Apparently there is a restaurant in LA which has a soft box set up so that people who want to take gorgeous pics of their food can do so away from the dodgy lighting and rolling eyes of their friends at the table. This kind of “if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em” attitude is in contrast to some restaurants who have now banned cameras. I can understand their pain. It’s the chef equivalent of cooking supper for your family, trying to get everything nice and hot and ready to eat at the same time. You call them, nothing happens, and when they eventually appear you do that “I’ve slaved over a hot stove to make nice food for you” routine and they stare back blankly.
In chef land, you’ve been chopping up bones to make stock, simmering sauces, preparing everything in pursuit of satisfying your diners. You time your dish to the last second. Rare ingredients may have been flown in from halfway round the world, the market has been trawled for the best produce available and kept on ice, you have been perfecting this signature dish for ten years; the plates are dispatched by waiters. The hand-picked garnishes quiver on gleaming sauces, heat releases tantalising aromas, it looks like art. Then some foodie whips out their brick of a DSLR set on auto, the other guests are blinded by the flash and the resulting image is the food equivalent of a paparazzi pic of Lindsey Lohan falling out of a nightclub.
So I’m going to get my excuse in quick; it was expected of me. Invited for a media preview of Atul Kochhar‘s nine-course degustation menu at Rang Mahal in the JW Marriot Marquis I’m wandering around camera in hand. The interior is mysterious and beautiful. I survey the scene as I sip a Mubai Mohito, breathing in the addictive earthy scent of curry leaves. The brightly lit bar shines like a suspended rectangle, gargantuan carved pillars are overlooked by deities of Brobdingnagian proportions, chefs wield huge skewers of kebabs in the open kitchen. I’m loving my mood setting pics but everything is orange. Seated at our long table with a solitary tea light we can hardly see the food let alone photograph it.
So here’s where it gets silly. Fresh out of a workshop that weekend about smart phone photography conducted by legendary photographer and blogger Matt Armendariz, I suggest a few things. Seconds later someone is holding up an iphone with the torch function enabled, wrapped in a linen napkin. Another is holding the menu as a reflector. The journalists at the other end of our table seem appalled and disown us. Thankfully we are a great distance from other diners (probably deliberate). Orange grainy food pics aside, I am astonished that the lighting is so low that the colours of the foods are barely visible to the naked eye. The darkness does lend a sense of atmosphere and privacy but this is at the expense of enjoying the full sensory experience of the food. The tastes are superb and the arrangements delicate but surely visual impact is part of the dining experience (as I discovered when dining without sight).
As the dishes arrive we probe our companions for their reaction. I want to know whether my Indian friends think the tastes are balanced and authentic. Do they like it? They want to know whether the spice levels are too much for us (they aren’t). The problem with posh Indian food is that they don’t feel they want to go out and pay a lot of money for something they can cook well at home. For us, we love the inexpensive home-cooking style and are sceptical that a fancy version will improve it. I nervously mention Ashas (our favourite curry with booze option) and they approve. Phew. Quite a feat then when Atul Kochhar’s Navratan menu pleases us all – and that’s an understatement.
Akbar the Great, Mughal Emperor of India in the 16th Century, had nine advisors chosen for their artistry or intellect and known as the Navaratnas (Navratan is the Hindu world for nine jewels):
Chaat is the name for an Indian snack, usually served by street food vendors and Chowk Kee Aloo Chaat is a potato cake with yoghurt, tamarind chutney and grated radish. The first sip of Jal Jeera, a traditional drink made with lemon and cumin, makes me wrinkle my nose. It’s almost like the sharp water in a pani puri. But then it improves, the saltiness making it moreish (or maybe that’s the vodka in it). I hoover down the next course of aubergines and burrata although feel this is the most out of keeping on the menu (and suffers most from not being able to see it properly). Scallops are only really good if fished out of the sea that morning otherwise they are just a vehicle for flavours as they are here. Balanced, sweet, creamy flavours of garlic and cauliflower though and good with the floral Yalumba Viognier.
