Tasting India with Taj Hotels
I never expected eating my way through India to include a touch of time travel. But sure enough, I found myself transported back to a golden age of sumptuous living, and dining,
on a recent visit to two of Taj Hotels Resorts and Palace’s (www.tajhotels.com) southern resorts. Taj Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad is one of the newest resorts opened by Taj, and has been helmed as the jewel in their crown. The historic palace, once home to the lavish Nizams of Hyderabad, underwent a 10-year restoration and reemerged as a truly over-the-top, indulgent luxury retreat.
Upon my arrival I was met at the gate by a horse and buggy, the driver decked out in traditional garb from the 19th century. As I climbed the gleaming marble staircase to the front entrance of the palace, a shower of delicate pink flower petals lilted from above, creating a soft carpet for my very regal debut. Wandering through the rooms and over the intricately manicured grounds I felt like I was discovering my own private palace – a secret all my own. Each room is decorated true to the time of the palace’s glory days. The lawns and courtyards are perfumed with jasmine and incense. Peacocks roam freely while a flute player, tucked in a discreet corner, decorates the air with soft music. It’s surreal.
But above all, the real blur for the senses is the private dining experience that the hotel crafts. I found my way to one of the two courtyards on the palace grounds that overlooks the lights of Hyderabad. The resort is perched atop a 2,000-foot cliff, hovering high above the city. At night the lights radiate from below with an ethereal glow. In the center of the courtyard, a delicate table was set, with fine crystal, white linen and china. There was a whispering scent of jasmine emanating from the flower garlands that were draped from the frangipani trees. Soft jazz music from the 1930s plays with the familiar scratches and pops of a phonograph.
The chef can customise a six-course tasting menu to showcase the bold flavours of traditional Hyderabadi cuisine. Hyderabadi cuisine is a fusion of Mughlai, Turkish and Arabic flavours and is centered around rice and meat. Accents of coconut, tamarind, peanuts and sesame seeds exotically enliven the flavours. The most famous Hyderabadi dish is Biryani, and the Nizams of Hyderabad were known to serve their guests nearly 26 varieties to their guests.
Biryani traditionally is a celebration meal of tender meat cooked with rice. Often saffron is soaked and mixed with the rice, making the dish pop with color. A spicy lamb curry with peanuts, sesame and dried coconut tickles the taste buds, which can then be quickly cooled with churro, a thick yogurt raita with chopped onions, green chillies and coriander. For the truly adventurous eater, sink your teeth into Maghaz Masala, a goat’s brain deep fried, and a true local delicacy. And, of course, no Hyderabadi meal is complete without the selection of rotis, naan, tangy chutneys and spicy pickles.
Before I could trade in my passport and get lost in another century forever, it was time to make my way to the jungled coffee plantations of Coorg, in the southwest of the country. A six hour journey out of Bangalore, along the backroads of inner Karnataka, the state of Coorg, I wound my way up into the coffee mountains, carefully blanketed with lush, green trees and an ever-present layer of mist. Here I checked into Vivanta by Taj, Madikeri, which is reminiscent of a lifestyle, boutique resort tucked away into the mountains.
The resort’s design is entirely taken from the surrounding environment and evokes a feel of modern elegance, with chunky woods and clay roofs, contrasted against stark whites and clean lines. Sixty-two villas pepper the winding paths along the hillside of the resort. Come to Vivanta by Taj Hotels for the views, and stay for the food. Executive Chef Easo Johnson has had a long standing career cooking in kitchens across India, Dubai and Yemen. He gladly welcomed me into his kitchen one afternoon to teach me the secrets in southern Indian Thali. Under his guidance we worked together to create a typical Coorgi feast highlighting the five key ingredients in Coorg cooking: Kachampuli, pepper, bird chillies, rice flour and coconut.
Unlike many places in India, there is very little limitation on what Coorgis can eat. Most meats are perfectly acceptable to eat, including meat and pork. In fact, panda curry, or pork curry, is one of the local staples. Chef Johnson cooked the fatty cubes of pork with garlic, green chilies, curry leaves, onions, red chili powder and turmeric until the meat was tender and bubbling with delicious juices. Once the pork was sizzling and filling the kitchen with its succulent aroma, we tossed in coriander seeds, cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns, cumin and mustard seeds, letting the meat cook on a slow heat so that the spices could soak themselves into the pork.
After my private lesson in the kitchen, I retired to the terrace to look out over the coffee plantations and sip a cold Kingfisher beer. While I waited for the pork to finish, I whet my appetite with a selection of classic chutneys, made from coconut, ginger seeds, horse gram and jack fruit seeds. These chutneys pair wonderfully with Akki Otti. Pickles also accompany most meals in Coorg. These are traditionally marinated with spices and salt brine. The common pickles are lime and mango, but Coorgis make pickles using pork, fish, mushrooms, bamboo, plums and goose berries.
Belly brimming with succulent and delicious flavors, I knew I had found my own little slice of heaven. Knowing full well that the magic had to end sometime, I let myself sit back, close my eyes and enjoy my bliss for just a little while longer. Visit Taj Hotels for an incredible experience
Courtesy of Gabrielle Arnone