Rajasthan has long been a mecca for tourists, the prime subject of many wonderful travelogues, and for good reason. This incredible Indian state is a kaleidoscope of colours, landscapes, sounds and smells, a dazzling tapestry of myriad experiences. Every single time I go there, I experience a whole new set of wonders and learn more about its complex and altogether epic history. The one thing that always stands out for me is the sheer strength and resilience of the people in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. These are a people who still hold on to their traditions of stoic honour and undaunted courage.
Perhaps this is the reason that a region plagued by thirst and a dire scarcity of ecological resources can produce a delectable cuisine so rich in flavour and variety. Though most famous for its impressive forts, stunning landscapes and rich cultural heritage, the food of Rajasthan stands as a behemoth due to its sheer creativity and exquisite taste. My first tryst with the culinary wonders of this state happened when, as a teenager, I attended a wedding ceremony in the family of my father’s close friend. The wedding was in Jaipur, and after the long drive down, we were all famished. My mother, who has had many occasions to visit Rajasthan during her life and is well-versed with the cuisine here, was desperately craving for some laal maas, a delectable but fiery mutton preparation whose name literally translates to ‘red meat’. I later learnt that the restaurant we had gone to, Handi (see p358), is a famous joint held in high regard by the locals. This is where my culinary journey of discovery began and this is where I fell in love with the fare of this incredible place. In fact, the rest of my weekend was spent trying various indigenous delicacies courtesy the superlative caterers of the wedding and the organising family’s passion for local food. The subtle but ever present heat, the intense flavours and the gorgeous bouquet of aromas ensured that I was a bit invisible at the event, never straying too far from the buffet table. Every time my parents would drag me away to meet another acquaintance whose name I’d forget by the end of the evening, I would frustrate them by gradually but inevitably gravitating back towards the spread. By the time we left, I was certain I’d gained a few kilos to say the least and any movement whatsoever was a form of torture. But even as I eventually waddled up to my room to the sound of my parents’ laughter, I regretted nothing.
It is an absolute marvel to witness the sheer ingenuity and artistry of Rajasthani cuisine, an enduring testament to the skill and grim determination of the people who have made their homes in this largely arid land. Rajasthan stands as a unique case study – where many ancient Indian civilisations flourished in the most resource-filled areas, these people created a powerful, complex, layered and regal culture amongst sandy dunes. The arid and often unforgiving land here made nothing easy – the paucity of large swathes of fertile soil meant fewer vegetables, and practically no leafy greens whatsoever; a definite challenge for a state that traditionally was, and continues to be, largely vegetarian.
It is an old adage that humanity conquered the world thanks largely to its ability to adapt to even the harshest environments and its resourcefulness in the face of woefully slim odds. Thus, where the folk of Rajasthan could not cultivate vast fields of food, they became champions of animal husbandry, nurturing and maintaining hordes of cattle despite the scarcity of grazing land. They found that lentils and legumes flourished in the semi-fertile land northeast of the Aravallis, and they made them an integral part of their diet. They discovered desert berries and created magnificent dishes from them. Spices grow well even in the arid soil of this land, and are more pungent and potent because of it, making them the star ingredients in most dishes and imparting a wholly distinct flavour to the food.
An important fact to note is that different communities dominated different parts of Rajasthan, and while they used the same ingredients for the large part and even had many similar preparations, their different sensibilities created multiple branches of the exact same cuisine. The primary divisions are the Rajputs, who were a fiercely proud warrior caste famed for their code of honour and fearlessness in the face of battle; the Vaishnavs, who were followers of Vishnu and strongly devout in their faith; the Bishnois, a conservative spiritualist sect found mostly in the desert areas who believe in the conservation of all life; the Marwaris, an ethno-linguistic group who hail from the Marwar region and are prolific merchants; and the Jains, a relative minority who ascribe to the ancient tenets of Jainism.
Ironically, despite the prolific popularity of the meat dishes in this culinary culture, the vast majority of inhabitants have always been staunch vegetarians. Only the Rajputs used to partake in meat and even then not very frequently, usually preferring to keep a vegetarian and lacto-vegetarian diet. Chicken was not common at all and, hence, was a rarely used ingredient, and cows were utterly off limits as they were considered sacred by everybody in this predominantly Hindu state. Goat and lamb meat were widely used but they were still a bit of a secondary preference. The prime source of meat was actually game meat, as shikar, or hunting, was an avid pastime of the Rajputs, especially those with royal blood. Every other ethnic group in Rajasthan abstained from meat and partook in a rigid vegetarian diet that made use of local produce, both domestic and wild, and extensively relied on dairy products as both the base for curries and for cooking. The Jains, who were a fairly large subgroup and prominent in business circles, even abstained from most root vegetables, and fastidiously avoided onion and garlic, which are integral parts of most Rajasthani cooking but are believed by the Jains to embody the principles of greed, lust and anger.
