India has a population of over 1.2 billion people. After 1947, it became a democracy. Today, these 1.2 billion people collectively make up the largest elected democracy in the world. Historically, India used to be a cluster of independent kingdoms, later united under one republic. These kingdoms used to be ruled, naturally, by kings. Kings were given various names such as the “Sultan” or “Maharaja”, depending on where they were. These kings were usually heads of a royal family, like anywhere else in the world. They lived in a time when great palaces and forts would dot the landscape. However, in the 21st century, royalty isn’t as significant as it was earlier, even in India…Unless, you visit, literally, “The Land of the Rajas” or, as it is better known ; Rajasthan.
Rajasthan is in the western part of the country, which is also where, the 7th largest desert in the world, the Thar is. These Kingdoms were ruled by those belonging to the warrior clan, the Rajputs. Today, remnants of these can still be seen in the great cities of Rajasthan such as Jaipur, Udaipur, Jaisalmer and Jodhpur. These cities were part of the kingdoms of Marwar and Mewar. Even now, great forts and palaces stand testament to what royalty was back then. Most of these palaces have been converted into some of the best heritage hotels in the world, where people experience unparalleled standards of luxury and grandeur, making Rajasthan one of the most culturally intact and tourist friendly states in India.
Among all these cities, Udaipur is probably the most popular. It is home to some of the most luxurious heritage hotels in the world, most of which are lake palaces, adding to their glamour. Royalty here is evident and in all perceivable ways, downright awesome. Although living like royalty isn’t an option for many, eating like one certainly is.
In contrast, the food in Rajasthan is, least to say, uncomplicated. This is because of the arid climatic conditions, since its in the middle of a desert. Like in most other states, vegetarian food plays a major food in the average meal. Limited vegetable options and water shortage have led to the creation of vegetarian dishes that substitute vegetables with other main ingredients. These are then combined with red chillies and dairy products to create popular dishes such as Kadhi (Deep fried gram flour dumplings in a thin curd based gravy) and Gatta (gram flour, kneaded to resemble thin tubes which, when cut look like penne sized tubes, cooked in various gravies). Rajasthan is also the only state in the country where Sangri ( a locally found green bean) is found, which is a favourite among the Marwari community, most of whom are primarily vegetarian. Food is simple,tasty and hearty, ideal for the weather, using whatever is available to great effect.
Simple and tasty food was however, not considered appropriate for royal taste buds. They led king sized lives and ate like kings too, because obviously, they are kings at the end of the day. The royal family were great patrons of art and attracted artisans and musicians from all parts of the kingdom. Food, like today was seen as a way to express one’s lifestyle, where kings would entertain other members of nobility with royal feasts that included dishes which were made to impress. Non vegetarian food played a major part here. It is a widely known fact that the Goat (not to be mistaken with lamb) is ideally suited for arid weather and feed on scrubs and bushes, making the quality of goat meat in Rajasthan exceptionally good. Shikaar, or hunting was a favourite recreational activity, where the men would go on hunting expeditions in search of deer, boar, rabbit and wild birds. Today, game meat has been replaced by mutton and poultry. Some meat cooking techniques are exclusive to Rajasthan. Pits would be dug in the ground and meat would be cooked inside these holes, covered in clay or leaves. Burning coal or wood provided heat and mud provided thermal insulation.
A Sula (poke or a stick) would also be used to barbecue cubes of marinated meat. The abundance of livestock in these areas ensures dairy products are always aplomb. This is why Ghee (Indian clarified butter), milk and yogurt was used to make dishes decadent. Spices and chillies add heat or colour to the dish, resulting in well known dishes such as laal maas (mutton in a red curd based gravy) and safed maas (meat cooked in milk). These gravies are usually eaten with breads made with various seeds and millets such as jawar and bajra(sorghum and millet flour). The famous baati is a baked dumpling which is finished on a sigdi (a variation of the spitfire grill) with ghee. This is traditionally eaten with dal, cooked with a combination of lentils. Dal baati is perhaps the most iconic dish in Rajasthan, eaten by members belonging to all parts of society. The main meal is usually followed by dessert. These are usually very rich in dairy, such as ghewar and a sweeter version of baati, called churma. Royal Rajasthani food was also influenced by people belonging to other parts of the country and of other religions. These people introduced new cooking techniques and ingredients, adding to the already lavish spread. Most of these recipes are now lost due to improper recipe standardization and inadequate documentation. They are available in a few books, written by those allowed access to these long forgotten recipes. To sample them first hand, is another thing. This food was consumed by a very small percentage of society who are today, rather difficult to find. As time went by, Maharajas too, changed their diets.
They graduated to classical French cuisine as they realized the benefits of eating European food. But, they always did and still do stick to their roots. Some Rajas still live the same lives today, minus the authority they had back then. Some are renowned to be great cooks and upholders of the royal recipes of yesterday. Today, their food may be best experienced inside one of their palaces, which have now become 5 star luxury heritage hotels. If there’s a place in the world where “dining/living like royalty” can literally be paid for, its here.