Incredible India, it keeps drawing me back year after year, not just for the extraordinarily varied culture and vibrant colours but the haunting mystical music, spicy pungent smells and of course the food.

India is huge, a subcontinent with a myriad of different gods, religions, customs, temples and colourful festivals. The traffic is crazy, endless honking of horns …. but always something to celebrate.

I love the way the cows still wander nonchalantly through the streets with such an air of entitlement even in enormous cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Calcutta knowing that the sea of motorbikes, cars and lorries will avoid them.

Cows are sacred in India, worshipped and revered and are certainly not for eating. Nothing is wasted.  Cow manure is shaped in flat frisbee size patties, sun dried and then used for fuel…that may sound gross to us but it’s totally sustainable and doesn’t smell at all unpleasant…

Beef is not an option on the menu for millions of people – a high percentage of whom are vegetarian. In the towns and villages, people leave out food and water for the cows on their doorsteps believing strongly that they will receive blessings from the gods in return. 

This time we went back to Rajasthan, an area over twice the size of Ireland, much of which is semi-arid desert and hilly terrain where a variety of tribals live alongside pastoralists, camel herders, nomads and subsistence farmers.

Jodhpur, Jaipur and Udaipur are the tourist hotspots in this area but wonderful as they are, we love to get out of the towns, well off the tourist track and into the rural areas. We are intrigued by the way of life of the Raikas, in their traditional white garb and bright red turbans. They move their flocks of camels, sheep and goats from place to place, nibbling sustainably on the trees and the sparse vegetation. Another group moves through the landscape digging up the Prosopis juliflora trees which they then make into charcoal, providing them with a meagre livelihood and helping to eradicate an invasive species at the same time… killing two birds with one stone.

In 1971, Prime Minister Indra Gandhi passed the 26th Amendment Act and abolished the privileges and privy purses of all the princely rulers meaning they no longer recognised any of the princes or chiefs as the ruler.  Many of the Rajput families are now converting their often crumbling palaces into heritage hotels or homestays. These are a wonderful experience for the traveller, family run, with an intriguing history, delicious food and famed Rajput hospitality.

We have stayed and returned to many over the years but on this occasion, we found two new places, one called Chanoud Garh, just outside the village of Chanoud in northern Rajasthan – 

A magnificent 300-year-old palace, home to Thakur Ajeet Singhji and his family, descendants of the original Mertia Rajputs.

The second was a camp called Sujan Jawai, built in the midst of the desert, in the Aravali hills, close to the Jawai Dam. This is a game reserve where leopards roam freely and coexist with the local tribes, pastoralists and villagers. 

As ever, I was on the lookout for new (to me) flavours, cooking techniques and unfamiliar ingredients. At Chanoud Garh I took a cooking class from Swati, sister of the owner.

As we walked across one of the ancient courtyards to the little demonstration kitchen, a local lady sat cross-legged, cheerfully grinding homegrown chickpeas in an ancient stone quern to make dahl.

In many parts of India, medievalism exists side-by-side with the 21st-century. Barefoot children have mobile phones and many simple mud dwellings have satellite dishes. At Swati’s class I learned how to make Dhoongar chicken, a traditional Rajasthani dish.

The flavours were exquisite, and the recipes can be reproduced at home. 

Later in Udaipur, after we had visited Seva Mandir, the NGO we’ve been collaborating with for many years  

I took another cooking class with a local cook from Udaipur called Meenakshi Singh.  Here I learned several other delicious new dishes which I hope you’ll also try…

Dhoongar Chicken

A delicious whole smoked chicken curry from Swati Rathore at Chanoud Garh in Rajasthan –