Soft flakes of sea bass smothered in a creamy turmeric and coconut curry sauce, Meen Moilley is Atul’s signature dish, and rightly so; I could eat this over again. It overshadows the next course of local prawn in a green korma sauce but the wine match of Dr Loosen Reisling is excellent. The soft fruit and vanilla flavours of Oregon Pinot Noir aren’t the best match for the spices in the Tandoori Murgh (marinated chicken breast). The wine seems to amplify the intensity of spice on your tongue afterwards, but then the next high point arrives. Lamb braised until soft and melting topped with a crust of coconut, crispy fried shallots and fennel matched with Sula Shiraz from India; this is clever, relevant food, flavours and texture and finally some warm, fluffy bread arrives so I can clean my plate of every last morsel.
Not all the wine matches are spot on and we are surprised that there is no sommelier. A group of men descend on the chef’s table in front of us and a whole leg of lamb is carved for them. Our courses keep coming and they pay their bill long before we’ve finished our homemade berry sorbet and plate of desserts. This is a leisurely degustation and it’s after midnight when we get up from the table.
Atul emerges once more from the back kitchen (the open one is for certain dishes only). He’s been happy to pose for pictures but was slightly vague when I started to quiz him about the source of his ingredients. On pine nuts “we get them from the local market, they’re probably from Iran,” and when there is mention of GM crops he says “thankfully we don’t have those in India.” I cannot disguise that I’m aghast that he is not aware of the controversy over negative effect of GM crops on the land and farmers in India and the actions of the big chemical giants like Monsanto, Bayer and BASF to target Indian politicians. He is, however, interested in coming to meet local farmers at the Farmers Market (if his PR schedule allows). Postscript: I am pleased to be proved wrong here and that Atul Kochhar does have a strong and informed view on GM crops and was motivated enough by his interest in them to leave a comment to this effect. Please see below
The next morning, KP eyes the menu and announces that he’d eat everything on it; I have an excuse to return soon (dreaming of the Meen Moilley and that lamb). The grazing menu contains several of the dishes we tried and is 550 AED per head with paired wines. The full nine course Navratan menu can be ordered daily before 9pm and costs 350 AED and 650 AED paired with a wine selection.
So in conclusion Indian fine dining can be a real success in the right hands – but a small torch might come in handy!
Do you have an opinion about lighting in restaurants, taking pics of your food or Indian fine dining? Would love to hear what you think in the comments section below.
P.S. Read a wry but ridiculously accurate look at smart phone usage in this region by Annabel Kantaria here.
Has anyone else woken up to March with an incredulity that the third month of the year is here already? Maybe it’s the pace of life in Dubai, or the stage of my own life where I’m juggling work, teens on the run up to major exams and a busy social life. Every day that passes flags up that I am on the cusp of change. My elder teens ‘this is my last’ before she goes off to University (we’ve just had her last half term). The mornings are lighter and warmer pointing to a time soon where we won’t be able to sit outside in the balmy evenings and will crave the icy blast of the air conditioner.
The produce at the weekly farmers market has been phenomenal this season. I start every Friday morning there buying my picked-that-morning, organic vegetables for the week from the farmers that grow the food. On my return the teens ask immediately for the 2 kilo bag of fresh peas in the pod and eat the whole lot raw.
A look into my kitchen reveals some of the things I got up to in February. There are quite a few goodies including:
How could I resist some jam called Cherry Amour with labels inspired by the Paul Nash designs and from the fly-leaves of old books? Gulfood is the polar opposite of the farmers market (a huge trade exhibition with 20000 brands, 4500 exhibitors) and I struggled between the stands of highly processed packaged foods, big brands and hordes of men trailing wheelie computer bags. However, there were a few artisan producers among them all and a tweet brought me to England Preserves.
I met founder Kai Knutsen, who, with Sky Cracknell, started making high quality jams on their kitchen hob and selling them at local farmers’ markets. When I asked why he said that he and Sky came from families who had always made jam. The Raspberry Deluxe was pure and intensely fruity, the gooseberry and elderflower sharp and moreish, the London Marmalade dark and tangy; they don’t boil the jam so the fruit flavours shine through and the sugar content is kept low. I’ve got lots of plans for this cherry preserve (a Bakewell tart, over Greek yoghurt or ice cream…) if it doesn’t disappear ladled onto fresh bread and butter first. Don’t you love this tea towel too?