Water is one of the most premium commodities in any desert economy, hence the use of water for cooking was considered wasteful and irresponsible. Instead, milk, yogurt and ghee were used as a medium of cooking. In the absence of a variety in vegetables, hardy grains like millet, wheat and gram became staples, along with lentils, legumes, beans and berries. The common households used the simplest of cooking paraphernalia to prepare the food. Each home was equipped with a basic stone or clay stove powered by wood and coal called an angithi. In some of the more rural areas and amongst the nomadic tribes, food was cooked on stoves made of hardened mud and cow dung cakes were used as an inefficient but serviceable source of fuel. Since fuel like wood and coal was a rare and expensive commodity and was often not available for days, food had to have a long shelf life and needed to be easily edible without requiring any heating or further preparation. These durable recipes were also preferred because of the necessity of travel for the menfolk, who were away from home for several days at a stretch, mostly for economic purposes like work or trading and sometimes for recreational pastimes like hunting. Yet another reason was the constant state of internal conflict and war within Rajasthan as Rajputs eagerly engaged in frequent battles for land and honour. These battles often meant food supply routes were cut off, especially during sieges, so large quantities of food that could be preserved for long periods of time were prepared beforehand. That is why the magnificent and indomitable forts of Rajasthan had huge chambers for the storage of both raw ingredients and finished foods.
Interestingly, Rajasthani cuisine remains one of the most untouched fares in India, which means that there is relatively little influence from foreign trade, invaders and powers. This is despite the fact that there was extensive communication, ideological exchange and trade between the Rajput kings and the Mughal emperors. The Mughals heavily influenced Rajasthani architecture and even certain dressage and customs, yet the intensely popular Mughlai cuisine never truly infiltrated the cooking traditions of this glorious desert state. One of the reasons for this is the scarcity of the ingredients used in Mughlai cooking, which did not grow well in Rajasthan, as well the lack of water, which is used lavishly in both farming and cooking with regards to the fare of the Mughals. The few influences there are can be found in certain pulaos, the barbeque grilling technique used for making kebabs and, to an extent, the richness of meat curries.
The Royal Heritage of Cuisine in Rajasthan
The royal households of Rajasthan (called rajthikanas or rajgharanas) were famed for their lavish expenditure and their often ludicrously extravagant lifestyles. There was also a deep-rooted culture of competition where royal households vied with each other to see which was the most affluent and opulent. It was in the magnificent kitchens of these royal families that some of the richest and most flavourful dishes find their origins. Each royal gharana had a huge rasowara (kitchen) that usually had no economic restraints, and employed a minimum of 10 to 12 chefs, called khansamas.
Dry fruits were considered the epitome of delicacies and each king in Rajasthan had a particular allowance of dry fruits. This system was so complex and rigid that one of the best ways to judge the might, influence and wealth of a royal family was through their dry fruit ration! One of the primary jobs of the khansamas was to cook new and innovative dishes using this ration and different ingredients, especially game meats. Food was a show of status, and the unrelenting one-upmanship amongst the royal kitchens is the stuff of legends. The royal breakfast itself had to consist of at least 10 dishes, and the displeasure of the king struck mortal fear in the heart of the khansamas. It was during royal banquets that the true flair of the kitchen would see the limelight. When guests from neighbouring kingdoms were present, huge celebrations were held to honour them, with more than one hundred dishes being served. The central attraction would usually be something exotic that would have been created specifically for that celebration – game meats were often used for these showstopper dishes, and could include wild hare, wild boar, venison, duck, pheasant, rabbit, quail and even camel. These were presented in elaborate vessels made from the rarest of precious materials. Another interesting aspect is that the preparation of meat was the sole purview of the men, and often the consumption of it as well. However, it would be a folly to believe that every single meal followed this kind of grandeur and ingredients. The regular daily fare of the royal family, while rich in variety and flavour, was usually vegetarian and incorporated simple ingredients prepared exquisitely.