Serves 4

Smoked Chicken

2 – 3 tablespoons sunflower oil

450 – 700g (1 – 1 1/2lbs) chicken pieces without skin – could be thigh or breast

175g (6oz) onion, finely sliced – save the 1st layer for smoking at the end

250g (9oz) natural yoghurt

5 tablespoons fresh tomato purée * see end of recipe

15g (generous 1/2oz) teaspoons ginger paste, peel and purée

15g (generous 1/2oz) teaspoon garlic paste, peel and purée

1 bay leaf

1 black cardamom

5cm (2 inch) cinnamon stick

2 cloves

1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder

1/4 teaspoon coriander powder

1/4 – 1/3 teaspoon red chilli powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

For the dhoongar smoking:

wood charcoal

1 onion, peeled and halved, remove one layer and keep for smoking  

1 teaspoon clarified butter (ghee)

2 cloves

1 tablespoon fresh coriander leaves

Heat the sunflower oil on a medium to high heat in a saucepan, add the bay leaf, black cardamom, cinnamon and cloves.  Stir and fry for a minute or so until the flavours are released.  Then add the sliced onions and cook until beginning to brown (8 – 10 minutes).  Turn up the heat, add the chicken, allow to fry for 4 – 5 minutes.  Add the fresh tomato purée, yogurt, ginger and garlic paste, coriander powder, turmeric powder, red chilli powder and salt to the chicken.  Stir well and bring to the boil. Cover with the lid and allow to simmer on a medium heat, stirring occasionally.  When cooked (15 minutes approx.), remove the lid and fry until the oil separates and the spices are well fried (8 minutes).  This is a dry curry but packed with flavour.  You can add some extra ghee if necessary.

Now do the Dhoongar smoking. 

Heat a stumpy piece of charcoal on a gas jet or in a barbecue.

Take the layer of the halved onion (or a little stainless-steel bowl) and lay on top of the chicken in the saucepan.  Place the hot charcoal in the centre of the onion layer and then pour a little ghee or butter on top along with a couple of cloves. It will instantly start to smoke, cover immediately with a tight-fitting lid and leave for 15 – 30 minutes for the chicken to absorb the smoke. 

Uncover, discard the onion, and charcoal.

Finally add the chopped coriander and serve. 

* The tomato paste that Swati used was made from whole fresh ripe tomatoes puréed.

Kashmiri Lamb Korma with Green Coriander

A rich, flavourful Kashmiri curry usually made with goat, but mutton, pork or beef also works well.  Serve with pilaf rice.

Serves 8

250g (9oz) onion paste (purée)

100ml (3 1/2fl oz) water

3 – 4 necks of lamb, cut into 2.5cm (1 inch) slices and trimmed of excess fat – your butcher will do this for you

30g (1 1/4oz) clarified butter [ghee]

salt and freshly ground black pepper

15 whole green cardamom pods, gently crushed to slightly open the pod

1 x 400ml (14fl oz) tin of coconut milk

75g (3oz) green coriander, chopped

200g (7oz) natural yoghurt

Preheat the oven to 160°C/320°F/Gas Mark 3.

To make the onion paste.

Whizz 100ml (3 1/2fl oz) water with the onion in a food processor for 30 seconds until it forms a smooth paste.

Heat the clarified butter in a cast-iron pan and brown the lamb for 3 – 4 minutes on each side.  Cook in batches so as not to overcrowd the pan.  Add to a casserole and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Remove the excess oil from the cast-iron pan and deglaze with 200ml (7fl oz) water and bring to a boil.  Add the ground onion and cardamom and cover with the boiling water. Cover the casserole and cook in the preheated oven for 1 1/2 – 2 hours until the meat is tender.  Remove from the oven.    

Add the coconut milk, mix thoroughly and simmer uncovered for 15 minutes on the hob. This will produce a delicious rich sauce.

Add lots of chopped green coriander, finally stir in the yoghurt, stir well and serve.

Ahilya Fort’s Tomato Cutt

Richard Holkar at Ahilya Fort in Maheshwar kindly shared this recipe with me.  Serve as a vegetable accompaniment.

