September 22, 2010

Culinary Travels in India: Sharpura bargh

I traveled by car again, to the sweet haven of Sharpura Bargh. A private boutique guesthouse halfway between Udaipur and Jaipur. Shaturgeet and Maya Singh, the owners, greeted me like an old friend.



















Maya’s warm welcome was lovely and personal. (Royal butlers can get a bit much after a while.) A warm embrace in the simple countryside goes a long way. Though my visit to the palace "god-realm," had been fun for a while. I felt at home in this 120-year-old country residence on 45 acres, surrounded by gardens and lakes. It had the magic combo for me of elegance, simplicity, genuine hospitality and good home cooking from an organic vegetable garden.

Sat, the photographer Prince, took us on a jeep safari of his grandfather's land, the late Rajadhiraj Nahar Singh of Sharpura, who mortgaged the family’s private property and jewels to bring water to his people. In the end, he created 250 acres of wetlands, defying all odds that he would be able to build the right dams.

We rode through the town slowly as everyone bowed respectfully to Sat. He of course waved back kindly. The children were so polite! Maybe because we were with him, we did not encounter the usual hands out asking for candy or money. Instead genuine smiles from the children. I asked him how was that possible? What was different in this town? And he replied that they take good care to empower the rural children with books and educational grants. He seemed well loved by the villagers and he told me, ‘I love to walk down the street with my camera and take photos, but some of the village men say, ‘Your highness, the King, your grandfather would not approve sir. You can drive in your car and get out take a photo, but you mustn’t just walk down the street, sir.’ Sat said he realizes that they still live with that respect and he with all humbleness, obeys. It said something about honoring an old system that still seems to be intact, rather than elitism.















 





















It was a narrow, yet busy street with shop-owners hard at work selling dry goods as well as sweets, being cooked right on the spot. There was a huge metal bowl cooking milk and sugar to the delight of a small boy dancing around waiting for what would come of it. There were women at the well, women selling vegetables and fruits on the ground, men with various colored turbans pushing fruit carts and riding their children around on the handlebars of their bicycles. It was a happy place.

 















Sat drove us through Gypsy villages and viewed a few of the lakes with a dry bed. The villagers were out harvesting wheat like dots of moving color. The plains were vast. We also visited a stable gypsy village. Gypsy’s are nomadic and originated from Rajasthan. Here they had been granted some land and they were quite settled and happy. Although he did caution us, "I can’t leave my jeep for very long. Something is always sure to be missing."

We bird watched in the 100 year old mango and guava orchards. A daylight owl was sleeping in a 300 year old Banyan tree. We got out to have tea in the orchard. Sat gave us all muslin to keep close. He said, "throw this over you if you don’t want to get stung." The bees were swarming that time of year. We left soon after. It added a bit of adventure to the safari.



Back at Sharpura, we sauntered into the kitchen with the family cook. He prepared a local dish of Gatta ki Sabzi, a chick pea flour gnocchi as it were, cooked in a spicy sauce. It came out rope like, then cut into small bite sizes like gnocchi. The display of the spice tray common in all Indian kitchens becomes comforting after a while. It’s a distinct element in their identity.

I looked around at the cabinetry. It was charming, useful and old. Something we Americans would never see. Two young helpers were present and quiet as mice. One was filling water pitchers from the terracotta jug. All homes, even Royal ones keep the water fresh, contained in terracotta on a stand in the kitchen.



A beautiful young girl dressed in a peacock blue saree washed up the dishes. She stood by silently with a shy smile. We dined with the uncle, brother to the king and a force in his own right, and Sat’s mother. Next time around she’ll give us a tea tasting.

Learn more about our 12-day culinary program in India

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