An Assault on the Senses

December 27, 2010
One of the great things about our itinerary is that we are seeing the real India. This is not a sanitized tourist-friendly version (although we are staying at some amazing hotels), but the real raw, gritty side of this country where 70% still live in rural areas. The land and the people hit all of your senses: the constant din of car horns, the smell of incense and smog and a variety of spices, the colors of the clothes and the buildings, the amazing tastes of the food - spicy and hot or cool and refreshing, the different and strange languages (only 10% of the people speak English, but of course these are the ones who control the government, the economy, and work in tourism), the feel of the silk that is produced here, the repetitive sounds of calls to prayer, the beauty of the architecture and the inlaid marble, and our sense of propriety (there is nothing unusual about seeing men urinate by the side of the road, or worse).

You may have noticed that we haven't provided our customary food reports over the past few days.  Frankly, there's not much you can say about chicken soup and rice (in any culture)...but we are back on our normal eating marathon.  We've had many wonderful Indian meals but perhaps the most memorable so far were on Christmas Day--when we had a beautiful, traditional lunch, followed by a festive Indian Christmas buffet unlike any other buffet we've experienced to date.

After a morning of touring at the Amber Fort in Jaipur (including an elephant ride up the steep entrance), we went to a lovely heritage hotel where we took in a puppet show followed by a traditional lunch.  The servers paraded in with a domed silver platter for each guest. Each platter had eight small bowls with different dishes including--but not limited to--chicken tikka masala, the ubiquitous dal, spiced potatoes, raita (yogurt to cool the palate), green beans, eggplant, rice, and more.  It was a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach.  Of course, this was followed by a similarly arranged dessert platter.

Lunch would have been adequate but, it being Christmas Day, our tour guide decided that everyone should have a holiday dinner as well (by the way, there had been an elaborate spread for Christmas Eve with Indian, Thai, Chinese, and American delicacies--and, in the holiday spirit, our guide had purchased a wide array of Indian tsotschkes for each of us representing every possible Indian trinket one might imagine, ranging from bangle bracelets to Ganesh calendars, to puppets and everything in between).  But, I digress. For Christmas Dinner, we chose the Indian restaurant (something about eating turkey and brussels sprouts while in India just doesn't make sense). We entered a festively-decorated courtyard (complete with Indian music and yet another puppet show) and, luckily, heated with space heaters and table-side charcoal braziers (which spewed sparks from time to time) as it was in the upper 40s (northern India is not the tropics).  We sat down only to discover another buffet (argh) but quickly changed our tune when we realized this one was interactive.  There were five stations; at each one, the chefs were standing by to explain the tasty foods being served.  We were pleasantly surprised to see that at several stations they were serving "street food" which we had been forewarned not to eat (not that that prevented us from needing to eat chicken soup for two days).  Anyway, when we sat down we were served pappadam with an array of wonderful chutneys.  Then, it was time to go to the food stations.  We started with chaat--these were the Indian equivalent of bite-sized taco shells filled with vegetables and hot sauce.  They were fantastic and it was very difficult to eat just one or two!  The next station had salad offerings--we chose the lentil salad and baby fried spiced okra... just delectable.  Next, we moved to the tandoori kebabs (murgh malai, achari macchli, saunfiynani paneer, tandoori shimla--translated to fish, chicken, cheese, and vegetable--not  necessarily in that order). These were simply outstanding.  Now, mere mortals might have been done at this point, but we persevered.

The next course was the main course--here we had several to choose among (tandoori murgh masala, lamb nilgiri kurma, kerala shrimp curry, saag paneer, aloo jeera, jogiya tarkari, dal palak, subq biriyani, and assorted Indian breads). We piled our plates high--focusing on the chicken, shrimp, potatoes, dal, and biriyani (and, of course, the nan). The flavors ranged from hot to piquant to spicy to mellow.  Unbelievably, we finished every bite.

Of course, it would not be a complete meal for Wendy and Wayne in any culture if we didn't have dessert.  So, we summoned up our energy (and courage) and trekked over to the dessert bar. Again, there were many choices including, but not limited to steamed chocolate pudding (the Indian answer to molten chocolate cake), coconut ice cream, Indian donuts (steeped in sugar syrup), and sugar syrup soaked fried dough (the Indian answer to churros). Again, we finished every bite. We are accustomed to Chinese food for Christmas dinner; our Indian dinner was a treat for sore eyes (and luckily, not sore stomachs).

As we write this letter, it is Monday evening, December 27.  Yesterday was a rest and travel day; a highlight was the sari and turban demonstration after lunch.  We both got dressed up (as did most of our group) and we have the pictures to prove it.  We arrived at Udaipur (city of lakes) late in the evening. 

This morning, we stayed at the hotel and enjoyed a camel ride (well, perhaps enjoyed is not the right verb here--quite an experience) and then took a tuk-tuk (open air taxi) into old Udaipur where we visited an outstanding textile store where we indulged in some serious retail therapy.  If there was a limit on scarves and shawls, we certainly would not pass customs!  Tomorrow, we depart for Mumbai.

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