Another message from another friend/food blogger took me to Gaby Machel on the Argentinian section at Gulfood who raved about the quality of the juicy, juicy mangoes grown in Argentina, that were the inspiration for her range. I went away clutching a very large jar of cranberry chutney which is fabulous eaten with meltingly ripe Brie.
I first tasted this variety of Lindt in France two years ago so hope the rumour is true that it will be on our shelves here in Dubai soon. Stop press: Just informed it’s available in Choitrams.
Have a mentioned Balqees honey before? This raw honey from remote areas of Yemen is now a permanent fixture in my kitchen. I naively thought that all honey was the same until I was educated by owner Riath at the market. Most honey is flash-pasteurised (for consistency and longer shelf-life) and many contain sugar-solutions or the bees are fed with sugar. Tasting Balqees honey you are first struck by the totally different texture, it’s not so sticky and has an almost waxy mouthfeel like molten toffee. And it is toffee-like in taste but not as sweet, with none of the metallic tones you often get, just pure floral notes. I wish I could send you some.
I hauled home this great can of olive oil from the market too (it does come in smaller sizes). Kostas on the Astraea stall lives in Dubai but his brother lives on the Greek island of Samothrace and tends the family olive grove. Astraea olive oil is smooth tasting, not aggressively grassy and I use it in everything. My bread making resolution has been undermined by the ease of picking up a sour dough loaf or focaccia made from organic flour at the market. So patting myself on the back for baking this flaxseed loaf inspired by a Dan Lepard recipe and prompted by Kellie who managed to make this loaf while suffering severe jet lag.
I buy good wine, the best olive oil and finest raw honey. So I get a bit embarrassed when people ask for a coffee in my house. Tea drinker to the core, I’ve hummed and haaaed quite a bit about getting a special machine. Coffee Planet, a start-up company here in the UAE, serve really good coffee at the Farmers Market and offered me a try-out of their Mocca Master and range of their locally-roasted beans. Grinding the beans and brewing fresh does produce fantastic coffee. I was surprised at the differences I tasted between the single origin beans (loved the Kenyan) and how refreshing it was too. It’s made up my mind though – we don’t drink enough coffee do justify a machine, so I regretfully sent it back. I will buy a coffee grinder and the beans though and make do with my cafetière.
In my kitchen …. of course wine shouldn’t really be in my kitchen as it’s the worst place to store it. Wine likes cool, constant temperatures and to be kept away from the light (whoops – this picture was taken in my garden). However, food needs wine and wine needs food and I drove to Ras Al Khaimah to visit The Cellar, Al Hamra and picked up these bottles among other things. Driving outside Dubai means that it’s lower tax (30% in the off-licenses here) and I can spend more than my liquor license limit which is vital for drinking more than cheap plonk. These six interesting bottles were an offer (buy six for 600 AED) from the Le Clos (fine wine) section in the shop. Well worth the easy drive down there.
I don’t think Julie Andrews had this kind of drink in mind with her jam and bread but it’s what’s in my kitchen this month. Pop over and see what’s in Celia’s kitchen (at Fig Jam and Lime Cordial) as well as links to a whole host of other kitchens.
What’s in your kitchen this March?
Craig is a self-confessed whisky geek. He knows about the nuances of the flavours that casks impart and the symbiosis with whisky makers and other users of barrels. He is on first name terms with the movers and shakers of the Scottish whisky industry. If he was sitting in the black chair with Magnus Magnuson firing specialist subject questions at him he’d be a single malt Mastermind.
I’m in an oak panelled room with a group of whisky nerds hanging off his every word. Craig peppers his sentences with the famous names of single malt as though everyone in the room has memorised a map of the distilleries of Scotland. He asks “has anyone not heard of the solera system?”*. He’s so excited about the whole topic that he moves rapidly from one side of the room to the other as he talks, turning his head like a bearded crane. Sipping from various drams and watching him is like drinking single malt while watching Wimbledon so I look down and concentrate on the aromas and flavours.
