with Alberta Food Tours
by Catherine Van Brunschot
From the semi-circle of garden chairs arranged under a ficus tree, I can just pick out the corner of a swimming pool edging out into the lawn. Birds trill and hoot their unfamiliar tunes in trees frothed with pink blooms. Beneath the ficus, our host takes his place behind a table laid with a propane stove and an assortment of cooking pots. The call to prayer rises from an unseen minaret and someone hands me a Kingfisher beer.
Welcome to my cooking class in Delhi.
Our host is Sumeet Nair – fashion industry leader, cookbook author, organic farmer, and home-chef extraordinaire – and we 21 travellers are here in his gorgeous garden through the efforts of Karen Anderson, owner of Alberta Food Tours. Karen has brought food enthusiasts to India annually since 2012, and this is Day Two of her “Eat, Pray, Play” tour – a two-week immersion into northern India’s culinary and religious traditions. As we taste, scribble notes, and photograph our way through tandoori cauliflower, prawn masala and green beans poriyal, we couldn’t feel farther from the bustle of our Delhi expectations.
OLD DELHI Not that some of those expectations haven’t been met. Yesterday saw us combing the courtyards of the Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque, before plunging into Chandni Chowk, Delhi’s oldest market. We threaded by bicycle rickshaw through the traffic din, then squeezed through the crowd on foot, past vendors of cheese and housewares and statues of Hindu gods. At a hole-in-the-wall bursting with dried fruits, nuts, and packets of spice, we plun-dered the stocks of Kashmiri chiles and saffron before diving back into the sidewalk fray. Gandhi’s memorial park provided us refuge, candle-lit Chor Bizarre restaurant promised more. But here my jet-lag-addled brain failed me entirely, as the 18-course Wazwan feast arrived at dizzying speed. Lotus root and lentil dishes, cottage cheeses and kebabs, all, sadly, descended into a blur. AMRITSAR Days later, we fly to Amritsar, home to the Golden Temple, spiritual epicentre for the world’s Sikhs. We splash through the footbaths at the temple gate and catch our first glimpse of the shrine’s gold-leafed walls reflected in the surrounding lake. The air is awash with hymns as we join the barefoot pilgrims in their walk on the clean white marble perimeter. Midway along the circuit, we detour into a vast community kitchen, where we are welcome to join the volunteers who peel vegetables, prepare flatbreads, and wash the dishes that serve thousands of free meals to pilgrims every day. We can eat here as well, but Amritsar’s other major claim to fame is calling – the Punjabi dhabas (street eateries), said to draw Bollywood stars 1,400 kilometres from Mumbai. Top of the list is Surjit Food Plaza, whose bright white sign proclaims it “The Most Famous Eating Joint in Punjab Recommended by Lonely Planet.” Propelled from a lowly railway stand to this mod-ern cafe by the popularity of his makhan fish, Surjit Singh is on hand to welcome us personally and to take his turn at the kadhai pan. Chicken arrives in several delicious renderings – tandoori, butter, and tikka masala – along with his signature fish and sweet dough-balls known as gulab jamun.
VARANASI Next up is Varanasi, a city considered most holy by Indian Hindus – and most challenging by my Indian friends. Two-and-a-half million people live within its crumbling centre, and millions more descend annually to bathe in the waters of the sacred Ganges river and to cremate their dead upon its banks. Amid the throng of residents, pilgrims, tourists, cows, dogs and goats that converge each night along the river, we witness the sunset prayers, watch mourners burn their deceased on the ghat steps and set votives afloat on the water with our own personal devotions. As the music fades, our boat drifts away to the lamp-lit steps of heritage mansion, Amrit Rao Peshwa Haveli. Here, we are showered with marigold and rose petals amid a chorus of chanting Brahmin priests, before viewing a private classical dance performance on the rooftop terrace. An array of vegetarian dishes arrive on silver thali platters and we dine royally while a lone musician plays haunting tunes.
LUCKNOW We’re soon off to the city of Lucknow, with its wide modern streets, well-pre-served 18th and 19th century architecture, and new green initiatives that keep its boulevards tidy. We tour the British Residency – still bearing its wounds from India’s first war of independence – as well as two Muslim shrines, ornate in their manicured gardens. But Lucknow is famed, too, for its Awadhi cuisine, grounded in long marinating and slow cooking – a culinary tradition that comes alive each night in the city’s old market district, Chowk, where we go for an adrenalin-infused food tour. We sample melt-in-the-mouth kebabs of water buffalo and chicken, and bone-marrow-rich mutton nihari, sided by flatbreads plucked hot from tandoor ovens and grills. Amid sparks showering from charcoal braziers and roast fowl impaled on rotisserie spikes, we close out the night with habshi halwa, a sweet milk reduction with chopped nuts and dried fruit, and terracotta bowls of phirni rice pudding.
NARENDER NAGAR The trip’s final destination is Ananda Spa, a former palace high in the foothills of the western Himalayas. Here, copper pots glisten overhead in the resort’s demon- stration kitchen, as chef Arun Kala describes the local, organic ingredients with which he conjures spinach soup, dhal, and lentil patties (Karen Anderson tells us Calgary sources for similar ingredients). No Bollywood stars appear in the treed gardens of this five-star oasis, but among the other bathrobed guests sipping tea between spa treatments, we chat with a Saudi princess and an international fashion model. It’s an oh-so-peaceful place to unwind and reflect.
On my final trek to a mountaintop temple, I stare across the landscape and ponder the ultimate question –
”How soon can I sign up for another India tour?”
Read entire article in the digital issue of City Palate.