The lure of the familiar

Jodhpur, India. Yesterday we left our wonderful desert palace and took a six-hour train ride to Jodhpur. Luckily, our train left Jaisalmer at 4:45PM, as promised, and arrived at our destination exactly on time, at 10:45 in the evening.

We had a first-class compartment with a/c, of which there are very few. Two berths, up and down, down, across from each other. Smaller luggage went under our seat; legs went over the big bag. Would we be alone for six hours and be able to spread out, or have company?

The answer came quickly as a seeming battalion of army men started bringing in luggage for one man dressed as a civilian. Much hubbub ensued, but finally all was cleverly tucked away, to our applause. The man laughingly credited “Indian Army!”

So we had a companion, and a delightful companion he was. We had the opportunity to meet an Indian Army officer who was on his way to spend a year in the Congo on a UN peace-keeping force. Boy, was I impressed.

Anupam was so interested in our travels and our views of India. He and I talked for hours about what we have seen, what we would do if we each ruled the world, I gave him advice on his love life, and admired pictures of his lady, and encouraged him to take in leadership role in overturning the old marriage customs that keep him from marrying him below his Brahmin status.

Yes, we definitely lived a wonderful fantasy life for several hours. Good luck to you, Anupam, in the Congo!

When we arrived at the Jodhpur station, it was packed with people and as noisy as Grand Central. The difference was that most people at Grand Central are not carrying huge sacks of god-knows-what on their heads, which all seem to be extremely heavy.

We were abducted by a porter who somehow easily swung our 55-pound suitcase on top of his head and then picked up our other three bags. I was running so hard to keep up with him that I never got a picture of that amazing sight. The guy couldn’t have weighted 110 pounds soaking wet.

Our hotel in Jodhpur is a Radisson, which seems like a cheat, and which we expected to be very Americanized. The joke is on us! This hotel is very proud to be 100% vegetarian, verging on vegan – as in no eggs for breakfast. While it is gorgeous and very comfortable, no one would ever accuse it of being overly American.

Don’s Food Corner

Keeping with my vow to try as many regional dishes as possible as we travel throughout radically different areas and cuisines of India, I tried what seems to be the ultimate desert meal while we were still in Jaisalmer. This meal had to be ordered 24 hours in advance, so I was expecting something very grand. Grand it was not, but it certainly reflected ingenious ways of dealing with the challenges of desert eating.

Called dal baati churma, the meal consists of three separate dishes. The central feature is the baati. These are whole-wheat slightly flattened bread balls that are baked to an almost hardtack density. Obviously, these hardened bread balls can be transported for long periods of time without spoiling. Sometimes the bread balls are filled with potato or some other vegetable. The ones I had were solid — and I mean solid — wheat flour.

The dal part of the meal was a soupy dal (lentil) curry with some unidentified vegetables in there (from the desert?) and highly spiced. The way it’s eaten, as I was instructed by the chef and the wait staff who stared at me eating this with looks of anticipation on their faces, is to slightly break up the hard baati and then pour a little bit of ghee on top and then a great portion of the dal on top of that. The wet ingredients softens the baati so that you can actually chew it. Ghee is an important ingredient for the desert as it is throughout India. It is clarified butter, which never spoils no matter how hot it gets or how long you keep it because all the milk solids have been boiled away. Easily transported.

I’d say that this dish was born out of necessity and not because it’s a taste revelation, although from the look of the guys watching me eat it I think they thought once I tried it that I would see the comforting magic that they see. But they grew up with it and it’s part of their culture. Me? I’d have a childhood memory thrill from an Oscar Mayer hot dog in a fluffy Wonder Bread roll. Cleveland was a desert, but only culturally.

The churma part of the meal was the dessert. Here, another practical way to transport something that could be considered a treat, is a dry crumble of wheat, probably made by breaking up the baati into dust, that is baked with ghee and jaggery, an unrefined concentration of pure cane juice that is boiled down until it becomes a hard block. Then, when needed, chunks are scraped off and used in a variety of ways, like making a syrup or tossed into a mixture like churma. The dish looked like the desert sand, a.k.a, dirt, but when you scoop some into your mouth it kind of explodes and melts quickly in a surprising manner. Not gritty at all.

I thought that I wouldn’t see this dish after we left Jaisalmer, but it was on the menu today in Jodhpur. We’re still in the desert.

Today I went with something less regional — tawa paneer masala. This is the Indian cheese paneer marinated with spices and cooked in an onion and tomato gravy. I had it with rice and the Panjabi flatbread made with chickpea flour called misi roti. Whenever I order a bread other than the standard western favorite naan, I always get a nod of approval from the waiter and all of the other staff who always seem to be watching everything we do. The dish was fine and just as I expected from having it elsewhere.

Jo had a bowl of sweet corn soup and a sandwich of cheese, tomato and cucumber. They said that it came with mayonnaise, but since this is a completely vegetarian hotel, I’m not sure there was any egg product in that mayonnaise, but she didn’t question it too closely.

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