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

September 21, 2010

Culinary Travels in India: Devigarh

Devigarh, my favorite place aesthetically, is an 18th century Palace fort that royally commands the valley, looking out over the Aravalli hills. Bo-chic in style, the interiors are minimalist yet traditional, leaving more out than put in. An awesome aesthetic, if you like austere five-star elegance—a bit "Indian Zen."

The surrounding natural landscape offers solace. The colorful village below, with intermittent baby blue houses, offers charm. The color motive is two-fold. It keeps insects and bugs away and praises lord Krishna at the same time.

The lifestyle of the villagers has not changed much, at least to the western eye, in what seems an eternity. Barefoot shop owners sit before scales on old wooden counters or on the floor. Some are turbaned, some are not.

Men sit on stoops, children run around, women carry food or water jugs on their heads and glide gracefully in their saris, sit as vibrantly colored as the fruits and vegetables they sell. Brahman humped cows wander the streets freely. Elders seem to indulge their children with laps and caresses rather than candy and material goods. The village astrologer sits on the corner, dressed in red next to a sky blue wall, waiting for a consultation. Carts of vegetables display simple local fare with names like "lady fingers" and "gentleman’s thumbs."

We followed some of the women through one doorway and found an old man making terra cotta pots used to store cool water. White hair and beard, he stooped and twirled his wheel with a stick. Once it got going to the speed he was happy with, he threw some clay in the middle and started molding. Three small pots were produced within minutes.

From what I could gather, the small village flowed from Muslim to Hindu, Jain to Tribal, although it was predominantly Jain. Extreme vegetarians, they wear no leather and avoid killing anything that moves, even going as far as to not eat roots, but only what grows above the ground. Their business is business—noted to be some of the wealthiest in India. They compensate this fact by giving back and supporting schools and communities with various projects. Visiting a temple on the way out, an old woman blessed us and helped us with an incense offering. The village and the gods are well looked after.

Back to Devigarh, we entered another dimension—simple, yet lofty luxury. In my room, a palace suite, a painting of a large lotus unfolded over the whole wall. The stunning countryside view was central to the bed rather than a television. The bathtub was full of rose petals, which I let lay. An aryavedic massage had left me with oils that I didn’t want to wash off.


Dinner was served in the "airy chamber;" a small room that extended from the wall of the fort with small open windows—candle-lit and cool. We ate thali and drank a glass of Indian Viognier. My friend Shoba and I discussed arranged marriages in India. What it was like to live in a large household with no privacy and the new wave of working women in India.

Our conversation was carried around the empty rooms of the Palace to the left and to the right, on the notes of water music—bowls of water with varying levels, played with sticks.

Getting into the kitchen the next morning, after a tasty mango lassi (yogurt drink) was a honor. Chef Manish Upadhyay was shy to show me a few of his favorite dishes, but we became fast friends. I marveled at his show of spices. He showed me a few south Indian dishes, with shrimp and coconut milk, but it was the makai pudina ki tikki (corn fritter) with mint and green chili sauce, that was my favorite. (I have made that dish several times now for friends and family. One restaurant owner wants it on his menu.)


We left reluctantly. Driving away, not half a kilometer, was a living scenario from 1,000 years ago. Women in typical Rajasthani red, orange and gold saree’s, were walking down the road with silver water jugs on their heads, headed towards a small well that was pumping water from oxen power. An old man sat on the back of small wooden-wheeled buggy driving them around and around, while an old water wheel scooped the water into strapped-on terracotta jugs and poured it into the hands of the villagers who were bathing and washing clothes. Bits of color bent and bobbed in the background. Women were gathered in the distance thrashing wheat.

Learn more about our 12-day culinary program in India

September 19, 2010

Culinary Travels in India: Udaipur and the Lake Palace Hotel

Udiapur is known as the city of Lakes.

The Lake Palace Hotel was conceived (in romance?) and built in 1746 by Marharana Jagat Singh II. It spreads across a four acre island, a complete vision of white marble.

Somewhat Venetian, the ground is not visible at all. It seems rather mythical and floating. One has to arrive by boat (anywhere one has to arrive by boat captures my attention) and I felt instantly transported into never-never land. Inside, royal butlers attended to my every need (even hooking up to modern day internet!). They stood with umbrellas as I waited for the boat under the Rajasthan heat. This was no Disney Land show. It is now exactly what it was several hundred years ago.

