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Wine & Dine
October 08, 2016

5 Culinary Experiences in Jaisalmer

Text by Shirin Mehta

Jaisalmer, the fortress town situated in the depths of the Thar Desert offers sites and sounds for imbibing incredible local flavours

The western Indian state of Rajasthan is reputed to take hospitality to another level altogether and this becomes apparent on our visit to Suryagarh, the luxury hotel, a 15-minute drive from Jaisalmer. From the thoughtfully provided tray of namkeen for the four-hour car drive from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer and the wet towels cool against our faces, to the lavish food spreads that are to follow, we are treated to various aspects of Rajasthani cuisine – in settings that hark back to the history of this arid land. The ceremonial welcome to the fort-like property in the Thar Desert, with an escort jeep, camels, drums, traditional dancers and a showering of rose petals, should have sufficed but there’s so much more. A turbaned bearer with tray and champagne glass waits outside each suite adding to the deep sense of luxurious hospitality.

A reinterpretation of the Silk Route that Jaisalmer was a prominent part of and a visit to the temple ruins of Kiradu, reveal so much about this magical part of India. Hotel manager Nakul Hada, leads us over two days on a path that reveals the secrets, myths, and legends of the Thar, while showcasing the depths of flavour and cuisines available. This is taking food pairing to quite another level – let’s call it venue-pairing….

Day One – The Silk Route

Venue: The Central Courtyard of Suryagarh, the strains of a traditional flute waft down from the flautist seated in one of the many arches, peacocks strut and white pigeons coo around the breakfast tables….

Menu:

The crisp white tablecloth is set with a smorgasbord of sweetmeats including the local favourite Jaisalmer ghotua, all created by chef halwai, Gatta Ram. This is only the beginning of the signature halwai breakfast that we are embarking on. Served course by course in high fashion, we sample the flavours of Rajasthan – crispy chaat, pyaaz ki kachori, mirchi wada and poori bhaji, washed down with kesari lassi and masala chai.

Feast over, we start out on a reimagining and exploration of the Silk Route, a 2,000-year-old trading route that flourished from the 16th to the 18th century. Jaisalmer was well established on this, as traders from Kabul and Arabia preferred a southern path rather than travelling over the treacherous Pamir Mountains of Central Asia. We imagine colourful caravans, laden with precious merchandise, trudging across the inhospitable desert as we drive to the ruins of Khaba Fort where merchants and traders were given protection by the Rajput princes, paid their taxes and stayed overnight before continuing on their way. The fort overlooks the ruins of an ancient Paliwal village, one of 80 abandoned settlements. The Paliwal community thrived here until 300 years ago. Local lore has it that the entire community disappeared in 24 hours, all 80 villages, due to a lecherous diwan who coveted a Paliwal chief’s daughter. History may discover other reasons for this migration but who am I to question stories of village folk who know the land like the back of their palms. We are now on our way to our next stop and lunch.

Venue: Jhazia Talab, an ancient oasis in the depths of the Thar that, miraculously, never dries up. Excavations have not revealed the source of eternal water, more precious than gold, here in the desert. What a surprise awaits us on its banks! Even as a Manganiyar musician plays his folk ditties in the shade of a tree, we take in the sight of canopies fluttering in the warm breeze over low seating and large bolsters. Orange-turbaned waiters serve cool tall cocktails, sherbets and wine from a makeshift but well-stocked bar, followed by a picnic lunch—a scene straight out of a Merchant-Ivory production.

Menu: Chips, pita crackers and a mild blue cheese dip; cherry tomato salad replete with the taste of fresh herbs; creamy potato salad; herb bread sliders stuffed with chicken and wild basil or grilled Mediterranean vegetables and unripe mozzarella; macadamia cocoa cake. It does not end here, we realise, as char-grilled chicken and vegetable skewers appear freshly cooked. And then, there’s an aromatic lamb pilaf, each individual serving ensconced in its own little pot. This meal can only be slept off in the comfort of our rooms and this is where we head to after lunch.

