Last year our Indian holiday had to be cancelled for all the reasons we are now familiar with, so rather than ask for a refund, we deferred our booking for 12 months so we had something really to look forward to throughout the ups and downs of the last year.
In November 2021, India reopened for travel and one could get a month-long visa so rather than hop from one place to another, we decided to go directly to Ahilya Fort, an enchanting heritage property perched high above the sacred Narmada River in Maheshwar where there’s always a gentle breeze.
It’s quite a mission to get there, Cork to Amsterdam and onto Delhi and then a domestic flight to Indore. A driver from the hotel welcomes you at the airport with a picnic to sustain you for the almost two-hour journey to the exquisitely restored fort, originally the home of Ahilya Bai, the warrior Queen who ruled Indore from 1765 – 1796. The driving force behind the restoration project was Prince Richard Holkar, descendant of Queen Ahilya Bai. He and his original wife Sally Holkar also re-established the almost extinct hand weaving industry for which Maheshwar was justly famous and is now once again thriving. Women now come from all over India to choose a much-coveted Maheshwar silk sari.
The balcony of our bedroom overlooked the ghats (steps), temples and chattris on the riverbank where there is endless activity from sunrise to sunset. It’s a riot of colour. Before dawn, local women come to wash their clothes in the river. Hundreds of pilgrims, some of whom have walked for over 150kms with their little bundle of possessions, pour onto the ghats to perform their pujas and bathe in the sacred river to wash away their sins. Others chant, sing, pray… Children fly homemade kites, feed the sacred river fish and sell brightly coloured baubles to Indian tourists on day trips…There’s street food galore, poha, pingers, poppodums, sugar cane juice, guavas…The women bathe in their beautiful saris and then spread them out on the ghats to dry…Little boats, all gaily painted, ferry devotees backwards and forwards across the km wide river to the myriad of temples on both riverbanks…From the poorest to the most affluent…everyone is so devout…it’s incredibly moving.
The little town is bustling with activity too, lots of tiny shops, selling everything from garlands of marigolds and roses to embellish the Gods or welcome visitors. Intriguing hardware shops, tailors busy on their Singer sewing machines, jewellers hand beating silver, stalls piled high with spanking fresh vegetables and fruit, bananas, carrots, water chestnuts, papayas, watermelons, pomegranates…A host of Indian sweets and namkeen shops. Halfway downtown, close to the ATM machine, there’s a barber with an open-air shop front trimming hair, beards and soaping up chins ready for shaving. Around the corner, a man meticulously irons piles of clothes with a big heavy iron like one might find in an antique shop. Others sell colourful pictures of the Indian Gods, incense and much sought-after Shiva lingam from the river, and other essentials for puja’s (special prayers) – so beautiful and intriguing, it’s like walking through a Bollywood movie…
From early morning to late at night, the air is fragrant with the smell of food from the numerous street stalls, katchori, pakoras, bright orange jalebi, poha, robori and a wonderful fluffy saffron milk bubbling in a large kari (iron wok).
By now you can tell that I love India. Everyday there’s another adventure, somewhere new to explore.
I had several wonderful cooking classes in Indian homes, usually from grandmothers who still do everything from scratch and cook over an open fire with wood and dried cow dung patties. The latter may sound very strange to us but in fact, it’s very common in rural India. Food cooked over dried dung fires tastes delicious. They don’t smell at all, it’s a brilliant way of recycling and Guess What…you can buy Indian cow patties (gotha) via Amazon. They are also used in some religious ceremonies.
How about the food at Ahilya Fort?
All meals are included in the room rate plus afternoon tea and non-alcoholic cocktails from 7-8pm. Much of the produce is home-grown in the organic gardens, on the farm or comes beautifully fresh from local markets.
