Three sides of India’s ‘Golden Triangle’ – Dining
To complement our posts about hotels and locations, this second of the series deals with India’s wonderful food on the ‘Golden Triangle’ route. Dining has always been one of our great loves, which is probably why we’re on perpetual diets to stand a chance of living long enough to see the rest of the world!
It’s very tempting for travellers unfamiliar with a country like India to isolate themselves and eat in their hotel’s restaurant because it’s ‘safe’. Whilst it’s often appropriate to do so, especially if the hotel is in the middle of nowhere, it’s often not until you venture out that you discover the real taste of the country rather than the misleading westernised version of local cuisine found within hotel confines.
Although we’ve covered the three aspects of India’s ‘Golden Triangle’ tourist route in three separate posts we’re convinced that all three need to be considered together if you’re going to enjoy a holiday in this wonderful chaotic country. Its the amalgam of route, hotel and dining that really makes India come alive. If you treat hotels as places to sleep and dining as something to be feared then you’ll miss some of the most rewarding experiences that India has to offer.
With regards eating, we’ve found the best preventative for ‘Delhi belly’ is to constantly clean/wash our hands before any contact with our faces/mouths after handling anything from the local environment – including cash, holding banister rails or rickshaw seats and local handicrafts, or shaking hands. In other words, most problems are self-inflicted rather than being transmitted by dodgy foodstuffs.
So, be adventurous but follow simple hygiene precautions and you’ll really embrace all that India has to offer with its fantastic variety of colourful culinary choices.
Our personal dining experiences in our travels around the ‘Golden Triangle’ (without gastric incident, incidentally) might encourage you to venture forth or at least to expand your culinary horizons even if you do only stay in your hotel.
If you’re travelling by using a private car and driver then more often than not you can trust him to take you to a reliable restaurant with clean facilities en route, so that you can start to become more adventurous.
There are countless opportunities for dining within Delhi and for that reason we see little sense in travelling miles away from our hotel in search of alternatives when there are numerous choices on every hotel doorstep. At The Imperial Hotel in Janpath, we’re only spitting distance from Connaught Circus which is the focal point of New Delhi and always has new or up and coming eateries to tempt us.
On this occasion we elect to visit an old favourite, Veda, which is within the outer circle of Connaught Circus. A hectic ride in a motorcycle rickshaw does little for our appetites but its the easiest way to find the restaurant and as its only a ten minute, 20 rupee ride away not worth the luxury of a taxi.
Veda is a dark, long and narrow restaurant serving predominantly north Indian cuisine with a flair that elevates it above the norm. It’s very difficult to make an Indian dish look aesthetically attractive given that it’s generally a blend of numerous spices and meats in sauce but you should be led by your sense of smell and taste at Veda and you’ll enjoy every mouthful. Our waiter kindly curbs our tendency to order too much and this caution is well rewarded as just two dishes with naan (unleavened bread cooked in a tandoor oven) between us are more than adequate.
We ordered Saag Wala Lamb with spinach, spices and garlic; Chicken Handi Lazeez – soft morsels of chicken with caramelised onion, cashew & cardamom; Raita (yoghurt and cucumber), garlic and oregano naan bread.
Not to leave out The Imperial Hotel (where we were staying) from our dining habits entirely, we spend our second night at the Spice Route, one of four restaurants at the hotel catering for different tastes but this one specialising in the variety of cuisines that span the ancient spice routes from China to the Middle East – an eclectic mix of styles and flavours.
We opt for the ‘tasting menu’ but on closer inspection feel that it will be too much of a mission even with our gargantuan appetites. We ask our waiter to temper the volume and breadth of the menu but still provide us with a cross section of dishes – we leave it to him to make the choices but with the sole instruction that he has to write down what we’ve eaten for future reference.
The ambiance and style of the restaurant is such that you might be anywhere in Delhi (or along the spice route) rather than simply another part of the hotel (quite an achievement we think) and we thoroughly enjoyed our meal.
