In a supremely secluded corner of Gujarat, the 9 gun salute state of Santrampur occupies a rather interesting site in the intersection between three different states: Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat. The present ruler and his wife, HH Maharana Paranjayaditya Parmar and Maharani Mandakini Kumari, are the latest in a dynasty that has been in residence from 1255.
Santrampur must rank as one of the most attractive princely states in Gujarat. Low hills of the Aravalli range dot the area, the Mahi River flows into a lake that skirts the palace gardens and through the day, the only sounds are those of the geese belonging to the palace honking and the flocks of parrots that screech overhead. Overlooking the present residence, built in the Art Deco style approximately a century ago, is the older and far larger palace. And on the summit of the same hill is the original palace. Both the old palaces are in various states of ruin, though it is within the realms of possibility that one day, they will both be restored.
The population of Santrampur consists of Brahmins, businessmen and tribals. There even were three Parsee families, of whom none are left. All these communities have influenced the royal family’s cuisine, which is a colourful pastiche from various origins. From Rajasthan comes the Maas ke Tukde: the quintessential meaty snack to go with a drink. There are Gujarati dals as well as a surprisingly lavish variety of vegetarian dishes that have doubtless come from within Gujarat itself and at least one preparation of maize, which has been grown in the region around Santrampur ever since the beginning of time, that has a parallel in Madhya Pradesh. Maharana Paranjayaditya Parmar’s late father, HH Maharana Krishna Kumar Singh was a hobby cook, and thereby hangs a tale. For, the most famous dish of all in the Santrampur panoply of royal food is Meethi Murgi – a singularly unimaginative name for a preparation that has an exceedingly complicated assortment of spices that goes into its making. Even the palace cooks who have been employed in Shri Joraver Vilas for generations, have no idea of the recipe because Maharana Krishna Kumar Singh always made it himself.
Maharani Mandakini Kumari tells us that the royal family has always employed members of the Bhoi tribe as cooks in their palaces, a practice that exists till today. Meethi Murgi is a royal puzzle, if there ever was one: was it invented by the Late Maharana himself? Did it have a precedent anywhere else in Gujarat? Why are the spices for the dish not available for miles and miles around Santrampur, if it was indeed a traditionally prepared dish? Did the Late Maharana make it up entirely? If he was so skilled at creating dishes out of nothing but his imagination, are there any others that he has created that have been lost to written records?
What is beyond doubt was that like many royal homes around the country, culinary heritage has been gradually getting lost: either because of too lengthy cooking processes or the necessity of obtaining ingredients. Most fortunately, the hand-written notebook of the Late Maharaja was found in a corner of the palace and the one treasure of the Santrampur recipe repertoire was saved. Maharana Krishna Kumar Singh passed away at a very young age; certainly much before any substantial written records could be kept.
Fortunately, the majority of recipes have been passed down from one generation to another by the Bhoi palace cooks. Some dishes on the royal table are surprisingly bucolic: the Makai chheen, for example has striking parallels with the Indori bhutte ki kees – corn kernels cooked like a risotto into a heart-warming stew with minimal spicing (but maximum ghee!). Other surprisingly ingenuous delights from the tribal heartland include the baati-like dumpling paaniya. Doughy enough to give one’s jaws a workout, they are wrapped in calotropis leaves and cooked on a wood fire. Like the Makai chheen, paaniya too are served in a bowl of pure ghee: a throwback to the times when these items were created for those who toiled hard. The last preparation that can be said to have bucolic origins is the whole onions that have been partially hollowed out and filled with finely ground chickpeas seasoned with spices, then steamed. It is almost western in its appeal and presentation, but for the presence of the spices.
But, more surprises await us at the royal table, a vast piece of superb carpentry in the Art Deco style. Shri Joraver Vilas, the royal residence, is made in the Art Deco style, with every room being adorned with furniture belonging to that period. So, it is no surprise that the dining table is Art Deco. What is certainly a surprise is the variety of charmingly local preparations that are laid on the imposing table: the chilli chutney made of chopped fresh red chillies, lentils that have a touch of sweetness to remind us that we are in Gujarat, a decidedly home-style chicken curry to accompany the paaniya, smoked fresh tuvar dal that grows in the area and two different preparations of pathode.
But there’s more: the Parsee families that lived in Santrampur have left their own stamp on the royal table by way of the Fish Patra, a surprising take on the standard Parsee favourite. And the Kaleji ni Kadhi has two distinct elements that combine in a jaunty dish that, surprisingly, embodies the charming angularities of Santrampur. At a meal with the family, you will get the distinct feeling that you are eating at five different locations all at once. It is only when you stagger through your third helping of dessert, after the Mohanthal and the rose petal kheer that the various elements of the meal begin to sink in: like the palaces of Santrampur that are scattered over a time frame of centuries, so too is the incredibly diverse cuisine of a principality that has held sway for the better part of 800 years.