These recipes were fiercely guarded by the chefs and they would rather die than reveal their culinary secrets. This has led to a despairing loss of most of these incredible and unique recipes over time. Thankfully, there has been a strong resurgence of these forgotten recipes as the descendants of the royal families have finally decided to unlock their culinary vaults and share these recipes with the proletariat after centuries of keeping them secret. Boutique hotels and converted palaces in Rajasthan now hold workshops where they demonstrate the cooking techniques from royal rasowaras to domestic and international tourists who are enthralled to get a taste, literally, of the royal life. Jaipur’s Thakur Amar Singh had painstakingly curated 40 volumes of exclusive family recipes in Hindi, which are now on display at a museum dedicated to him. Several decades after the demise of this cultural and military stalwart, his family uses these recipes for crafting dishes in the royal thali at Hotel Narain Niwas and Royal Castle Kanota in Jaipur. The present scion of Mewar’s Bedla clan, Vijay Singh Bedla has been showcasing the 200-year-old royal Karan cuisine at food fests in prestigious hotels, nationally and internationally, for some years. These are just a couple of examples of a rapidly changing royal culture that is moving towards inclusion, a heartening sign for gastronomes worldwide.
Flavours, Ingredients and Techniques
The Rajasthanis cultivated hardy grains like millet, maize, jowar and ragi, as they used less water and lasted much longer in storage. The growth of wheat and vegetables was restricted to the more fertile areas. They learnt to use any and all resources for consumption, which is the basis for the mouth-watering delicacy ker sangri. Ker are wild berries which have a tangy and peppery finish, while sangri are wild beans that grow abundantly in the desert. They are cooked together in water or buttermilk along with an assortment of spices and are an integral part of Marwari cuisine.
Rajasthani cuisine is charactersed by its extensive and impeccable use of spices, as they can be grown and cultivated easily. Condiments like tamarind, coriander, cumin, sesame, turmeric, ginger, garlic, cardamom, carom seeds, amchoor (dried mango powder), cinnamon, nigella seeds, aniseed, cloves, asafoetida, dried fenugreek and most importantly, red chillies, are used to create intricate recipes that burst with flavour, elevating otherwise humble ingredients to lofty dimensions. These are generally powdered in a heavy iron mortar and pestle just before they are added to the food, so that they retain their coarse texture and natural flavour. They have mastered the art of drying condiments to preserve their flavour and longevity, and dried red chillies from Rajasthan are highly sought after across the country.
Further proof of Rajasthani ingenuity when it comes to adding flavour can be found in their incredible range of chutneys, from the tomato to the tamarind. They have also perfected the art of making papad, a thin, crisp disc-shaped savoury confection made from flour that can last for months. Snacks like the ubiquitous kachori, a truly delicious fried savoury or sweet pastry stuffed with various ingredients, most famously onion and mawa, are the stars of the street food culture here.
A faction of the cuisine that stands out from the rest is the vast range of Rajasthani desserts. Due to their prowess in the use of dairy, they have concocted scintillating sweets that utterly enchant the taste buds. These include the unique ghevar, a crunchy cake-like dish made from flour, soaked in ghee, milk and topped with sliced almonds, malpua (fried pancakes), kheer (an aromatic milk-based dessert), halwa (dense, sweet, pulpy confections) and laddoos (ball-shaped sweets).
A technique of cooking particular to Rajasthan and inspired by the war-like nature of their expeditions is khad cooking, or pit cooking, wherein the food is prepared in pits dug out in the sand. This slow-cooking technique was created to ensure that the fire could not be seen by enemy troops. One of the delicacies of Rajasthan, which is difficult to find now, is khad khargosh. The main ingredient of this dish is wild hare meat, which is rubbed with spices and cooked khad-style. Another interesting indigenous practice is that of dungar cooking, wherein the prepared food is placed in a vessel (usually a bronze or copper pot) and a small container with a hot piece of coal is kept in the centre of the dish inside the vessel. Hot ghee is then poured onto the coal and the dish is covered for 30 minutes, giving the dish an intoxicating smoky flavour and aroma.
There is so much history and cultural significance involved in the food of this land that it boggles the mind. This cuisine pays homage to the spirit of the marvellous ‘land of kings’, Rajasthan.
Read more in the Outlook Traveller Getaways India’s Culinary Heritage