We had, so we’re told…for starters; Kerala style prawns stir fried with curry leaves, sesame seeds and freshly grated coconut; Kai Phrik Thai Dum, which is crispy chicken with bell peppers flavoured with fresh black pepper; Som Tum Chae, Thai raw papaya salad with cherry tomato and crushed peanuts; followed by an ‘intermission’ of Tom Kha Kai rue Phak – a traditional Thai soup of chicken scented with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves; mains of Kerala-style fish Malabar or ‘Meen’ curry and Sri Lankan lamb Salna (spicy masala sauce); finished with a now somewhat pedestrian but most welcome coconut sorbet delight !
The meal was a gastronomic journey along the spice route and we felt as though we needed to walk it afterwards to recover our composure. The food was an absolute delight, as were the waiters who took great delight in selecting our meal for us and watching our reaction to each dish. A real event from start to finish.
Breakfast at the Imperial is notable for its location in a beautiful Art Deco restaurant with colonial veranda and whilst the buffet choices are extensive the individually prepared omelettes and other egg variants are difficult to beat in England, let alone any other country.
The Bercher muesli is also outstanding and even if you’re not resident a visit to The Imperial’s dining venues should be on your meal plan if in Delhi.
There are several choices in Agra but we’re never in a hurry to spend much time in the city as it holds little appeal for us. Agra is at best a tourist trap and its difficult to move around anywhere without being accosted to view someone’s brother’s aunt’s nephew’s marble emporium or gem and carpet shop. Someone suggests the Radisson hotel and as we want to at least venture away from the ITC Mughal where we’re staying, agree to do so. It’s a large and generally unattractive hotel but the Indian restaurant, the Daawat Nawab, is well worth the visit, even if at first glance it seems lacking in atmosphere. The restaurant has two distinct kitchens to cater for ‘veg’ or non-veg’ cooking so that there’s no cross contamination. The staff are courteous and very helpful and the head chef a character in his own right – so the initial reservation about a set menu of Thali (a selection of perpetually replenished small dishes on a larger plate with dhal [lentils] and rice) is soon dispelled as we tuck into a delicious selection of chicken, fish and lamb kebab starters, lamb and chicken with vegetables for mains with an interim hot broth in a cup; all to the sound of a tabla and santoor playing live in the background.
We’re so engrossed in our meal that we forget to photograph the dessert and despite asking for another to take a snap the chef refuses, maintaining that it’s reason enough to bring us back another time!
To finish, we ask for a cup of ‘halki patti’ or ‘light leaves’, which is very light tea without milk or sugar as opposed to the rather heavier ‘chai’ that is a boiled concoction of all ingredients together with spices – such as the cinnamon chai that we’re brought at the chef’s insistence.
Being in a remote location there’s little to merit a hike into the local town of Sawai Madhopur when on safari in Ranthambore – especially as there’s little in the town except local restaurants that are best avoided unless you’re particularly hardy. The idea here is to dine well and safely, so you’ll inevitably be full board wherever you stay and can look forward to enjoyable fayre.
We’re staying at the wonderful Sher Bagh jungle camp and again offered Thali on our first night. We’re so hungry that we again forget to photograph it as we walk along the deep tureens bubbling away over hot coals. The dishes are constantly replenished, if you allow them to be, so its important to pace yourself if you have any intention of tackling the dessert. On the second night we are more alert and for the record, capture our dishes of Mushrooms Alioli, followed by Chicken curry with beans and spinach, Pilau rice and fresh chopped vegetable salad; followed with a totally unnecessary chocolate cake with meringue and ice cream.
For those who value good old English fry up in the morning – it’s available – and what’s more we had the best ‘sunny side up’ eggs to order that we’ve had anywhere on the planet. The beauty of somewhere like Sher Bagh is that they cater for all tastes and preferences, will adjust the menu to cater for special requirements and pitch your table at various places around their site depending on whether you wish to be sociable or secluded.
