Last weekend I got to visit Jaipur on work. Now, we live close to Jaipur, so we have visited it on various occasions. I remember once, years back when A and I were in the same ad agency, we had gone on an office trip to Sariska, the wildlife resort. Of course, we didn't get to see any wildlife apart from Nilgai and a lonely Iguana. But we did hear leopards at night, and the guide came and scared us by saying that sometimes leopards climb into the trees surrounding the place where we were staying and drop into the grounds for a nocturnal prowl. The bonfire suddenly felt a lot colder, I can tell you.
One of the highlights of the trip was the amazing Rajasthani food we got. The place really laid out a spread for each meal, with puris and aloo ki sabzi, dal baati churma for lunch and so on. Ever since then, it has become a strange obsession for A and me to try and have some authentic Rajasthani food on our jaunts to Jaipur.
I have had plenty of Marwari food over the years thanks to a couple of close Maaru friends - gatte ki sabzi, ker sangri, suhaalis and what not, and have learnt to cook quite a few traditional dishes too. Interestingly, a couple of Marwari/ Rajasthani dishes are found all the way down in Karnataka as well - aambodey ( dal wadas) is one of them, and the other is pheni - no, not the cashew liquor but a lovely, lacey cobweb of flour and ghee, eaten with powdered sugar and cardamom and a glass of warm badaam milk. This is typically served at kannadiga weddings and is one of the signature dishes. Imagine my surprise at finding it in Rajasthani cuisine too!
Much to our disappointment, on our last several trips to Jaipur, we hadn't been able to find a place that served good authentic Rajasthani cuisine. The Rambagh Palace serves things like laal maas - authentic, I'm sure, but no good to veggie me. Everyone in Jaipur will tell you helpfully, when you ask about authentic food, "Go to LMB". LMB = Lakshmi Mishthaan Bhandaar. So to LMB we went the last time, full of anticipation, mouths watering and all that. Only to find a menu full of chholey bhaturey, paneer and maa ki daal. The only remotely Rajasthani thing they had was a ker sangri ki sabzi. How annoying!
Actually this is part of a trend I'm seeing in many of our cities, where the authentic cuisine of the place is reserved for home cooking, and all you get at restaurants is what the locals like to eat, i.e. Punjabi, italian, south Indian and what not. Some years back you couldn't get a good Maharashtrian meal in Bombay, short of breaking into someone's kitchen, except for the vada pau and Zunka-bhakr at railway stations. It wasn't until Vimla Patil of Femina fame opened Viva Paschim in the late 90s that one got a feel for the regional cuisine. And now Oh Calcutta by Anjan Chatterjee is promising to do the same thing for Bengali food. This is a trick I feel Indian restaurants are missing out on, in their quest for the exotic. You get Japanese, Greek, Korean and Russian, but where's the authentic regional cuisine of India? Chettinad or Assamese food would be as exotic for the Delhi-ite as sushi, surely.
Anyway, to recommence where I had trailed off...this time too, I bet that I would only get to eat bloody paneer and makhani daal, and was bracing myself. I reacted with shock and disbelief when I saw that LMB had announced a Rajasthani Thaal - yes, with the words daal baati churma boldly mentioned. I promptly took myself off to LMB in hope and anticipation, even while the part of me that cringes when food expectations are let down was getting ready to start yelling its head off. LMB is a rather upmarket restaurant for the Jaipur local, though the prices are very reasonable ( the thaal is Rs. 250). It's bang in the heart of the Hawa Mahal market ( tip to visitors - enjoy the view of the Hawa Mahal but do not go inside - it's disappointing, to say the least!) - which I would classify as India's traditional version of a mall. The market is built out of characteristic and lovely red sandstone, and is in an H shape, with traditional gates at the start and the finish. The shops are laid out along the length of the H and each section specialises in merchandise - one has jewelry, another has clothes, a third has seeds ( why?) and so on.
The service at LMB is wonderfully warm and attentive - you do not have to wait long to be seated or served. The Thaal started with a spicy papad soup, which I'm going to have to try out at home. It also had bits of dried vadis floating inside and was richly peppery. The food included missi rotis and rice, daal ( bland moong dal, unfortunately, not the spicy, garlicky one my tastebuds remembered from nearly fourteen years ago), baati - dough balls fried and full of ghee, one of which was stuffed with peas and cashews, 2 kinds of churma, which is wheat flour wellroasted in ghee and served with fine sugar blended in, ker sangri, gatte ki sabzi, Rajasthani kadhi, roasted papad and a wonderful sweet-spicy vegetable which I didn't recognise but relished. I was thankful I had had a light lunch of a few pieces of hara kebab, as this meal required a fairly gargantuan appetite to be done justice to. Unfortunately the host who had lent me his car needed it back for an emergency so I had to rush through the meal rather than savour it. But I came away triumphant in my quest to at last have authentic Rajasthani food in Rajasthan - and of course with a packet of kachoris and pheni in tow!