A turbaned flautist presided over the interior lily pond as I dined serenely alone, getting lost in the new flavors before me, my mind open and calm with a view to the lake.

Later, I visited the kitchen with awe. Here in this five-star hotel, they were cooking with wood fire. Not just in a deep tandoori oven, but in small painted terracotta ovens, that sat on the waist-high counter that housed the fire. Black terracotta cooking pots were settled over the bright coals. A flat stone girdled one of them, as a place to grill.

Fire is fire wherever you go, what is cooked is very similar. How it’s presented—who’s cooking it and to whom—are what distinguishes it. I asked the chef a few questions about his cooking, he said he was inspired by his grandmother. Cooking was just cooking to him, until it became noticed as a celebrated art as recent as the 70s.

I remember the presentation almost more than the food. I had eaten Indian food in America and England, but not in India. I realized that I was in a whole new realm of regional display. Palatial at that. It was easy to dream myself a Palace dweller. More than likely I would be in the kitchen, rather than wearing jewels in the Kings Court. But one never knows.

Raw mango puree with salt and mint.

Sarson Ke Phool: broccoli marinated in mustard paste and slow roasted sitting on crispy karum bread.

Soola Mung: Chicken marinated with chili and ground onion paste, salt, pepper, lemon juice, then grilled in a tandoori ovem.

Sangri: ongbeans, sliced and sauteed w/pickling spices mixed with dried fruit

Tnikri Dal: melange of three types of dal with garlic, ginger and chili's, cooked in an earthenware pot.

It was my first Indian meal presented on bone china. I was alone, and therefore, I was able to concentrate on these new flavors and indeed sink into their company. My own private concert with notes I had never tasted. Not only was I delighted, but intrigued. What was the genius that brought these spices together? Thousands of years of creativity and necessity. It was the greatest welcome. I did not feel alone at all.

After dinner, I was led through the City Palace, with it’s mirrored rooms and peacock mosaic archways. I started to get the picture of life in a place of this majesty and magnitude, impressed most by a swarm of bees that made a home on the side of a balcony.

No doubt royal bees.

Learn more about our 12-day culinary program in India

Culinary Travels in India: Delhi's Imperial Hotel

Mango Mimosa with Champagne

Arriving in Delhi for the first time is no small thing. India smacked me in the face. It’s everything at once. Chaos, a mixture of classes and faces with eyes deep as the ocean. In my younger years, I always thought I would end up in India as a backpacker, but au contraire. Instead, I was ushered by private attendant to private driver to one of India’s most elegant hotels: the Imperial.

My room was stately. I had my own personal butler, to my surprise. I thought it was invisible maid service, until I realized each room was assigned a private attendant. He hung my clothes, turned down the bed and generally looked after the room with care. I gave him what I thought was a generous tip, which delighted him, and me, until I noticed afterwards that I had given him the equivalent of a small fortune.

He seemed overly grateful for us "rich" Americans. If he only knew that some of us are just slow on the exchange after a fresh arrival. I quickly consoled myself in the courtyard with a Mango Mimosa. Yes the Indians drink Champagne.

I spent the next day foraging through the spice markets of old Delhi by rickshaw. An unbelievable array of colorful choices way beyond my normal repertoire, even after all these years of traveling to Morocco.

It was indeed like being in a foreign land of ingredients. I especially appreciated the bags of salt. They looked like huge sacks of crystal, pink, cloudy white, black. Yet, when I took a tool to it, the crystals broke easily in my hand. Rajasthan is famous for its black salt.

Eighty-six spices are grown in India and she controls 30% of the spice market. India exports $500,000,000 all over the world, "to provide tang and flavor to insipid foods." These spices often have antioxidant as well as medicinal properties. For example, have you ever heard of basil reducing the effects of radiation?

The history of the actual spice route and how it evolved is one of my favorite subjects. So this day at the market was a perfect introduction to my first day in India. As for my interest in cooking, this country was one of the last frontiers to be explored, with one of the oldest culinary traditions.

Read more about our 12-day culinary program in India.

September 6, 2010

Cooking with Fire: Outdoor, Open-pit cooking from around the world.

Baking bread in a Tashlhit bread oven. Tnine, Morocco

This labor day, have a cookout. Whether you are headed for the hills or staying at home, you can travel the open road camping and cooking around a cozy campfire or turn up the heat on your back yard grill. Or set up an outdoor kitchen and cook for 30 like Veronica of Meadowlark Farm Dinners.

