The principalities of India’s largest state may be a thing of the past, but their once-royal cuisine lives on in the kitchens of aristocrats turned hoteliers.
Despite all my reading up on the place, I simply wasn’t prepared for Rajasthan. How could I have been? That unending horizon of burnt orange; the sudden flash of saffron and deep blue saris on the edge of dun-hued roads; camels accessorized with henna tattoos and beaded bridles; crimson- robed sadhus (holy men) who lingered outside temples and stared up at the sun. I’d never seen, let alone imagined, a land so enigmatic and exotic.
And then there’s the food: the soft creamy hues of dhal, the charred perfume of deep purple eggplants crackling on an open flame, the dark wheat breads still warm and smoked from the tandoor. As I would learn during my stay at a clutch of royal residences turned bijou hotels, Rajasthan’s cuisine is not only incredibly spiced, but it also carries the deep imprint of geography and history.
A vast swath of rocky desert and dry scrub-cloaked hills in northwest India, Rajasthan is truly ancient. Though the border lies just a few hours’ drive from New Delhi, it might as well be another world altogether. Here, 6,000 years ago, the Indus Valley civilization took root, incubating and nurturing some of the finest elements of Indian religion, literature, arts, and music.
At least 21 kingdoms—some dating back two millennia—claimed Rajasthan as their ancestral home. Which explains why the state is so crowded with old forts and palaces. That so many have survived remarkably intact or well maintained is due to the kind of hardy resourcefulness that still permeates their kitchens. Rajasthan’s flat plains are cut through by the Aravalli Hills and scored by the sand dunes of the Thar Desert. There is no moisture in the air and the land seems to be in a perpetual state of arid dryness. This, along with the scarcity of fresh vegetation, especially during the extreme heat of summer, led intrepid chefs to create a cuisine based on dishes that could be stored for days and served without reheating. The scarcity of water also meant that dairy products such as ghee, milk, and paneer were used in its place, while dried beans and legumes like lentils and chickpeas formed an unusually delicious foundation that has lasted to this day.
One late-summer morning in a grassy clearing where royal elephants were once stabled, I watched as Gitanjali Raj Pal, the doyenne of Ramathra Fort, supervised the preparation of lunch. After being blistered on an open flame, large eggplants embedded with garlic cloves were mashed and then fried with turmeric, red chilies, and fresh coriander. On another flame, minced mutton was sautéed with bay leaves, cardamom, peppercorns, fresh peas, and yogurt.
“None of these recipes is documented,” Gitanjali told me. “You could have eight to ten versions of the same keema matar we’re cooking. If you like the dish to be whiter, you add more yogurt. Redder, add more chilies.”
Her cook, she noted, is of the second generation to serve her family. “You will find it’s mostly men who do the cooking here. The women have no time—they’re too busy with the animals, tending the fields, raising the children, and all the other housework!”
We ate well during our stay at Ramathra Fort, a 17th-century citadel that sits on a hilltop overlooking eastern Rajasthan’s Kalisil Lake and a vista of scrubby flatlands straight out of a Paul Scott novel. Every meal was a feast of flavors—thinly cut emerald green baby okra spiced with dried red chilies, fried yam chips, paneer stewed with peas—all souped up with mango and lemon chutneys.
Gitanjali’s husband, Ravi Raj Pal, a charming man with a majestic mustache, comes from a long line of thakurs (feudal lords) who claim descent from Lord Krishna. The renovation of the fort, he told me, took 17 years, and today, it’s supplemented by an organic farm at the foot of the hill where his father lives in a low-slung mansion and oversees 1,500 fruit trees and fields of cabbages and radishes.
With Ramathra Fort as the template, the rest of our trip unfolded in a procession of passing landscapes that led, always, to a jeweled residence and another spread of home-cooked meals made from recipes that have been passed down through uncounted royal generations.
Some 250 kilometers to the southwest at Shah-pura Bagh, we were welcomed by Mandvi Singh Rathore, the bubbling mistress of the house and niece-in-law of Rajadhiraj Indrajit Deo, the 16th raja of Shahpura. “I hope you like to eat,” she said as she showed us around the family’s 150-year-old estate, which opened its doors to paying guests in 2005. “Our previous cook came here as a boy and worked for four generations of our family. He died last year. But he trained our current cook.” With a cheerful tilt of her head, she added, “He’s very good.”