This is miles away from wine tasting – my usual descriptive lexicon is in the bin and it seems as though different parts of my tongue and taste buds are involved. Nuts, vanilla, sandalwood – the malt whisky tasting notes make wine ones seem positively austere. I take a wine nosing sharp sniff and the alcohol strength knocks me out. I have to hold the glass at a tilt and much farther away to sense the aromas which are delicate, like the scent of flowers on a summer breeze.
And why does this amber liquid attract such nerdiness and obsession by men? Outlet Manager Jovana, Glenmorangie account manager Remé, whisky-lover Ekta and myself are the only women in the room at Grape Escape (Hilton Jumeirah). Craig’s enthusiasm is infectious and while there are enough funny stories and anecdotes to keep everyone’s interest I start to drift during some of the detailed questions from the floor and the warmth of the whisky. Although it’s billed as a whisky and cheese tasting, there is no formality and we are encouraged to taste our way through the cheeses and pile of charcuterie so I nibble my way through the board trying a bit of this and a bit of that. The sweetness of the Comte (I’m guessing as nothing is labelled) goes brilliantly with the Glenmorangie The Nectar D’or (12 years old), a pear and Roquefort starter only goes with the Glenmorangie Original and the blue cheese is a quite nasty match with everything else. Surprisingly a soft rinded cheese (Camembert?) is great with them all. A bite-sized slab of Argentinian beef cooked rare is best with The Quinta Ruban.
Do I like the flavours of Glenmorangie? At the start I struggle, and this says as much about me as the whisky. There was a moment during a recent Kilchoman tasting when I was transported into the countryside. I was standing under pale blue skies, in a salty maritime breeze, watching the waving golden barley. The Glenmorangie is smooth and sophisticated; it lacks a sense of place for me. And then they pour the 18-year-old which is like being wrapped in a soft golden blanket.
For whisky nerds, this is what we tasted (and my inexpert tasting impressions):
- Original – 10 year old: strongly mandarin oranges on the nose, with a freshness that was minty, overwhelmingly silky vanilla taste (perhaps just too smooth for my tastes).
- Nectar D’Or - 12 year old: Orange peel, ginger and nutmeg aromas with a creaminess on the palate and burnt orange flavours. The tasting notes said lime but I didn’t detect any of that kind of freshness but nutmeg came through in the finish. Paired extremely well with a dried apricot from the cheese plate.
- Quita Ruban – 12 year old: Agreed wholeheartedly with the tasting notes about chocolate, Christmas pudding and sandalwood aromas. I would add caramel to that list. Chocolate smoothness and candied orange peel flavours predominate.
- Lasanta – 12 year old: Caramel toffee on the nose with rum and a touch of citrus (tangerine?), orangey and buttery flavours with all the nuances that you’d expect from maturation in Oloroso sherry casks. There was a sweet nuttiness on the finish.
- Glenmorangie 18 years old: The tasting notes read “appeals to the luxury spirits drinker who appreciates serious quality” – that’ll be me then as I preferred this way and above all the rest! Honey aromas captivate and the geranium mentioned on the notes was really alluring. Creamy honey tastes with caramelised grapefruit and a coffee finish. Not sure how much this retails for in the UAE but it’s £85.00 in the UK. so I probably won’t be tasting this very often.
- We also tasted something which was extremely rare and from my photos (see below) seems like it was
100%57.2% proof. I have no recollection of what it was like except that I enjoyed it!
Will I return to the Single Malt Society? Oh yes indeed – met some lovely
men people over some delicious cheeses and charcuterie. I’ve learned a huge amount about malt whisky courtesy of engaging and entertaining malt whisky expert Craig. It’s exceptionally good value – 275 AED for (at least) 5 drams with cheese and charcuterie (and more) on this occasion. The events are varied too – the next one is hosted by a bourbon distiller who is flying in from Heaven Hills in Kentucky, at a Cajun restaurant with food cooked by a chef from Louisiana. Sounds good? See you there…
* The solera system is complex system of barrel aging (usually sherry or port) and a method of fractional blending in which old wine is constantly refreshed with younger wine.
I left my camera at home so all images are taken on an iphone – sorry.
Even if I didn’t know Anthony and Kathy Wills of Kilchoman, the whole story and ethos behind this farm distillery and single malt whisky would appeal to me. A bit of history explains why.