Veronica of Meadowlark Farm Dinners

You might not realize you are globally connecting, not just with your ancestors, but with most countries outside of the western world in present day.

I love the portability of a makeshift kitchen. In Asia, India, Africa, for example, gas is still a luxury and electricity is still scarce in some parts. They can feed themselves as well as make a buck if they set up their kitchen in the marketplace or on the side of the road close to where they live. Some of the best food in the world is street food. I think in some ways it can be more hygienic, rather than some establishments where cleanliness and refrigeration are questionable. Street food is fresh everyday. You can eat cheap and well, using your discreet, intuitive eater-meter, of course.

Sardines grilling in the port. Essaouira, Morocco

Making a fire doesn’t mean you have to grill meat. In Laos, they heat a pot of water for noodle soup with fresh greens and sprouts. Some friends and I took an eight hour drive over the hills from Ventienne, the capitol, down to Luang Prabang, a world heritage site city with 70 temples. We passed dozens of Hmong villages on the way. Children had been out gathering fire wood with their mothers. They weren’t much taller than the sticks they were carrying, but were running around smiling. Their loads were not heavy. They looked like walking porcupines. Some children had babies on their backs and some had sticks. They were involved in the survival of daily life, which afforded them the appetite to sit and enjoy a meal cooked with wood they gathered themselves.

Village cooking in Lao

Most cooking vessels are earthen. Usually constructed in a mound, they have openings like an arch as the doorway, where they can build a fire and then cook what might be sitting on top of the mound, or something cooked inside. Bread and chapati’s are cooked this way, with the stretched out dough actually slapped on to the wall of the oven and them peeled off when golden.

Tannourt. Tnine, Morocco

In Morocco, they not only have earthen ovens, they also have the tagine. A conical shaped terra-cotta lid that sits on a flat terra cotta bottom. This ‘top and bottom’ sit on a base called a majmar, an unglazed brazier full of hot coals that cook the tagine slowly. In the markets, tagines are lined up with all the various styles; vegetarian, fish with potatoes, chicken with olives and lemon, or lamb with prunes, to name a few. This dish is a crowd pleaser with an intoxicating aroma.

me with yummy vegetable tagine

Now, everyone is crazy about wood-fired ovens for pizza. The Italians have perfected a good thing. Every farmhouse in Italy has it’s own oven. The fire is built in the center and when the top of the oven turns white, you scoot the coals over to the side and the small flames lick up the side and over the dome. You need a hot oven for pizza. It cooks in two minutes. As the fire dies down, you can put other things in there, like setting a grill in the middle and scooping up some of the coals to put underneath. You are now ready for grilling chicken, studded with garlic and rosemary, or a variety of vegetables.. You have to use long mits to check for doneness, or you might lose a few arm hairs! Most items can be tested for doneness with you nose and your eyes. No doubt it’s an art to how learn to gage the temperature of your oven. Italians test everything with their finger and see if it the meat bounces back just right. Have you ever noticed that about the time you smell the cake, it’s done?

Carla, la fochista~ La Cucina al Focolare

If you are unconfident with this measure, Mugnaini Imports, a wood-fired oven Import company out of California has the exclusive on the temperature gun. It can shoot a laser dot into the center of the oven and tell you exactly what temperature it is. If you wanted to bake cookies at 350F.. you can. If the temp starts to lower, you just throw in another piece of wood. I still vote for learning how to ‘feel’ if it’s done. Otherwise, we can’t tell how our own inner fire is cooking. Fire is transformation whether it’s making food more digestible, or whether we are trying to turn the temperature up on our own lives, living the way we want to live in our lives~ feeling alive. No doubt spiritual masters have developed their own laser dot, to check if we are ‘cooking’ hot enough. Those eyes penetrate right through as if to say..’ need more heat on your ego, you’re only at 375!’

Lori de Mori, with her hand built oven in Tuscany.

A person might ask, why should I cook like that or even want to, if I don’t have to. The answer is, you don’t have to. But if you are into cooking and using your imagination, you can entertain yourself, your palate and your friends with surprising them with something ‘unexpected and unusual.’ Wood fire gives a special flavor. It also gives a different energetic quality to the food. They say that cooking on fire is the most beneficial for building ones chi (life force) . It’s hot but mellow. In Oriental medicine five -element theory, the heart is the most active and joy is the emotion.

