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SPICES 101

Written on: Sunday March 16th, 2008

A journal entry from: ASIA PART II

Udaipur, South Rajasthan

Dream Heaven Guesthouse

Masala Chai

2 1/2 cups Water
1/2 tsp Tea Masala
1 1/2 tsp Tea
2 1/2 tsp Sugar
2 1/2 cups Milk

Bring water to a small boil. Add masala spice and tea to water. Bring mixture to boil then add sugar and milk. Cook for 5-6min. Drain and serve.

The above preparation delivers an aromatic, pleasant tasting, milky tea. With enough sugar to satisfy any sweet tooth, it is chai that runs through the blood of Indians. Irrespective of time, from every corner to corner and whether it be on bus, boat and train, the chai vendor can be found, without a doubt, throughout the whole of India. There is a familiar tone being bellowed and a rhythmic sound of an uncut fingernail striking plastic that identifies the vendor with a pot of steamy chai is on his way. Ranging from less than five rupees a cup, it is an insignificant amount of change well spent and an addiction I will confess to.

The reserving and purchasing of train tickets almost always proves to be a struggle, eventually the traveller becomes familiar with the booking process, and for the majority, train travel becomes the better option for overland hauls as one journeys through the subcontinent. The process typically involves a series of steps in determining the correct train that will get you to your destination. Upon determining this and the appropriate date of travel, one will have to fight his/her way through the mess of a queue to establish availability of seating with a disgruntled ticket agent. A successful booking is considered to have been made if a) you survived the crush of the pandemonium in the contrived Indian queue b) the ticket agent was not on break or at lunch upon arriving at the counter and/or c) you were not directed to another ticket counter so one can fight their way up to the front again.

And so, Samantha and I left the Dhamma Giri in Igatpuri and jumped on the suburban line back to Mumbai. We went from one train station to the next and after a bitter battle in line and with the ticket agent we emerged empty-handed. Being reservationless placed us in general class with wooden plank benches for the 18 hours of train travel ahead. Alas, after one too many deep-fried pakoras and the numerous cups of chai later, Samantha and I arrived at our first stop in Rajasthan, the fairy-tale city of Udaipur. The guidebook (yes, I will also confess to owning one) describes Rajasthan as Land of the Kings, an enchanting state once ruled by the Rajput princes. The Rajputs, made up of warrior clans and feudal lords, dominated Rajasthan for centuries, their majestic legacy left behind for us to discover. It may be the tranquil Lake Pichola or the magnificent, twinkling palaces of this shimmering city that make it the storybook place that it appears to be, but whatever it is - it was love at first sight and the fairy-tale one can only dream of.

I was lucky to be staying at Dream Heaven guesthouse across the lake on Hanuman Ghat. There were many roof-top restaurants/guesthouses to choose from, but this one stood out among the rest. An intricate maze of stairs brings you to the delightful rooftop restaurant and our room which hovered just above the roof terrace. The large, lavish room was a definite splurge, but it had pretty, stained-glass windows and a balcony with unparalleled views of the lake.

We hired Billu and his autorickshaw to motor around town and take in the sights, from the Maharaja cenotaphs and Jain marble temples to grand palaces and their museums, it was a jam-packed afternoon of sightseeing and by the end of the day, Billu had pleasantly exceeded our expectations. We spent another evening with Vijay, our cooking instructor, as we sated our bellies and worked on our culinary skills. After a comprehensive breakdown of Indian spices, we prepared a delicious meal of traditional dishes and flavorful curries. We prepared old favorites such as palak paneer (spinach and curd cheese) and mixed vegetable curry and learned of new dishes such as khichdi rice and bason gutta, but our lesson wasn't complete until we savored sweet halwa for dessert and sipped on our homemade chai.

I met charming locals and was even fortunate to be invited to a wedding celebration. There was a sumptuous all-you-can-eat feast and an awkward gift exchange and photo snap between Sanju, myself and the newly introduced-newly weds. Instantly, I became the odd person out, but I felt wonderful in my brand-new kurta jacket and golden slacks exclusively tailored from rich brocade silk. I found a pair of Punjabi slippers to match my contemporary Indian outfit and completed the look with a traditional forehead bindi. It was an eat-and-run affair, but the experience was priceless.

We took a day trip the following day to visit the temples of Eklingji, a marble complex made up of 108 live temples. The main spectacle was the four-faced image of Lord Shiva (Mahadev) built entirely of black marble and housed in a temple made of pure silver. We arrived just in time to witness Aarti occur, an elaborate Hindu ritual performed towards a deity. Prior to the Aarti ceremony, temple priests prepare the Mahadev by bathing, feeding and adorning the idol with it's puja offerings. It was a moving experience to see and feel such devotion.

This city breathes beauty, from it's natural scenery and glorious palaces, through the labyrinth of narrow streets and along the riverbanks, it's no wonder Udaipur has fallen into my list of favorites.