Maharana Arvind Singh of Mewar celebrates his birthday in style. Visitors from all parts of the globe, villagers from the erstwhile princely state of Mewar, townspeople from Udaipur, a phalanx of press people, even filmstars beat a retreat to the doors of the living quarters of the City Palace.
While lunch was a strictly family and close relatives only affair, dinner was the Event of the Season. When I told friends in Udaipur where I was having dinner, they gasped with amazement and envy. However, it was the lunch that tantalized my tastebuds. To begin with, it was not catered but was cooked in the Maharana’s own kitchen. Secondly, there was no attempt at creating a lavish spread – you don’t need to impress your own family after all.
Our meal started with lapsi – a broken wheat halwa-like dish that was sweetened just that wee bit. Padmaja, Shriji’s lovely young daughter told me that on auspicious occasions, lapsi sweetens the palate. Lal maas followed a delicate chicken in a cashew nut thickened gravy, there were two vegetables: aloo matar and stuffed bhindi. What was far more unusual was a “vegetable” made from besan in the true desert fashion: pathod. Besan and dahi are cooked together, let to set, cut into squares and put into a gravy, rather like its more common country cousin, gatta.
Royal lunch it may have been, but a desert touch was added by the two chutneys: one was made from fresh red chillies pounded to a paste and the other was made from garlic. There were three kinds of rotis made variously with corn, barley and a baqarkhani-like sweetish roti that is dipped in ghee while hot called thothdi. What I appreciated was the effort to keep the meal not only local but down to earth as well.
In contrast, go to any hotel or restaurant in Udaipur and try to look for dal bhati choorma, kair sangri or any other element of local cuisine and you may as well start hunting for gold dust. Maybe chutney of fresh (as opposed to dry) red chillies does not strike the denizens of Udaipur as fancy, but to outsiders, it is a quintessential factor in a great cuisine and it would be a pity to substitute mirchi ki chutney with poorly made pizzas and dal makhani.
I’m not trying to make any great sociological statements, but it did strike me that the ancient and the modern struck a happy bargain on the royal table. The salads were plated western style, that is to say, with a great deal of attention to colour and presentation; every hotel in Udaipur had sent a cake, from the magnificent showpiece to the cliched. Each was cut and slices proudly passed around. For me, however, the biggest eye opener was the group of cronies, all in the 60 plus age group, who spoke to each other in Mewari. Were they drinking whisky or rum? Nyet. It was red wine that was being poured.