Inevitably, if you travel the roads along the ‘Golden Triangle’ route, you’ll perhaps need to take a comfort break or at some stage feel peckish. It’s here that your driver is the man to rely on to find you a clean and safe place to eat – he’s probably got a number up his sleeve anyway and he’ll be rewarded by a free meal for himself if he takes guests there – so its a great incentive for him to find good places.
Our driver, who’s excellent, always comes up trumps. On the route between Agra and Jaipur we stop at the Rajasthani Midway, which as the name suggests is mid way between the two cities, just into Rajasthan. Its a clean restaurant with adjacent tourist trap of genuine antiques and not so antique antiques – but the vegetable biryani certainly fills a hole and is quite appetising with its little accompaniment of raita.
Whilst at Sher Bagh we’ve learned of a recently refurbished palace property licenced to the same group by the royal family of Jaipur. Only open for about ten months, we’re invited to try its cuisine and look around the property.
Rajmahal, not to be confused with Raj Palace is an imposing and extensive property within attractive expansive gardens owing its architectural style much to the colonial era even though it has always been within Indian royal ownership.
We choose to dine al fresco in the attractive gardens adjacent to the main building that are bathed in soft illumination, whilst listening to the honking of horns and frenetic traffic of the city a few hundred yards away. The star dusted sky and our preoccupation with the menu soon obliterates any ambient sound and our waiter emphasises that we can choose anything to suit our tastes, even if it isn’t on the menu. We don’t test him on this but settle down to enjoy our meal, which for some inexplicable reason we select from the western menu and are unsurprisingly rewarded by a suitably bland western meal. We choose a salad nicoise, one with chicken the other with tuna (which is instantly adjusted without quibble for our one deviation off-menu) and are exquisite as salads go; mains of Indian lamb shank (incredibly small lamb!) and two differing desserts of a trio of creme brulee (very tasty) and ‘opera cake’ layers of chocolate and nuts with macaroons (that didn’t sing).
As much our fault by the choices we made and our omission to mention that we enjoyed spices, our meal was less than remarkable; reinforced by the information that all three restaurants share the same menu.
Our waiter, Rabi, shortly also to become our guide around the property, is exceptional both in his assistance with the menu and his extensive knowledge of the history and evolution of the property – we can’t fault him. His stylish white kurta pajama with long tailed and crested safa (a form of pagri, or wrapped turban made from up to 20 ft. of material) compliments the elegant surroundings of Rajmahal. No expense seems to have been spared in the refurbishment of the hotel, down to the individually designed wallpapers, soft furnishings and crockery for each room but for us the overall effect is a touch too Hollywood; albeit the property has hosted a notable number of dignitaries over the years from Mountbatten (after whom a suite is named) through to Jackie Onassis, Prince Charles and Bill Clinton and the main salon is a veritable showcase of the great and the good in photographs.
We’re sorry that we didn’t stretch the chef with our choices from the menu and would certainly return with a new energy to do so. Rajmahal must be a wonderful place to stay as it boasts only fourteen luxury suites but it’s here that we think anyone less inclined to leave such opulent surroundings might seek a broader choice of menu.
It’s early days for Rajmahal and we look forward to sampling its delights when next in Jaipur – in the meantime why not go yourself and let us know what you think. It’s the beauty of such wonderful establishments that you can dine as non-residents and enjoy the surroundings to assess if you’d like to stay at another time.
As if from the sublime to the ridiculous we choose to lunch at a restaurant called The Peacock in the middle of Jaipur in MI road. Despite all of our experience in India we’re suckered into this restaurant by a guide as substitute for the better known Peacock rooftop restaurant which has glowing reviews for service and food. Apparently there are two imposters for the crown, both by the name of Peacock in addition to the ‘real’ one – so you’ve been warned as guides and taxi drivers get a kickback for diverting traffic. It appears that they’re all in the same road and the most well known one is in the Pearl Palace Hotel and reached by passing through the lobby. Ours was distinctly unattractive from outside and only marginally better inside, it nevertheless is clean and safe to eat at and gives the more inquisitive an insight into places where locals as well as tourists eat. The menu is extensive and mainly Indian but as we know that we have a fair amount of hiking around the city to do in the afternoon, elect for a simple Murgh Malai Tikka.