While there are bottles of whisky on every off-license shelf now, commercial production of the spirit didn’t start until the late 1700s. Before then farmers in Scotland who grew barley couldn’t store the crop for long due to the damp climate so they germinated any grain left over, dried it over peat fires, brewed it into ale (the rough barley grown then was called “bere” which is where the word beer comes from). Some of the ale was also distilled and the leftover barley meal (called draff) was fed to their animals.
Improvements in farming yields and a reduction in tax in 1823 led to the establishment of many commercial distilleries and at one point there were 23 on the isle of Islay alone. But by the 1990s, only seven remained, all owned by large multi-nationals such as LVMH, Suntory and Diageo, most using barley purchased from malthouses. Anthony and Kathy had the vision and nerve to build the first new distillery on the island of Islay for 124 years and they started production in 2004. Going back to traditional methods similar to those early farmers, the whisky is made from start to finish at Kilchoman, from the barley grown in the fields that surround it, to germination on the malting floor, drying over peat fires, combining with water from the brook to make ‘mash’, distilling, maturing and bottling. They even feed the draff to farm animals.
When we visited the distillery in 2010, Kilchoman was at the very early stages of its journey. The start is a precarious time for a business that cannot sell its new product for three years (it must be matured for three years minimum to earn the name of single malt whisky). However, designing and building a distillery around the whisky they were aiming to produce has reaped rewards in distinctive styles and flavours. Since then Kilchoman has earned a place in the BBC Food and Farming awards, various IWSC medals and the 2007 Vintage was awarded Islay Single Malt of the Year by the Whisky Advocate Magazine. Tasting from the very beginning means I’ve been able to follow its journey through flavour; as a young whisky it is good, but age will change with each release and it’s predicted to get better and better over the years.
Four years on in Dubai and I am welcomed to the bar at Celebrities in the Royal Mirage with a single malt whisky sour made with Kilchoman Machir Bay, lemon juice, a touch of sugar syrup and a dash of bitters. It’s the perfect blend of refreshing sharpness and mellow smokiness. I quiz barman Raoul for the recipe and Craig from MMI’s Malt Whisky Society promises to send it to me. We sit at tables for dinner and Anthony talks us through every glass of Kilchoman, two of which have never been tasted in Dubai before, each matched with a different course.
Honestly, I have reservations about drinking whisky with every course instead of wine, but enjoy the experience. Machir Bay is a typical Islay style, floral and peaty, and cuts through the fattiness of the first course foie gras beautifully; a herb coated, lightly smoked soft salmon fillet benefits from the delicate, floral notes of the 100% Islay (3rd edition). The smokiness of the 2007 Vintage Release (the oldest release by Kilchoman to date) goes incredibly well with pink lamb. The golden mellowness of the Single Cask Release 2008 momentarily takes me to Islay, the nose is like walking through peat bogs while breathing the maritime breeze, with a minerality which is almost salty on the palate. It’s a pretty good match with the soft chestnut and whisky cream inside a chocolate cigar but I just want to savour it on its own.
The light golden colour of the whisky in the glass is seductive and totally natural – Kilchoman use no colouring or caramel. Neither do they chill filter which ensures clarity but can strip out proteins which add to the character and texture.
The thing that struck me when I was talking to the distillers at Kilchoman was how in tune with the environment and the stunning natural surroundings they were. The whisky seems to capture this and bottle it; it truly is a scenic tour by taste of one tiny corner of a very small island. I’m looking forward to the next chapter…
How to make the best whisky cocktail I have ever tasted.
Machir Bay Sour
30 ml Kilchoman Machir Bay
30 ml fresh lemon juice
15 ml sugar syrup
Dash of Angostura Bitters
Shake together over ice, strain and pour into an ‘Old fashioned’ glass over ice garnished with a slice of lemon.
- Read more on the Kilchoman website and Facebook page;
- To buy in U.A.E: MMI, Al Hamra Cellar and Le Clos
- Join the Single Malt Society register here and Craig will send you news of up and coming events.
- See more pics of the distillery here and the stunning Islay scenery here.
