As twilight falls over Jaipur, a party of women wearing gossamer silk saris glides across the cool marble patio of Rambagh Palace. Now a splendid five-star hotel, Rambagh was originally the princely domain of India’s wealthiest royals. In 1957, when hotelier Mr Oberoi successfully negotiated with the Maharajah of Jaipur to convert the Palace into a hotel, the Maharani was by her own admission “speechless and wretched”. But a maharani’s loss is our gain: with all the shimmer of a fairy tale come to life, our last night in Jaipur is to be a banquet of regal proportion. Make no mistake, this is the culinary India of royalty.
Following an icy, world-beating martini at the legendary Polo Bar, shaken seat-side by a jodhpur-garbed bartender beneath glittering trophies and well-worn mallets, we are led to dinner in one of the most opulent rooms in all of India. The original Palace dining room, Suvarna Mahal, is decorated in high-ceilinged Renaissance style – an embarrassment of gilded mirrors, Florentine frescoes and red silk carpets. Our five-course dinner – each more delectable than the next — features royal dishes from the princely states of Rajasthan, Awadh, Punjab and Hyderabad, including the buttery chicken dish favoured by Rambagh’s last maharini — Gayatri Devi, whom Cecil Beaton called one of the 10 most beautiful women in the world. These tastes of modern-day India arrive at their most complex and colourful best, accompanied by excellent Indian and French wines and served on place settings of 22 karat gold. Princess and prince for the night.
Our sensual, taste adventures continue across the countryside on our 10-day tour of India’s Golden Triangle, under the expert guidance of Puneet, our Micato travel director. From a guided walking tour through the spice bazaar of Jaipur where great baskets of golden turmeric, sizzling red chili and black nutmeg fill bustling streets with scented rainbows of colour, to a visit to a New Delhi Sikh temple, for a behind the scenes look at pans of steaming-hot dal and rice being prepared in accordance with Gurudwara, a religious edict that any person regardless of creed may come to be fed. We peer into a wood-burning cauldron to see fragrant naan bake and then, in Old Delhi, cozy into a cycle rickshaw, passing a spectacular goat market, a seasonal occurrence in honour of an upcoming festival. No, we didn’t buy a goat – though on request I did taste some kindred curry, a spicy rogan josh simmered in creamy yoghurt. Puneet was a champion of navigating us toward dietary likes and desires. And note to all: there were Western options available at each and every turn – I had the finest eggs benedict ever following a cool dawn stroll round the Taj Mahal.
On my first journey to this colourful and mystical land, my foodie quest was also beautifully enhanced by a private cooking class at the lavishly indulgent five-star Rajvilas Oberoi in Jaipur. For anyone who’s a little wary of the spice and heat of some Indian dishes, you are in good hands with Chef Pawan Kumar.
In a private dining room equipped for the event with a small stove, aprons and drinks, Chef Kumar walks me through a dazzling array of ingredients. Chopped and ground and ready to sizzle, are a dozen tiny pots of yellow turmeric, red chili, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, mace, ginger, nutmeg and garlic… Together, we heat oil and mix cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and bay leaf for the beginnings of Rajvilas chicken curry. After an educational and entertaining hour — like everyone we meet, their mothers make the best curry and Chef Kumar is no different – I am served at table by Chef and two waiters, our handsome creations looking for all the world like those of the finest Indian restaurants in London or New York.
For Micato’s people this is their way of life. And perhaps that’s why travelling with Micato makes such a difference. Never does one feel like being herded through the tourist highlights in a “been there, done that” way, rather we are invited in and immersed into a cultural extravaganza by the people who love it and live it. There is a grand tradition to travelling with Micato that makes you feel you’re travelling not merely in the footsteps of the Maharajas but also with family. And this is one family that believes in eating very well indeed.