And so he was. In a garden courtyard shaded by mango trees, we ate like pretenders to the throne as barefoot retainers and an elderly majordomo nattily done up in a Nehru jacket presented us with a succession of dishes. Each was extraordinary, whether the minced lamb kebabs, curries of spinach and yellow split peas, baingan bharta (a mash of roasted eggplant), unleavened chickpea pancakes topped with turmeric and coriander, or boondi dumplings.
When we left the next day for the three-hour drive to Chhatra Sagar, Mandvi reminded us to say hello to her cousin, who was married to one of the tented camp’s owners. “We’re all related!” she smiled, referencing the dynastic web that still binds Rajasthan’s extant nobility, many of whom are now hoteliers.
The road to Chhatra Sagar cuts through rocky granite ranges and towns thick with red dust, angular one-humped cows, and black-haired pigs. It’s a landscape that probably hasn’t changed that much since at least 1890, when, at a cost of 100,000 rupees, the then Thakur of Nimaj dammed a stream flowing through his estate to collect the monsoon rains.
The resulting lake is, today, the spectacular setting for 11 perfectly conceived white canvas tents that stretch along the length of the stone barrage. Here, the thakur’s descendants—brothers Nandi and Harsh Rathore and their cousin Raj Rathore—preside over a wildly beautiful aquatic landscape fringed with marshlands roamed by antelopes, leopards, and hares. “We stopped farming the land 15 years ago to attract wildlife. The boars have returned,” Nandi said with satisfaction.
In the evenings, after preprandial drinks by a blazing campfire, we dined by candlelight on rice studded with capsicums and carrots, lentil nuggets cooked with spinach and cumin, vegetable stews of small white onions, tomatoes, melons, and green beans, raita spiked with pomegranate and sprouted lentils, triangles of millet and maize breads, and lotus-seed pudding sweetened with rose water and milk. Every bite, every meal was a revelation. “These are all family recipes,” said Raj, who also leads afternoon bird-watching tours through the 400-hectare estate. “The vegetables come from the local farms.”
As memorable as the meals had been to this point, we were floored by the quality of the kitchen at our last stop, Dev Shree. Situated three hours north of Udaipur on the outskirts of Deogarh, this seven-room Relais & Chateaux property feels completely out of time, a sepia-tinted relic of a bygone era when sari-clad maharanis trailed through marbled corridors out onto lawns where guests played croquet and the family dog chased peacocks and waterbirds into the mirror-flat Ragho Sagar lake.
A surprise, then, to learn that Shatrunjai Singh only built this handsome yellow mansion in 2010, albeit on land that, along with 210 neighboring villages, had either been owned by, or connected to, his royal family since 1670. “Actually, we trace our family tree all the way back to the fifth and sixth centuries,” Shatrunjai said with all the nonchalance of a titled scion. As it turns out, his family and the Rathores at Chhatra Sagar all went to the same boarding schools in Ajmer, India’s equivalent of Eton. “Yes, we all know each other. Or we’re related.”
His wife Bhavna, meanwhile, mines old family recipes and ancient cookbooks to set on the table a cornucopia of Rajasthani delicacies. One after another, the dishes emerged from the kitchen—an avalanche of pappadams folded into curries to thicken the gravy, a vegetable pulao of peas and carrots, clouds of fried poori paired with gourd and potato curries, and bright-red sweet tomato chutney.
Tomorrow, I swore to myself, even as I helped myself to a second serving of spinach halva—thick, green, sweet, and utterly addictive—tomorrow, I start the diet.
Pali-Marwar; 91-9414-123118; doubles from US$578, full board.
Deogarh; 91/9929-172000; doubles from US$328.
Karauli; 91/8448-285351; doubles from US$230.
Shahpura, Bhilwara; 91/9587-004999; doubles from US$342.
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2019 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Relishing Rajasthan”).