It takes a fair bit of devotion to keep toiling year in year out to make a highly unfashionable wine. A wine that’s right next door to a revered appellation. A wine that was once on everyone’s lips for all the wrong reasons and then was dropped like a hot stone into partial obscurity tinged with derision. Perhaps it’s a bit harsh to talk about Beaujolais in these terms, but the Nouveau craze of the 80s, a marketing ploy, became more about racing and hot air balloons than the taste of the wine. A clever idea to take a traditional drink of the harvesters – the just pressed wine of the new vintage – to a wider audience to generate a bit of cash-flow, eventually back-fired; a wine became craze, became yesterday’s news and the mass market moved on leaving a whole region in shadow.
So is it possible for Beaujolais to make a come back, slipping out from under the invisibility cloak of Nouveau? This week it was listed as one of six exciting wine regions to explore, in a Forbes article and The Guardian reports that “a new movement of young, enthusiastic winemakers throughout the region is producing exceptional wines, often using organically grown grapes.”
At the Foodies Festival last summer in the UK, I joined a Beaujolais tasting session led by Susy Atkins. It was my first opportunity to taste a wide range of wines from the region, from Beaujolais Villages (a group of 38 villages allowed to use this designation of higher quality differentiating them from plain Beaujolais AOC) to some of the Cru Beaujolais – 10 areas allowed to use the highest classification on the label. The ten Crus are Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Cote de Brouilly, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon, Moulin à Vent, Régnié and Saint Amour.
Susy took us through six wines, urging the audience to think differently about Beaujolais. All grapes are picked by hand and the main grape variety of the region is Gamay; wines are juicy, with fresh acidity when young but, despite its reputation, is capable of producing serious wine and some age.
1. Arnaud Aucoeur, Beaujolais-Villages Blanc 2012 – Yapp Brothers
Susy couldn’t have started with a more unusual wine – a white Beaujolais in a region that almost exclusively makes red. This was made of Chardonnay, from 25 year old vines, not surprising as the region has often been considered as part of adjacent Burgundy. Pale lemon in colour, with citrus and almost floral notes on the nose with a restrained, buttery hint (from old oak), rounded body and good acidity.
2. Château de la Terrière, Beaujolais-Villages 2010 – Majestic Wine
Ripe, fresh strawberries on the nose, soft-tannins, bright red berry fruits with a cherry drop twist on the palate and mouth-watering acidity made this deliciously refreshing on such a hot summers day. The fresh lift of acidity was reminiscent of Sangiovese and would be great with charcuterie.
This had elusive aromas of cherries and raspberries, an elegant wine with some green notes and fine tannins that lingered on the finish. Fleurie is one of the most Northern areas in Burgundy and this Cru produces restrained and more mineral wines. It’s not as light and delicate as the name suggests and will take a bit of aging.
Made from Gamay grapes from 40 year old vines, this had a slightly vegetal nose, a spicy, rich, deep black cherry palate lifted by a hint of raspberry leaf. Not quite as high acidity as the previous wines but still juicy, with more forward soft tannins and a slightly herbaceous finish.
5. Château Thivin, Cote de Brouilly, Les 7 Vignes 2007 – Nick Dobson Wines
This ‘Cuvee Zaccharie’ is from some of the oldest planting of the Chateau and grown on well-drained soil of volcanic blue stone (diorite porphyrite). Soft, savoury aromas on the nose with a hint of tar which is repeated on the palate. A rounded, spicy finish with a hint of cherry syrup.
6. Château du Moulin-à-Vent, Moulin-à-Vent 2010 – Berry Bros & Rudd
Moulin-a-Vent make some of the biggest wines Beaujolais following a more Burgundian style of wine making. With this wine there is no carbonic maceration and the wine is aged in French barriques. This one was big and broad with more structure that the other wines. There was a spicy pepperiness, with forward tannins and although still juicy there were blackcurrant characters within the cherry and strawberry fruit flavours. It’s a style I loved and my favourite of the day.
This tasting took place inside a marquee on a very hot summers day in England and it made me wonder if Beaujolais isn’t the perfect red wine to drink in Dubai. On days when you long for something more complex but the thought of a fruit bomb or heavy tannins is just too exhausting, the fleshy mouthfeel and bright, fruit of a slightly chilled glass of Gamay could be just the thing. In fact one I could be totally devoted to when the warmer weather arrives.