Murgh Malai Kabab is nothing but Creamy Chicken Tikka Kabab, made by marinating chicken with cheese, fresh cream and spices. It is less spicy compared with either Chicken Tikka or Achari Chicken Tikka and we had it together with naan bread, mint sauce, mango, ginger and honey chutney and a bottle of Kingfisher beer. In complete ignorance of the ruse that had been played on us by a guide, we actually found the meal really enjoyable, if simple, the service efficient and friendly and the bill of little consequence. So we can recommend the restaurant but not its tactics!
Having left the Samode Haveli to dine at Raj Mahal on the previous evening, we’re chastised by the management and persuaded to eat in for our second night. The restaurant we dine in, again open to non-residents, is set within an open courtyard dominated by a huge banyan and peepal tree marriage that sits adjacent to a large and very ornate formal indoor restaurant and private dining area only used when the evenings are cold.
We’re prone to being lazy with ordering from large menus and as we tend to eat anything and everything leave the choice of our meal to the ever helpful Mahendra, our waiter. He takes to the task with some enthusiasm and to say that we are replete at the end of the meal would be a huge understatement. Mahendra was determined that we should taste the best that the restaurant had to offer and produced a feast of Indian dishes whose flavours were exceptional. Having asked him for an accurate description of what we had eaten (to enable us to prepare this post) he produced the actual recipes of the dishes we’d enjoyed so that nothing would be omitted! If anyone would like copies then please email us – but otherwise in summary…
We got off to a steady start with an attractive display of humus, green pea and masala dips with delicate triangles of naan bread. Lulled into a false sense of contentment we were then presented with a bewildering but mouthwatering display of dishes that included Dal Makhani ( consisting of red kidney beans, split channa dal, urad whole dal, garlic, pepper, red chilli powder, tomato puree, butter, cream and ghee); Gobhi Mutter Hara Dhaniya (made from cauliflower florets, green peas, mustard oil, fenugreek seeds, cumin, asafetida, garlic, ginger, green chillies, coriander, turmeric, red chilli powder, amchur powder); Junglee Maans (mutton, ghee, whole red chillies, jeera, crystal salt, bouquet garni, garlic, chopped tomatoes and garam masala of peppercorns, cardamon, cloves and cinnamon); Murgh Khada Masala (chicken, ghee, whole red chillies, spicy green chillies, onions, curd, corainder, ginger, garlic, roasted cumin seeds and salt). All this accompanied by a variety of naan, roti and raita.
If you think its taken you an age to read it think how we felt eating it! Mahendra’s enthusiasm carried us through – even to attempt the impossible with a beautifully moist carrot cake with marzipan replica carrot!
Impressed by the palace more than the staff, we were in some doubt as to the likelihood of a memorable meal at Samode Palace, especially as the only alternative was in the local village shacks in this quite isolated location.
We couldn’t have been more mistaken.
It got off to a good start when we ordered a snack lunch of Tempura prawns with carrot and sesame salad served with wasabi mayo and wasabi soy sauce, followed by a salad of Sweet Lime, roast beetroot and goats cheese on a bed of spinach and rocket sprinkled with almonds – and another of Parma ham and ricotta on a bed of melon, greens and candied walnuts with balsamic dressing. Each arrived promptly and was cooked and prepared to perfection. It boded well for the evening.