Memorable, long lazy breakfasts with deliciously ripe fresh fruit and juices, homemade yoghurt (curd), jams made by Prince Richard Holkar himself, freshly baked breads…I made kumquat marmalade from the fruit in the garden and picked the lemons from the lemon tree to make a zesty lemon curd. There’s an Indian speciality every day, dosa with sambal, idli, uppam, masala omelette or Maheshwari scrambled eggs…
Lunch is mostly western vegetarian food but for dinner a different Thali every night, with 6 or 7 little bowls of delicious Indian food and fresh crunchy vegetables with a segment of lime and salt.
Some of the recipes come from Prince Richard Holkar’s book, the Food of the Maharajas, others have been brought to Ahilya Fort by the cooks from their family homes.
Many in India are vegetarian, so there’s a ‘veg’ and ‘non-veg’ option at every meal and an Indian dessert – perhaps carrot or guava halwa, lemongrass kheer, gulab jamum, lapsi…Not all Indian food is spicy but I looked forward to every meal at Ahilya Fort. Here are a few recipes for some of the food I enjoyed.
Check it out – www.ahilyafort.com
Ahilya Fort Chicken Survedar
Another of my favourite recipes from ‘Cooking of the Maharajas’.
1kg (2 1/4lb) organic chicken
6 tablespoons clarified ghee/butter
1 onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons ginger paste
2 tablespoons garlic paste
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
1/4 tablespoon turmeric powder
1 1/2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon salt
450ml (16fl oz) coconut milk
10 – 12 cashew nuts, coarsely chopped
Heat the clarified ghee or butter in a pan. Add the chopped onion, stir and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add the ginger and garlic paste, poppy seeds and turmeric. Cook for 2-3 minutes. Add the freshly ground black pepper and salt and continue to cook for 3-4 minutes, add the chicken pieces and cook for a further 10 minutes. Add the coconut milk and cook until the chicken is tender. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Before serving add the coarsely chopped cashew nuts and lots of fresh coriander.
Not sure how this recipe got its name but the end result is intriguing and delicious. Serve with Basmati rice.
2 tablespoons seeds only of whole dried red chilli peppers
1 tablespoon scraped and minced ginger
1 tablespoon salt
110ml (4fl oz) natural yoghurt
110ml (4fl oz) cream
Drop the chilli seeds into the blender and blitz. Add all the remaining ingredients and blitz to a smooth purée.
50ml (2fl oz) clarified ghee/butter
450g (1lb) chicken pieces, preferably skinned, cut into 5cm (2 inch) piece with bone in, if possible
225ml – 450ml (8-16fl oz) hot water
Pour the clarified butter into a medium saucepan. As it begins to heat, stir in the chicken pieces and the blended mixture. Mix thoroughly. Add 225ml (8fl oz) of hot water and simmer uncovered until tender (add extra water as necessary).
1 1/2 tablespoons poppy seeds
50g (2oz) dried coconut
14 almonds, peeled and coarsely chopped
110ml (4fl oz) whole milk
Meanwhile, put the poppy seeds into the blender and blitz. Add the remaining ingredients. Blend to a smooth purée. Add this purée to the chicken ten minutes before serving. Heat through, stirring gently.
1 – 2 tablespoons rose water
1 teaspoon cardamom powder
1 tablespoon lime juice
Basmati rice to accompany
Just before serving, stir in the remaining ingredients. Serve on a mound of Basmati rice to absorb the abundant sauce. Garnish with lime wedges.
Ahilya Fort Lobia Beans
Fresh lobia beans look like French beans, the dried beans are also used in many dishes – but use the fresh beans for this recipe. I hadn’t come across white chilli powder before but it can be sourced in an Indian food store.
500g (18oz) French beans
1 tablespoon garlic paste (peeled and crushed garlic)
1/4 tablespoon ginger paste (peeled and crushed fresh ginger)
3 tablespoons Thai basil
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
110ml (4fl oz) coconut milk
1/4 teaspoon white chilli powder (or use a combination of ground white pepper and chilli powder)
pinch of asafoetida
1/4 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds
1/4 tablespoon salt
4 tablespoons grated coconut
Cut the beans into 2.5cm (1 inch) pieces. Grind the garlic, ginger and basil to a paste in a pestle and mortar. Heat the oil in a kari (iron wok), add the ginger, garlic paste into the oil. Add the French beans, stir and cook over a medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the coconut milk, white chilli powder and cook for another 5 minutes. Then add a pinch of asafoetida and mustard seeds and salt. Cook until it splatters. They can be reheated.
