Udaipur, India. You know how it is. You build your nice new palace on the lovely quiet lake and the next thing you know, every uncle and cousin and his brother has to have one too. Pretty soon there’s barely any lakeside property left, and then two show-offs from a side of the family you barely knew existed, let alone acknowledged, decided to build their palaces in the lake, so that you have to look at these monstrosities every time you try to admire the view.
I’m not saying that’s how it happened, but as we took a boat ride on the lake today, I did have to wonder.
The original Maharana Singh flooded a village to create Lake Pichola, which is gorgeous now but actually dries up completely during severe droughts. The City Palace complex, which we toured yesterday, is the starting point of the tour, and was of course the royal family home.
But everyone needs a getaway. We stopped for a long tea break at Jag Mandir, a palace built on an island in the lake, also called the “Lake Garden Palace.” Begun in 1620, the royal family used the palace as a summer resort and pleasure palace for holding parties. (The City Palace just didn’t have enough space.) This is now a luxury hotel with just seven rooms, and lots of staff tending lovely gardens and grounds.
This must be a lovely place to stay as it has spectacular views of all the neighbors, and its own glorious setting.
And then there is the Taj Lake Palace, the icon of Udaipur. Evidently the stuff of fairy tales, it is the centerpiece of the lake. Nice to know what you could have for about $1,000 a night, with a view of the lake. But that does include free Wi-Fi.
It was a lovely day and a lovely boat ride. India seems like an idyllic land of palaces and jasmine and marble, from what we saw.
Don’s Food Corner
After leaving the Palace grounds, I was determined to track down a highly rated palace hotel named Jagat Niwas that we were unable to book because it was already fully occupied as of five months ago. (This is a major holiday week.) I thought that at least we would have lunch there and see if, as the guidebooks claim, to have the best views of the lake and all its palaces at a fraction of the cost.
Finding the place was no easy matter. We kept asking directions, even though I knew that it was very close to the big palace, and we were gestured down various twisting lanes of what some people might describe as a slum. At the very least, the contrast between the palaces we just had viewed and the living conditions of the people in these lanes just a few steps away was astonishing. But that’s the impression you get everywhere in India. Finally, we were directed to an arched doorway that led into an incredibly ornate and immaculately maintained palace/hotel with, as promised, a spectacular rooftop restaurant with fantastic views of everything. It helped that the weather was perfect. A gentle breeze coming off of the lake.
I could have been served crumpled paper with Elmer’s glue spread on it and would have been happy eating in that atmosphere.
Keeping with my regional cuisine commitment, I ordered what is supposed to be one of the great lamb curry dishes of Udaipur and environs, laal maas. I was most interested to see how this lamb dish differed from the more famous — at least in Indian restaurants in the U.S. and the U.K. — rogan josh. There are differences, but they seemed subtle, at least as served in this restaurant.
The origins of the two variations have something to do with the differences. For the dish I tasted today, the laal maas, was originally created for the royals to prepare the game they had killed during hunts. In other words, the original recipe was trying to hide the gaminess of the meat. This was done, in part, by making it really spicy and by baking it in a manner that made it taste smokey and, hopefully, tenderized it. Today, however, it’s made with lamb. And at this restaurant it turned out not to be as fiery as I expected. Also, compared to rogan josh, which has a Mughal ancestry and seems to have a much thicker sauce than the laal maas I had today, there didn’t seem to be any yogurt as part of the ingredients. Put side by side in a taste test, I think that I could determine the difference between the two. But if served one or the other and told it was either, I’m not sure I could challenge the chef and claim I was served a fraud. And, even without the beautiful surroundings, this lunch easily beat crumpled paper and Elmer’s glue.
Jo, hoping for a familiar and comforting meal to try as she is still recovering, ordered what was billed as spaghetti with basil pesto.
Predictably, it was disappointing. It was kind of Italian as interpreted via someone mostly trained in the fine points of making sambar. They might have even been able to sneak in a few curry leaves and spices unseen in Italy. They can’t help themselves. If it doesn’t have spices (or curry leaves), it must seem naked to them.
Didn’t matter. It was a lovely day.