Serves 12

6 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 bay leaf

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

125g (4 1/2oz) onion, chopped into 5mm (1/4 inch) dice

450g (1lb) tomato, chopped into 5mm (1/4 inch) dice

25g (1oz) garlic paste (peel and purée)

25g (1oz) ginger paste (peel and purée)

2 teaspoons turmeric powder

1 – 2 teaspoons chilli powder, depending on how hot you like it

2 teaspoons cumin powder

1 teaspoon garam masala

2 teaspoons sugar

110ml (4fl oz) water or vegetable stock

1 teaspoon salt

250g (9oz) tomato, chopped


2 tablespoons fresh green coriander, chopped

Heat oil in a pan on high heat, add bay leaf and cumin seeds and cook for a few seconds until the cumin pops.

Reduce the heat to medium. Add the onion and cook stirring until light brown in colour (5 – 6 minutes), then add the 450g (1lb) of chopped tomato and cook on a medium-high heat for 7 minutes. 

Add the ginger and garlic paste, mix well and cook for 3 minutes. Reduce the heat, add the remaining ingredients and cook for another 7 minutes. Check for seasoning and add 1/2 teaspoon of salt if necessary.   

Add remaining 250g (9oz) of chopped tomato and simmer for 5 minutes. It should be a thick soupy consistency. This will depend on how juicy your tomatoes were. If it’s too thick add 110ml (4fl oz) of boiling water or more if needed.

Garnish with fresh coriander and serve.  

Safed Aloo (Potatoes with Yoghurt and Coriander)

Swati Rathore from Chanoud Garh shared this recipe with me.

Serve as a stand-alone dish or as part of a thaili (an array of selective dishes served together on a round platter).

Serves 2

2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 small red or white onion, chopped

1 dry red chilli, chopped

1 teaspoon coriander seeds, slightly crushed
1 teaspoon of fennel seeds, slightly crushed

5 garlic cloves, peeled
4-6 tablespoons of natural yoghurt

1 heaped teaspoon of cashew powder (unsalted cashew nuts)
2 – 4 cooked potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks
salt to taste

fresh coriander leaves, chopped.

Heat the vegetable oil in a sauté pan, add the chopped onion, stir and fry over a medium heat until translucent, add the red chilli, coriander seeds, fennel seeds and whole garlic cloves. Stir and fry for 3 – 4 minutes.

Mix the yoghurt and cashew powder in a bowl, add to the pan.  Bring to the boil, stirring continuously and allow to simmer for a few minutes on a low heat until it thickens somewhat.  Add the boiled potato cubes and salt to taste. Continue to simmer for 5 – 10 minutes, turn off the heat and add the chopped coriander.  Serve hot.

Pea Halva ….Mattar Halva

Another delicious recipe from Swati at Chanoud Garh.  I’d previously eaten both a fruit and nut combination, plus a carrot, cardamom and pistachio halva so I was intrigued by this delicious pea version which was new to me.

Serves 4-6

green peas

2 generous tablespoons of clarified butter or ghee
2 whole green cardamom
1 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons ground cardamom
1 tablespoon each of sultanas or raisins, coarsely chopped cashew nuts and sliced almonds

Purée the fresh peas with a little milk in a food processor and keep aside. Melt the tablespoons of the ghee or clarified butter in a sauté pan over a medium heat. Add the whole green cardamom and then the pea purée. Stir continuously on a low heat until the mixture looks split and the globules of ghee are visible….about 5 minutes.
Add a little more milk and stir continuously. When the peas have cooked and the milk has condensed, 10 minutes approximately, the mixture will be a richer colour and the ghee will have separated so it appears curdled. Add the sugar, stir continuously, the halva is ready when it’s a deeper green colour and the ghee is visible on the sides of the pan. Add the ground cardamom and half of the dried fruit and nuts. Taste and add a little more if necessary…. Serve hot in small bowls sprinkled with the remainder of the dried fruit and nuts…

About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen


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