Working with an international theme is always fun, because you can build on it. You can stage an entire experience on a certain theme or blend the best of your progressive world with the influence and authenticity of other cultures. So, wherever you are, honor it’s patron saint. Light up your life with the fire element. It’s good for the heart!

September 2, 2010

The Land of Smiles, Revisited.

Thailand is the land of 'nice'. The people are, generally speaking, gentle, hard-working and hospitable, with hands folded in the traditional greeting, "sawadee ka"...hello, welcome and goodbye.

I have been to Thailand three times in my life. Once with my family when the children were little in 1988, and two other times, in 2001 and 2005. Lao was added to the latter trips. A new frontier, and a step back into tradition from Thailand's newfound hustle and bustle.

This is a travel log revisited for my friends at for their upcoming radio show in which yours truly will be interviewed about my experiences there. Sawadee...

Village gardens in Luang Probang, Laos

Along the Mekong + Monks at one of over 70 Buddhist Temples in Loang Probang.

Coconut shredder~Chang Mai, Thailand

A woman soaks shark fins to place between bamboo mats. She can sell them to restaurants at $25 a pop. She wouldn’t if she knew better. A coconut shredder shreds coconuts continuously. The first press offers cream, the second press, milk. No green curry worth it’s ‘milk’ would be made with anything other than fresh. The next stand is heaped with unidentifiable greens. Many are from the basil family- Holy and Hairy. They are bunched up near their root companions, ginger, galangal, lemongrass and shallot. Flat baskets of chilis add spice to the view, kafir limes and leaves give you a clue. Where am I? An outdoor market in Thailand. With tasty ingredients like these, I can see why they call it the ‘land of smiles.’

Village children, Laos + open field of white birds, Chaing Rai, Thailand

There are 5 components to a dish. Sweet, sour, salty, pungent (spicy), and bitter. They say if you eat all 5, your organs will be balanced and your senses too. Asian flavors zing and play merrily on the palate. They compliment each other well. What grows together, goes together, and the list is long. Flavors seemingly complex come from very few ingredients. It’s quick and dirty- or rather clean-most dishes come together in a matter of minutes. Chopping and pounding are the time factors here.

Into sudden summer, the cooler season was lost somewhere over the International dateline. I found it straightaway in Bangkok, in a refreshing spicy soup; Tom Yam Goong, with shrimp, lemongrass, ginger and kafir lime. Sour is the taste of Spring in Thailand and deliciously medicinal. I loved exploring the cuisine from the base of fresh ingredients first, not from the familiar dishes themselves. The key players quickly made themselves known. Numero uno: Lemongrass:

lemongrass + Thai 'mirepoix'

Whether finely chopped or left in pieces, lemongrass is king. It marinates fish, flavors broths, and it’s the backbone of green curry. The long grassy leaves are a stomach tonic and can make a pleasurable tea, cold or hot. Dress it up with honey or a little sugar syrup and it becomes a sophisticated beverage to sip in the day. Add vodka and lime juice and call it ‘Thai Noon’at night. A thick layered stalk, lemongrass grows long and tall. Just the word conjures up a soft breeze from the Orient. (Even in your home garden. I’ve heard you can just stick it in the ground and it grows. At least in Marrakech.)

I found the mixture of lemongrass, ginger or galangal, shallot and chili to be the ‘’mirepoix'' of Thai cuisine. These base notes form the body of a dish, just like the holy trinity of carrot, onion and celery.

Fish sauce ( a slow sun-baked elixer that drips from dried anchovies) is used for salt (make sure it’s at least 60%), and balances lime juice and stock (chicken or fish) gives it all a home. A touch of palm sugar balances certain dishes with a deep note that doesn’t say ‘sweet’. It says ‘peace’~ lets get together and create harmony. It can also mellow an over-the-top spiciness, so that chili doesn’t dominate, but delights. Coriander root, seeds, and leaves, scallions, garlic, mint and tamarind take the dishes in various directions depending on where they are going. It’ all makes sense once you start cooking. Kind of like life.

Robert Graham eating noodles + Lao woman showing us 'sticky rice'

Noodle pots are common on the street. It is often the cheapest and healthiest way to eat. Thai people will use chopsticks with noodles, but prefer the fork and spoon for rice and accompanying dishes. Rice is a long discourse. But on the short, they eat more glutinous ‘sticky’ rice in the north, black, red, white, and mostly steamed white in the south. Older rice is preferable over new, as they feel it has more flavor and depth.

ping pong eggplant + durian fruit

Various forms of eggplant play an important role. The tiny pea eggplant, cute, crunchy and bitter, are used most often in a green curry with chicken. Ping pong eggplant, quick to cook, is sliced and added to various dishes and soups.