The late afternoon sees us driving back out on the Silk Route, this time cross-country across scrubby desert terrain to a Bhil Village. Legend has it that the Bhils had been cursed to live in isolation and this one-family settlement is constructed of mud and twigs while goats, their main livelihood, graze nearby. In the near distance, we spot camels with their mahouts waiting patiently. Only the brave venture out on camel back, across the dunes to an ancient graveyard where those adventurers who died on their trading path, have their final rest. A full moon arises as we notice the carvings of figures in various kinds of headgear and garments that mark these tombs. Leaving these behind, we continue on our bumpy way to the wells of Mundhari, sitting silently in the moonlight, precious receptacles of water from no one knows where, surrounded by trees that the villagers believe to be their ancestors, turning to them in times of trouble. The water is cool, clean and life affirming, as mysterious as the night that descends upon us. And through the dark we drive to our next meal.

Venue: Total darkness in the depths of the desert, near an oasis. Traditional song and dance welcomes us to an Arabian Nights setting – shimmering tents, gaddas and cushions. A band of traditional musicians, songsters and dancers make this a fabulous evening. This is not Mehboob Khan himself, the king of songsters, but his family members who entertain us beautifully. Drinks and cocktails are doing the rounds as well as shots of the local brew innocently called kesar.

Menu: An invisible tandoor disgorges succulent morsels of meat kaleji, gosht resham tamge, tulsi murg tikka and chana dal ki shammi – all barbecued to charred tenderness. Platters of crudities, dips and cheese make for a tasty foil. A pounding of drums and much fanfare announces the main meal – the Silk Dinner that pays homage to the culinary traditions of travellers who crossed the Thar to Jaisalmer and their accompanying cooks called Bhatiyars who added to the repertoire of traditional Rajasthani cuisine. The huge thal carried by several chefs is ceremonially uncovered to reveal a celebratory feast of yore, served in a communal setting. Dum pulao, bolito khargosh (hare meat curry cooked over a slow fire), handi murgh (chicken cooked with coals), lasooni palak, pithod curry (gram flour dumplings simmered in yoghurt curry) and a sangri salad, this last an innovative use of the desert bean normally used in local dishes. A warm boondi dessert finishes the repast.

Day Two – Kiradu Trail

Having celebrated the Silk Route, on day two, we start out on the Kiradu Trail. Past the Khuri dunes of the Desert National Park, lie the forgotten antique temples of Kiradu. But first, on the way to these treasured ruins, we stop off for an unusual high tea.

Venue: A Rajasthani village replete with mud huts, turbaned elders, excited children and invisible women peeping out from behind earthen windows. We are led to one such hut, mud-walled and leaf-thatched, to a surreal sight. Crisp white table linen and silver tableware are laid out with a high tea spread fit for a Maharaja being entertained by a Viceroy! This is turning into a dream – a truly delicious one! And the village children love the soft drinks and cookies handed out to them.

Menu: A selection of puffs and sandwiches, fruit strudels, mini muffins, oat and choco chip cookies, kaju nimkee (a local cashew-shaped savoury), tea and coffee in cutting chai glasses and a round of fresh, hot pyaaz ki kachori to assert the local flavour. Delicious!

Venue: The dunes give way to low-slung hills that cradle these beautiful antiquities, sometimes called the Khajuraho of Rajasthan. A peacock struts along the path as we drive to the best preserved of the temples, to the sight of 32 pandits performing a hawan in front of its façade. As the sun sets and a full moon rises, the chants make the peacock take flight even as bats leave their sanctuary and disappear into the night. And under the starry night and a tented canopy of orange, we partake of a satvik meal to mark this wonderful, secret place, absorbing its positive rhythm and vibe.

Menu: In shiny thalis we discover a simple and delicious meal, resonant of the flavours of Rajputana. Kale chana ki sabzi, aloo mangodi, the local delicacy of dal, batti, churma; mirchi ka kutta starring the local chilli, pooris and to round it all off to perfection, a moong dal halwa.

As we finish, the moon climbs out from behind the jagged temple silhouettes, the sky is replete with a zillion stars and the desert, with its endless stories, songs and music, calls to us to return, to come back to its folds, yet again.

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