut tree studded garden, we marvel at the effort Uncle has put into creating and crafting every detail.

And back up there, we marvel at the bill of Rs. 400-something for our wholly-organic, sumptuous feast.

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Tirthan Valley

That the valleys of Himachal are flooded with tourists paragliding, rappelling, river-crossing, demolishing aloo-parathas in un-quaint roadside dhabas is no surprise. How could the nation vying for the status of ‘most-populated’ behave any differently?

That the apple-tree studded places you visited less than a decade ago are strewn with potato chips packs, bottles and the filth of human invasion is even less surprising. How could a nation of people who think nothing of flinging rubbish from their car windows behave differently?

It’s the power plants that still bring a lump to the throat. Dry mountains with the life-force dynamited out of them to make mega, mega quantities of electricity (for you and me?). Miles upon miles of slippery tracks alongside once-roaring rivers that have been bent into submission – from beside the mountain into a tunnel through it. Harnessed, tamed and tragic.

And then sometimes after bumping over slippery tracks where bulldozers rule, you chance upon a place like the Tirthan Valley. Tiny, tucked neatly inside an envelope of mountains, it is eactly the ‘scenery’ I used to draw when I was five. Mountains stacked one behind the other, river rushing from right of page to left, fish, lonely house-shaped rectangles with sloping roofs and trees much bigger than them. There’s really nothing here for the Volvos whizzing towards Manali. Thankfully.

On a good-looking road to nowhere, next to the pristine green-white Tirthan gushing hurriedly from somewhere is the Himalayan Trout House. Here Christopher Mitra greets us with stone-oven pizzas being served in his very quaint gazebo. Chriswa, his half-blind dog runs around as we take in the place. Apricot, plum, apple and pear trees are scattered around mud cabins and some more-permanent looking structures.

Everyone’s drinking beer. House rules forbid soft drinks post-noon, Christopher tells us. When the sun starts feeling mellow tippling from the river, we clamber down to where Christopher and some of his guests are fly-fishing. The river is bursting with fish and they are knee-deep in the freezing water. When they do catch a small trout, they let it free. ‘Making the fish smarter,’ says Christopher, and no, his research shows that these encounters don’t injure the fish.

A helper knocks at our door sometime in the evening and gives us the menu. We need to place our dinner order by 6.30 so the kitchen can  gear up. We tell him we’ll let him know. 10 minutes later, I glance out of the window to see him standing under the plum tree gazing sadly at our window. Oh no! Maybe the instructions are that he can’t step into teh kitchen untill he’s taken all the orders! Between much laughing and feeling sorry for him, we decide. Of course, I want trout. Of course, it is very good, with minimal ingredients to keep its flavour intact.
Night-time is when the bonfire is lit and the guests gather. Kids play, older folk get progressively slurry-er and the smell and sounds of the outdoors mingles with that of food – cicadas chirrupping, cutlery tinkling, soft voices and…the river roars as the guitar trembles out a few notes.

The village of Nagina in the Tirthan Valley is like that.A walk around shows very few dining options. The first day is very like the next and the next. It’s an easy rhythm to get into. Waking up to sunlight streaming in through skylight in the roof – ufffff- Breakfast with everything thrown in – eggs, cutlets, poori-aloo, a walk to the waterfall or over the bridge or down the road or to a spot jumping with fish or a visit to some far-off eating place (FiFFFFFTEEN kilometres away!), visit to the river, drinks on a stone table with stone stools, dinner, some night-gazing, river-through-apricot trees-spotting.

In between is much idle toe-dipping, freezing-water-wading and tucked-between boulders-reading with the river-roaring an inch away. And the idle excitement of watching a tourist-group attempting to cross the river holding on to a rope tied to a boulder. Boulder shifts, tourists tumble, we run to help! It all ends in a sodden mess and a drenched teenager crying at the riverside. Some of Christopher’s regular guests who return like homing pigeons every season look tearful too – the paraphernalia of tourism is making its first threatening appearance in the valley.

And of course, we see the folklore-ish Raju’s Cottage and the rickety bucket on a wire, sitting in which you cross the river to this homestay which is always, always booked out. And we eat Siddu and Nettle Soup and sweet Rajma but that’s a story all by itself.

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Brown Sahib in black and white

I have been thinking of it for days. And when I land up at Brown Sahib it seems exactly what I have been thinking of. Soothing, contemporary décor, Bhadralog waiters and a menu that annihilates my already weak decision-making powers.

 It’s got all the Bengali preparations of fish I imagined – Kalia, mustard, fry. It’s got crab cutlets and prawns. And its got a mix of every Anglo-Indian dish you ever had or ever imagined as a child. The cutlets, the puddings, the soups, the roasts the dishes are many more than our two powerless selves can possibly handle tasting.

