While researching a new culinary tour, food guide extraordinaire Peggy Markel visits palaces and home kitchens to learn the traditions and techniques of northern Indian cooking— and comes away with a bunch of sensational recipes.
“India overwhelms the senses,” Peggy Markel says. “the sounds of truck horns, hindi and bollywood music; the smells of diesel, cumin and incense. and the tastes…understanding how they come together is like learning another language.” markel, who owns an esteemed tour company called Peggy Markel’s Culinary Adventures, is in the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan researching the itinerary for a new 12-day trip she’ll launch in October. She has been leading excellent culinary tours of Italy since 1991, the same year she became one of the first Americans to found a cooking school in Tuscany. In 2001, she added a trip to Morocco. India is her latest obsession, and her track record suggests this will be an extraordinary tour.
Unlike Markel, most travelers go to Rajasthan not for the food but the architecture. The state is famous for palaces and forts that were once home to maharajas, India’s great kings. In the second half of the 20th century, descendents of the Rajputs, the ruling clan that rose to power in the seventh century, converted many forts, palaces and family estates into opulent hotels. Markel’s group will stay at four such properties, as well as a luxurious tented camp, and will also visit family homes in small villages—learning about food everywhere they go.
Rajasthan’s cuisine deserves this kind of attention. Most of the state is in the Great Indian Desert, and the climate strongly influences the food. “In this arid climate, people had to create a diet from a base of grains like millet and barley, beans, spices and yogurt,” says Markel. Food is simple, in palaces as well as ordinary homes. “Wood fire is the common denominator between rich and poor,” Markel says. “Even royal cooks prepare food in terra-cotta pots settled on hot coals.”
Markel had a chance to learn about wood-fire cooking at Shahpura Bagh, a royal summer residence turned six-suite guesthouse in the countryside between the cities of Jaipur and Udaipur. Owner Shatrujeet Singh told her how his grandfather mortgaged the family’s private property and jewels to build artificial lakes to provide water for the surrounding villages. Singh took Markel on a jeep tour on and around his family’s 45-acre estate, passing women in bright saris balancing silver water jugs on their heads as they walked toward a well powered by two white oxen.
Back at the guesthouse, Markel was surprised to see meat on the menu, roasted in fiery tandoor ovens. “Indians are mostly vegetarian, but the Rajputs had a passion for hunting,” explained Mota Khar, the family’s longtime head chef, as he prepared lamb kebabs in a spicy yogurt marinade. “When they weren’t fighting, they were off roaming the hills for wild game.” The Rajputs would have hunted venison for this dish.
After leaving Shahpura Bagh, Markel traveled by boat to the Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur. The 263-year-old white-marble hotel, on an island in Lake Pichola, appears to be floating. Turbaned butlers, some descended from a long line of palace servants, ushered Markel into a room with brocade paneling, antique ivory-inlaid chairs and a silk-canopied feather bed.
In the palace kitchen, Markel got a lesson in seafood by watching the head chef, Sameer Shah, prepare pomfret, a white fish similar to flounder. He stuffed the fish with mint and cilantro—a modern touch—before searing it on a slab of marble set over, yes, a wood fire .
The trip ended northeast of Udaipur at Devi Garh, an 18th-century fort-palace of yellow sandstone that’s now a modern, bohemian-chic 39-suite hotel. The chef, Manish Upadhyay, showed Markel several cooking techniques—steaming, deep- and shallow-frying, tandoori—then taught her to prepare a popular Rajasthani snack called makkai pudina ki tikki, crispy fried corn fritters with a chile-mint sauce. “Corn is one of the most extensively cultivated crops in Rajasthan,” he explained.
At dinner in Devi Garh, Markel sampled the thali— a traditional selection of rice, dal (stewed lentils), vegetables and chapati (griddled bread)—while a waiter poured her a Viognier from Indian producer Chateau Indage. Did she feel like a student? No: “I felt like a maharaja queen.”
Peggy Markel’s Rajasthan tour will take place October 3–15. From $9,900 per person; peggymarkel.com.