We choose to eat in the ‘fine dining’ restaurant of the palace and really expect little more than a bigger bill than in the alternative, more basic restaurant. The chef here, however, has introduced ‘New Indian’ which as well as providing subtle nuances to the flavours of his dishes also elevates their presentation into fascinating creations, way beyond the traditional unidentifiable sauce-filled bowl.
We start with an amuse bouche of cottage cheese and beetroot layers followed by a starter of crispy spinach with yoghurt, tamarind and ladies finger tempura. A breather of mango, lychee and cardamom sorbet precedes the delightful and intriguing mains of lamb daruwala flamed in brandy, duck khichdi accompanied by assorted roti and naan breads with different seasonings and a bowl of simple steamed rice. A totally extravagant sticky toffee pudding is our downfall and suffers from lack of enough sticky but, to be fair, its hardly an Indian speciality.
For those who favour a curry and a pint of lager this will offer little appeal but we’ve spent so many years eating (admittedly tasty) nondescript bowls of curry, this development was rewarding and welcome both in style and taste. It has to be one of the best Indian meals we’ve ever had.
The palace and the fine dining at Samode easily outweigh any reservations we might have about staff and day trippers who had until then taken the edge off our visit – but our waiter, Nilam, excelled in his humour and service as well as recommending the very palatable bottle of Grover La Reserve from the ‘wine capital of India’, Nashik.
En route again
Another en route roadside stop, again called ‘Midway’, this time on the main road between Jaipur and Delhi finds us tucking into another delicious biryani, which we find is a good comprise for a light meal without too many oils, ghee and spices. We tend to request ‘halki masala’, or light spices, at lunchtimes, to see us through the journey.
Wanting to be near the airport for a more speedy departure we stay in Gurgaon, a rapidly developing suburb of Delhi of our last night. Not wishing to dine in the sterile environment of our hotel we head out to Sector 29, a few minutes by taxi from the Crowne Plaza. This is a buzzy area full of restaurants of all shapes and sizes, including the inevitable McDonalds. We resist the temptation and instead climb a set of stairs to the ’21 Gun Salute’.
The exterior gives no indication of what lies inside, where a veritable museum of vintage cars, motorbikes and typewriters set the scene for one of the most popular Indian restaurants we’ve been in. How half of these exhibits got onto the first floor escapes us but the fact that we’re surrounded by a cosmopolitan mix of seemingly well-heeled individuals, groups and families, gives us the confidence to sit and ask for a menu.
The meal doesn’t have the same inspiration as our ‘new Indian’ of the night before but it’s beautifully prepared, tasty and as we’re choosing for ourselves, less substantial than the last few meals we’ve volunteered for. We opt for a starter of roasted paneer (a type of cottage cheese) followed by a simple chicken curry with mixed vegetable curry and garlic naan. The meal is automatically accompanied by pickled onions, poppadoms and mint sauce and followed by saunf (a selection of rock sugars, fennel seeds and mint palate cleansers that one mixes in the palm of the hand before swallowing)
Overall, the 21 Gun Salute is a great evening out in fascinating surroundings with a lively and noisy atmosphere, guaranteed to restore faith, if you needed it, in dining away from the obvious choices in your hotel.
Prior to our departure from Crowne Plaza in Gurgaon, we actually decide to eat an Indian breakfast for once – neither of us wanting a full-on curry onslaught at the break of day normally; preferring something more bland for breakfast with spices at lunch and dinner times. We opt for aloo paratha (unleavened flat bread folded with ghee many times, stuffed with potato, cooked on a griddle and then shallow fried) and dosa (a fermented crepe made from rice batter and black lentils) served with south Indian chutney and sambar (tamarind and lentil stew)
Whatever you choose to do make sure that dining is very much part of the equation of any tour around India. Indian cuisine has brought so much to the world it makes sense for it to be a large and rewarding aspect of your Indian travels.
Remember, self-preservation with Indian food is largely down to personal hygiene with fastidiously cleaned hands and you’ll avoid ninety percent of Delhi belly incidents.
Happy Golden curries!
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