P.S. A generous friend let me taste some Domaine de La Chapelle des Bois, Fleurie 2006 Paul Beaudet – Le Clos – last weekend and it added further evidence to my case (of Beaujolais being the perfect red wine to drink in Dubai).
“You need three things to drive in Jaipur”, said Kadir with a twinkle in his eye. “Good horn, good brakes and good luck.” As we darted through the throng of tuk tuks, rickshaws, bicycles, four-wheel drives, taxis, camels, donkeys, horse-drawn carriages, meandering pedestrians, sacred cows and stray dogs I closed my eyes and prayed for the latter.
Apart from our airport drivers arranged through the hotel, Kadir was our transport and guide for three days. He was quietly spoken, tried hard to guide us to sights we would enjoy and was a bit protective of us without being bossy. He showed us his guest book, packed with glowing testimonials, with pride. He asked us for 250 rupees for the first afternoon and evening (about £2.50).
In the course of three days, I went from white-knuckle terror with my eyes closed to slightly jumpy. The low-down carriage and open sides meant we were level with everything. We rattled through the streets and when my eyes were open I hardly blinked not to miss a thing. We didn’t see a single bump or crash during our time there which was an astonishing testament to the crazy system somehow working, relying on the ability to get through the smallest gap, gauge where traffic was coming from by the sound of the continual beeping and stop at very short notice. It did explain a lot about some of the driving here in Dubai too (where 40% of the population is from India).
On our drive back to the airport (by car not tuk tuk) on the Sunday morning we noticed people with numbers on their backs, running through the usual mayhem. They were taking part in the Jaipur marathon. No roads closed, no police escort, just a very small section cordoned off for the finish line where all traffic diverted to the oncoming lane to bypass. Thinking about it now still makes me chuckle and admire the brave/foolhardy athletes who attempted it.
Eating and drinking
Intending to eat only cooked vegetarian food during our stay to minimise the chance of the famous ‘Delhi belly’ we found the hotel food was of a high standard and even ate bacon for breakfast one day. We had a thali in the elegant courtyard on the first night with a bottle of wine. The list was pretty good and we decided to sample our first ever wine from India – a Fratelli Cabernet Sauvignon – which was well balanced and fruity. One night I spotted D’Arenburg The High Trellis that I’d not tried before;at around £20 a bottle this was great value for a restaurant list. We also sampled Sula Merlot, another Indian producer, which was well made, balanced, easy-drinking. Gin and tonics (Blue Riband Indian gin) went down very well sipped to the sound of the gurgling fountain mingled with the sitar player.
Our lunch choice on day two was so good we returned the next day too. Kadir said he’d take us to candle wall which turned out to be Khandelwal. We climbed up the stairs to this minimal, airy, canteen style restaurant where local families and a few tourists sat at the simple tables. The Kaj Kari was recommended, a rich, brick-red curry topped with cashew nuts. We plunged the piping hot fluffy bread into it with relish. Missy roti, a slightly spiced bread was also good for dipping into Dal Makhani (a very good lentil dish), Shahi Paneer (spinach and cheese), Alu Mutter (spicy potatoes) and Dal fry. Second time around we tried Began Barter – a very, rich aubergine dish, Paneer Butter Masala which was our favourite of the day and Gatta Masala (with chickpeas).
We couldn’t visit Rajasthan without a bite of Daal Baati Churma – I knew this from my first Frying Pan Food Tour. It’s a strange dish – evolved from having to transport food – a ball of hard wheat that you soften by crumbling into dhal and eating with a spicy sauce. We enjoyed the dhosa more I’ll admit, at the restaurant that Kadir called ‘Rambo’ which turned out to be Rainbow. This had a much more sophisticated décor than our lunch venue and was a whole £2 more expensive.
I loved looking at all the street food stalls dotted along the streets, with chai stalls on every corner, but we didn’t chance trying anything. Perhaps we were too reticent – the pani puri stalls with their crisp coatings and spicy insides, really tempted me. The fruit and vegetable stands were filled with the most beautiful fresh produce.
