“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.”