Just before serving, garnish with fresh coconut.
Cauliflower and Tomato Stew
I love this combination – delicious alone or with chicken, lamb or beef.
5 tablespoons vegetable oil or olive oil
1/4 teaspoon mustard seeds
1/8 – 1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 onions, chopped
1 teaspoon garlic paste (peeled and crushed garlic)
1 teaspoon ginger paste (peeled and crushed fresh ginger)
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon red chilli powder
1 teaspoon coriander powder
500g (18oz) cauliflower, cut into small florets
5 ripe tomatoes, peeled, deseeded and diced
lots of fresh coriander to serve
Heat the oil in a kari (iron wok), add the mustard and cumin seeds, then the chopped onion and cook for 5 minutes. Then add the garlic and ginger paste and cook and stir for a further 5 minutes. Add the turmeric, chilli, coriander and salt to taste. Cook for 10 minutes on a medium heat. Add the cauliflower florets. Stir and cook for 5 – 8 minutes or until just cooked. Add the tomato dice and cook for 3 minutes. Taste and serve with lots of fresh coriander.
Chocolate Brownie with Pistachio and Rose Petals
I made this recipe at Ahilya Fort, based on a delicious brownie recipe created by super baker Claire Ptak of Violet Cakes, in London. It was a BIG success. We’ve gilded the lily by adding a drizzle of ganache and by sprinkling some coarsely chopped pistachio and a few rose petals on top – I used fresh rose petals from the organic flower garden at Ahilya Fort.
Makes 10 brownies
175g (6oz) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, plus extra for greasing
350g (12oz) dark chocolate, broken into pieces (approx. 60-70% cocoa solids) (we use Valrhona)
50g (2oz) cocoa powder
225g (8oz) white flour or spelt flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt (3/4 teaspoon if using sea salt)
400g (14oz) caster sugar
4 organic eggs (about 200g/7oz)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
125ml (4 1/2fl oz) cream
110g (4oz) dark chocolate, chopped into pieces
50g (2oz) pistachios, chopped
3 teaspoons dried rose petals
Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4.
Butter and line a 20 x 30cm (8 x 11 inch) baking dish with parchment paper.
In a heatproof bowl, melt the butter and chocolate over water that has been brought to the boil and then taken off the heat. Leave the mixture to rest, stirring occasionally as it melts.
In another bowl, sift together the cocoa, spelt flour and baking powder. Sprinkle over the salt.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, whisk together the sugar, eggs and vanilla extract until light and fluffy. Slowly add the melted chocolate mixture, followed by the combined dry ingredients and pour into the prepared baking dish. Bake in the preheated oven for 25 minutes – the brownies should be set but with a slight wobble.
Meanwhile, make the ganache.
Put the cream in a heavy bottomed stainless-steel saucepan and bring it almost to the boil. Remove from the heat and add the chocolate. With a wooden spoon, stir the chocolate into the cream until it is completely melted. Leave it to cool to room temperature.
Slather a little chocolate ganache on top of the brownies. Sprinkle with the chopped pistachios and rose petals. Cut the brownies into squares and enjoy.
Tangerines with a hint of Jasmine Syrup
This deliciously refreshing recipe also comes from Ahilya Fort. A simple gem so good after a rich main course. Scatter with a few jasmine flowers in season.
6 clementine, mandarin or satsumas
Jasmine Syrup (available to buy in Asian food stores)
fresh mint leaves and jasmine flowers in season
Peel the citrus, removing all the pith. Cut into approx. 7mm (1/3 inch) slices around the equator. Lay 3-6 slices on cold plates, depending on the size of the fruit. Sprinkle with a little jasmine syrup (just a few drops).
Scatter a few fresh mint leaves and jasmine flowers in season over the top.