 By the time the food arrives, The Kashundi mustard paste on the table has bit-by-bit found its way to my spoon and then on to my mouth. I love it.

 But right after that begins a series of disasters. The arrival of our food is heralded by an awful stench, one I can smell from the end of the room. It’s the green coconut inside which the prawns have been baking in a mustard paste, the husband assures me. The waiter looks puzzled at the fuss and tells me it’s just the smell of the fish.

 Remembering my Mother’s assertion that Bengalis don’t mind certain smells as long as they are fishy, I hold my tongue. Meanwhile, our server has spooned some crab (de-shelled, cooked in a spicy masala) on to the husband’s plate. As he tastes it, he almost bursts a valve – “It’s the crab. It’s rotten boss.” The server looks at us ready to fight for his establishment’s fishy reputation till he is asked to sample some from the plate. Immediately after, he nods, picks up the plates and the offending dish and disappears. When he reappears, it is with an offer to replace the dish. We reject the offer, doubting the abilities of a cook and an army  of bhadralok who could serve premium menu items way past there throw by dates.

 We decide to sample the prawns baked in green coconut. While the flavours are nice they do not blend and the salt is guaranteed to lower your blood pressure. In our case, it gets heightened. This premium menu item too was disappointing.

 By now the mood at our table is decidedly low. We decide to try the Calcutta Biryani, so evocatively stationed in the menu. Suffice to say, the under-salted tradition continues while the oil is enough to blockade an artery.

 The food when done the way they do it is average and so not worth it (it being your time, your money or your anticipation). The menu on the other hand is a masterpiece of deception.

 No, no dessert, we tell our waiter who has been looking decidedly sad since his first offering turned out rotten. No one else has bothered to apologize – definitely not the manager.

 Just then, the waiter hands me a comment card. He looks even more apologetic and mumbles something about helping them improve. I pen an essay on things that could do with improvement.

 The following week, I receive an email from Brown Sahib on the address given on the comment card. It is to invite me to try their catering service (and foist it on my guests). Still no apology.

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Happily ever after

The room is dark with the air conditioner humming comfortingly. I’m telling Apa a bedtime story – a politically correct version of Snow White. In this version today, as always, there’s no stepmom only a bad queen, Snow White is not a beautiful female with a snowy complexion but an extremely nice girl and that’s what the Queen keeps asking the mirror on the wall — “Who’s the nicest of them all?” 

In the end it’s a good prince who’s passing by and who helps the 7 brothers make the lifeless Snow White sit up and lo! the poisoned apple falls from her mouth and she wakes up. Then she goes with the prince to her Papa and tells him the story. Bad queen has to go away and with her papa, they all live happily ever after.

This is the point where Apa pipes up authoritatively, “No Mamma, koi Papa ke saath nahin rehtey hain. Snow White aur Prince jaa kar Prince ke castle mein rehney lagti hai.”  

Silence from Mamma who’s making a mental note, “Must tell Papa” and trying very hard not to laugh. and wondering when Baby peeked out from under the politically correct universe I was constructing.

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Finding our way through the bylanes of Hauz Khas, we attracted two black dogs sniffing at our toes. It was hot and humid as only Delhi can be and the restaurant was up an unknown distance of stairs away. If you don’t have areservation call this number before you start climbing proclaimed a little sign. we laughed and immediately after began feeling intimidated.

 Gunpowder is that kind of location where you follow a pipe clamped to the staircase wall up several flights of stairs. Was it carrying water? I didn’t remember to ask. Because when you huff-puffed into the restaurant, you were greeted by a view of the green Hauz Khas village lake with white birds swooning over it.

 The restaurant itself has a simple exposed brick half-wall on one side through which you can watch the kitchen. And you can watch the manny guys who huffed-puffed in carrying sacks into that kitchen – containing, no doubt, our dal, chawal and…ummm fish?    

 Rasam? Not on the menu.  

 Syrian Christian dish of mutton. Yes! Actually no. No mutton in store.

 Ok. We’ll take the fried chicken (Kerala style), the spinach-lentils and yes please, the gunpowder (Andhra style).  

 The Kuttoo Roti with egg was pleasing. The rice from the huge rice cooker we could see was fluffy and hot. The dal had no such personality. The chicken fry didn’t scorch with its chilli (we had hoped it would) but within seconds gave a delicious, fiery warmth. As for the gunpowder, with a hint of dal, coriander seed (?) and of course chilli, was over before the rest of the food was.

 W-a-s     g-o-o-d.

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