On my India trip exploring the Golden Triangle, I was surprised to discover that so many things that I’d thought were quintessentially British, were actually originally from the Asian country.
India has given us lots: Polo (the sport, not the mint), jodhpurs for horse riding, the board games chess and “Snakes and Ladders”, even the humble button, to name but a few. Though I’ve never watched a Polo match or donned a pair of jodhpurs, I am partial to the odd game of chess, which is believed to have originated in Eastern India in the 6th Century, where it was known as “chaturaṅga”. I guess one of the most well-known (and possibly my favourite) things to come from India, however, is the cuisine.
I love a good “Ruby Murray” as much as the 23 million Brits that regularly consume the dish. Though unlike those with more sensitive palates, for me the spicier, the better. My culinary heaven would be a chicken Vindaloo or Jalfrezzi served with chilli rice, accompanied with side orders of Bombay Aloo, Saag Aloo and a garlic Naan, plus poppadoms to dip in mint sauce and chunky lime pickle (extra hot). My mouth is watering as a type.
So imagine my joy on receiving the itinerary for my India trip in 2016, and seeing that included in the whirlwind 7-day tour was an authentic Indian cookery lesson in Jaipur.
The whole trip was brilliant, and it was fantastic to tick the magnificent Taj Mahal off my bucket list. But the cookery lesson was definitely one of the highlights for me. Here’s a bit more about the experience…
A warm welcome at Nokha House.
On the sixth evening of our trip, after a busy day exploring the “pink city” and the Amer Fort, our little tour group was driven to the outskirts of Jaipur, to Nokha House.
As we clambered off the bus, we were suddenly surrounded by Indians. Nothing unusual about this – it was something we experienced whenever we stepped down from the air-conditioned vehicle or out of the sanctuary of our hotel gates. But unlike the begging, the offers of taxis and the claims of “I give you nice price” that we had – by now – become accustomed to, there was no hustle or bustle or shouting.
Instead, everyone’s wrists were calmly grabbed and tied with a bracelet:
I examined the vibrant red and yellow threads; they were plaited together and knotted with wooden and gold plastic beads, as well as gold flowers and charms. In all the commotion of tying these to our wrists, I couldn’t hear what our tour guide Dilip was saying regarding the bracelet. But consulting my India pocket guide later that evening, I found out that the band is known as “mauli”, and is usually tied on a wrist by Hindus before the beginning of a religious ceremony to invoke the blessings of the Hindu deities. Men have it tied on their right hand, while it’s on the left hand for females – glad they got it on the correct wrist. It’s also believed that the sanctified red thread protects a person from diseases, enemies and other dangers. Perhaps they knew something about my cooking skills…
The women in our tour group were also all dabbed on the forehead with a dye-covered finger. We were adorned with a bindi, a symbolic mark that I previously thought was only given to married women.
Questioning the red dot in between my eyebrows, Dilip explained women from many different religious and cultural communities in India proudly wear bindis. It isn’t just Hindus, but Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists and even Catholics sport the dot. While some believe it’s linked to the third eye (known as “ajna chakra”), a site of wisdom and power said to be situated between the eyebrows, others associate it with married women (though it is also commonly worn by children and single women). Parents may also mark their babies’ faces with bindis to ward off the evil eye.
Both gestures were a great way to get our party into the spirit of the evening, and everyone was excited for what was to come next.
After we’d been marked and our wrists tied (sounds more Fifty Shades of Grey than Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook), Dilip introduced us to the owner of the house, who greeted us by shaking all of our hands warmly. He then ushered us in, giving us a tour of the house at the same time. It was large and spacious, with a large courtyard garden in the middle.
We all took a seat in the garden and chattered away unanimously for a few minutes, before a trolley was pushed out with a refreshing little drink and a hot wash cloth for everyone. One of the owner’s sons then came out, followed in hot pursuit by a very overweight Labrador, who we learnt was called Jaime. The charismatic son gave us a brief history of the house, and what we would be cooking with his parents once we went inside to the dining room. His English accent was remarkable, he could have doubled as Lord Ralph from The Fast Show.
And then, it was time to cook…
Cooking a curry in India.
Firstly we were introduced to all the spices we’d be using. There were cardamom pods and paprika, cinnamon and mustard seeds. There were things I’d never even heard of before, too, such as garam masala – which we were told was blended from green cardamon pods. Then, we were told what was on the menu for the evening:
- Vegetable pakora
- Green lentil dahl
- Home-made chapatis
Once we’d learnt about the ingredients and what we’d be making, it was time to begin the lesson. Does anyone have any allergies? Yes? Well tough, these Indians didn’t do gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan friendly dishes. This was traditional Indian cookery as it should be.
The owner and his wife worked as a tag team, taking it in turns to show us the different techniques and stages for making each part of the meal. I actually managed to video the whole demonstration, so click here if you fancy making your own green lentil dahl.
The pakora’s didn’t look that hard to make, though I’ve yet to try them at home.
After about 45 minutes, the class was over, though it didn’t feel that long at all. As the owners of Nokha House began clearing up the cooking dishes, we were invited to come up to the front and try some pakora sprinkled with a tasty homemade spice dust. Then, to our dismay, the dahl and chapatis were taken away entirely. “Where are they going? Come back, we’re hungry,” murmured everyone on our tour group, looking around at one another.
A few minutes late, the articulate son, aka Lord Ralph, reappeared in the doorway, with a hungry Jamie at his side. “Ladies and gentlemen, if you could please follow me outside, your dinner is served”.
And so, with tummies rumbling loudly, we all filed back out to the courtyard garden, where little tables had been set-up with candles, glasses, plates and cutlery. The son and Jamie (who could tell he was about to get tidbits from the guests) wheeled out a trolley laden with curries and rice and potatoes and chapatis. All home cooked, all delicious.
If you’re heading to Jaipur and are looking for somewhere comfortable, affordable and hospitable to stay, I cannot recommend Nokha House enough. You can book a room via booking.com. Once there, make sure you take one of their cookery lessons, it’s the only way to learn how to cook authentic Indian cuisine.