We bucked the trend of budget accommodation we usually choose for our long weekend travel adventures and I’m very glad we did. The Samode Haveli was a lavish residence built for the royal family over 175 years ago, which was metres away from the crowded, ramshackle streets but an oasis of calm we welcomed at every return; the constant honking horns only dimly audible in the distance. Other guests were all slightly older but very varied nationalities including one band of motorcyclists stopping off on a tour, all riding original Royal Enfield vintage motorbikes. A turbaned sentry welcomed us at the top of the elephant ramp entrance each time we came back from another adventure.
The gardens were full of very English flowers like nasturtiums and dalias, and the lawns the site of a puppet sho, a game of cricket and a daily dog walk conducted by staff round the perimeter leading the residents’ canine pedigree pets. We tried a massage at the spa and despite all asking for different ones ended up with the same – not the best ever but relaxing. Areas that were a bit lacking from usual 5 star standards, like thin mattresses and very unfluffy towels, were amply made up for by friendly attentive staff (four porters were sent to take our luggage from the room) and the palatial surroundings including marble fountains, purdah screens and a gorgeous painted dining room. I wouldn’t have wanted to stay anywhere else.
Street life and a conundrum
There’s something that really puzzled me about India. We saw quite a bit of squalor and some people who are not very well off at all. Families were living on the street and there were quite a few beggars. So I presume that some people do not have enough to eat. However, food was being scattered around the streets in abundance. Women made special long sausage things to give to fish, there were great platters of food to give to the multitudes (and I mean mega population explosion) of pigeons outside the City Palace, monkeys got special peanuts, great rubbish heaps punctuated the street corners with stray dogs and cows munching happily away in the debris with passers-by popping up now and then to heap a bit of greenery under their noses. I’m exceptionally grateful that there were no rat temples about. All this in the name of karma. And yet… bony old horses dragged carriages, cobras were denuded of venom and very likely drugged and the sound that a particular goat made next to our hotel indicated that it was far from happy.
What about giving food to people? And why were some animals favoured over others? But then I wondered whether we are just as guilty of animal double standards in the West. We spoil our pampered domestic pets, visit petting farms and get agitated about culling bushy-tailed foxes (who wreak havoc in the countryside if left to their own devices) yet we tolerate (and actively encourage by our buying habits) the insufferable cruelty of millions of industrially farmed animals. You learn not to judge so hard.
Once home, my head hit the cool cotton pillow and I sank into the comfort of a good mattress truly spent – but my mind was still revolving like a kaleidoscope. I returned from Jaipur feeling like I had seen every single shade and hue known to man, and a few extra; as though I’d tasted all the spices in the world, tested every muscle and bone in my body, filled my head with so many sights and sounds that there wasn’t room for a single syllable, mote of dust or beep of a horn. And this was after only thee days in the city. I came back to Dubai feeling extremely grateful for my life, perhaps with a slightly better understanding about some of the residents of this Emirate. Some of my expectations were confirmed but some blown away in smithereens. Witnessing India in reality was so much more than the books and films promised. I was glad to experience at first hand all its colourful, dirty, frenetic, crazy, grand, bonkers splendour.
We flew direct from the UAE via Sharjah on Air Arabia Flight time about 3 1/2 hours. We booked ahead and the flight cost less than 1000 AED per person. A note of caution though – they changed our flight times both ways at short notice.
We stayed at Samode Haveli – there’s a nice review and a video of the rooms (as well as more about food and drink in Jaipur) here by Gourmet Chick. It’s very popular and gets very booked up so plan ahead.
You can find Kadir near to the hotel or check his website. Highly recommended.
We used the Eyewitness book on Jaipur as a guide book which was pretty good. There is a very interesting book shop in departures at the airport (after your boarding pass has been stamped 6 times – no joke) where I bought this very interesting edition on 10 Easy Walks in Jaipur.
Visa: Check in plenty of time before you go. The forms are extensive and for UK Citizens you have to apply in Bur Dubai and it takes about a week (go early). Visas on arrival soon thank goodness.
So this concludes three posts about our three days of adventure in Jaipur, the sights and sounds, the shopping and the getting about. Thanks joining me in a look back, all your comments so far and for your shared experiences of India. It seems to have a special place in many people’s hearts.