Thai basil, hot basil, and sweet basil are hardly anything like we know basil to be, but nevertheless a superhero. Pea vines and morning glory vines are actually a delicacy, sautéed with garlic and oyster sauce. Look for them at your local farmer’s market. Most likely you will find a Hmong woman who has them along with her homemade chili paste, zucchini flowers and other exotic greens, such as amaranth.

Greens, greens, and more greens..Luang Probang, Laos

These rather exotic flavors reflect an exotic land. Thailand was never colonized and has the longest ruling Monarch. King King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) has ruled Thailand in a democracy since 1946. He is now 83 years old. The Royal family is well loved and highly respected. Worries abound that his passing could be the death of democracy in Thailand.

The elephant is the symbol of Thailand and a sign of strength and good luck (when the trunk is turned up). Elephant symbols are everywhere, which didn’t surprise me, but when I sat down for a 3 dollar foot massage one evening on the streets of Chang Mai, I didn’t expect to see one’s snout sniffing around me catching me unawares. A ‘mahout’ (elephant trainer) who had been quietly walking behind me (is there an elephant in the room?) shoved sugar cane into my hand. ‘Feed my elephant, feed my elephant, she’s hungry! ‘ One by one I fed a very agile and nibbly snout a midnight snack, to which she promptly pooed and peed large amounts right in front of the ‘Heaven Hut’. 50 cents went his way and I had a special moment right there, eye to eye with the elephant on the street and so did she. I considered it a good omen.

A longboat trip up the Mekong the next day took us to Chang Rai to a jungle retreat, complete with an elephant camp. We were able to spend more time with elephants and their babies, feeding the mothers green bananas. I learned that the previous evening’s entertainment was actually a common problem. Now that the logging industry using elephants has been banned, Mahouts are desperate to keep their elephants fed and working, so they hit the streets. At the Elephant Camp, they are developing a program where Mahouts can actually come and be with their elephants instead of selling them to invest in more--- keeping mahouts and elephants off the street. I had no idea I was supporting abuse, as to find an elephant on the street was no more surprising than anything else I had encountered. I was appreciative of the lesson and now plan to donate in honor of their well-being.

Elephant and illegally on the street (caught unawares!)

There is radical change from my first visit 20 years ago when my own children were 4 and 8. Old Bangkok is hidden in amongst the lower level high rises and the night bazaars are full of cheap nothings. I no longer saw street carts of deep fried beetles and tarantula. A tuk tuk, (three wheeled motorcyle taxi) is more expensive than a taxi and a nights stay in a good hotel could dip seriously into a college fund. The floating market, one of Bangkok’s best, is more like a floating 7-11. People in the outlying areas seem to be more interested in goods, rather than fresh food. I made an assumption that this had to do with the addition of unsightly satellite dishes.

Tuk Tuk-ing around Bangkok

One tradition remains firm and that is giving alms. Up at dawn one morning in Luang Probang, in the neighboring country of Laos, a group of us gathered our sticky rice baskets and waited for the monks to proceed. The longest practicing monk is first in his monastery, not the oldest, and it follows down to the youngest novice. Silently they approach in single file, their alms buckets slung across their shoulders. There are no words, only the sound of the lid at it slides off the bucket, as they go one by one, making room for a pinch of rice. The long road lined with devoted alms givers, fills their buckets full. They do not grasp, they do not beg. The act of kindness and the opportunity to offer a gesture of generosity fills our own soul bowl as the saffron procession fades into the distance.
Cooking over fire with sticks gathered by these 'stick children'. Hmong village.

In an ever-changing world, finding what still remains to be true is getting harder to locate. Going straight to the market is the best place to start. No where is a country’s identity stronger than what they choose to eat. They choose what grows around them and what grows depends on their climate and location. How this diversity came about is nothing short of astonishing.

Protecting a culture from losing it’s traditions is the very solution to a sustainable future. For them and for us. Sticking with our true nature; one of kindness and generosity, and living with what comes natural, will keep us in the flow of nature. Respecting simple ways and values will give us sane tools for living in a modern world and strength to face the changes.

The art of food garnishing. Bangkok.