It may go by the name of the Pink City, but really the colours of Jaipur are amber, burnished red and deep ochre. Locals laugh now at the silliness of painting the city pink in 1876 in honour of the visit of Prince Albert, but they cherish the romance that the moniker bestows. Intricately detailed merchants’ houses are adorned with cupolas and trabeated arches and crenellated walls decorated with filigrees. Step under those in Chandpole Bazar and you’ll find spice and vegetable sellers vending wares that speak of this city’s history as a seat of Rajasthani princes, of a royal cuisine.
Though it’s the country’s 10th largest city, Jaipur is less frenetic than many of its Indian counterparts. There are still auto rickshaws and car horns, thronging markets and beggars, but there’s also a calmer ambience that comes with its present day still being deeply caught up in its past. When this old centre was built (construction started in 1727), the roads were 108ft wide and drafted onto a grid system, and its buildings could be no higher than 54ft — half the width of the road — so that each person had equal access to sunlight.
These Rajput rulers, descended from Mughal invaders, preferred a different kind of cooking than seen elsewhere in India, not least because they liked to eat meat (many Indians are vegetarian). Intense heat and a paucity of fresh vegetables dictate the plates here, and they embrace North Indian dishes such as korma (mild curry) and rogan (aromatic lamb) and nihari gosh (slow-cooked meat stew).
I’m invited for a cooking lesson at Sankotra Haveli, one of the oldest city centre palaces and private residence for more than 270 years. In spite of being just off Johari Bazaar, thick limestone walls render it peaceful inside and clever internal terraces and courtyards allow air to flow. Ratna and Damynti teach me to make goat meat kebabs, a Rajasthani chicken dish with spices, coconut and curd, and a paneer cheese and tomato masala. Bharati Singh, who married into the family but is also Rajputi, tells me, “What we eat in hotels and what we eat in the home are totally different.”
At Samode Haveli, another elaborate house that’s now a boutique hotel, executive chef Rajeev Sharma is making jungli maas (or lal maas, both meaning red meat). He slow-cooks chicken in ghee in a brass handi (pot) and is using whole Rajasthani chillis and little else but garlic, cumin and bouquet garni. “I’m using the old Indian method, I don’t believe in using the oven. I use an atta (flour) dough ring to seal the pot and lid and this works like a pressure cooker,” he says. “You don’t add anything now and this meat will speak its own language. Having too many spices, you don’t get the flavour of the particular dish. It should have a distinct taste to it.”
Namkeen — crunchy, savoury snacks — are an addiction in Jaipur and I join the arms-jostling queue at Rawat Mishtan Bhandar to wait for kachori, a deep-fried flaky pastry filled with spiced moong dal (mung beans), or pyaaz (onion). Glass cabinets are stacked with dozens of different kinds, as well as fat, pastel-coloured confectionery — as much of a treasure in Jaipur as its famous jewellery, no doubt because the maharajas and their court had particularly sweet teeth.
At a streetside lassiwalla — there are several clustered together but the best is number 312 (Kishanlal Govind Narayan Agarwal) — I clutch a cool, clay cup filled with a sweet, yoghurt drink that Rajasthanis believe abates sunstroke.
Lakshmi Misthan Bhandar, known as LMB, is another sweet and namkeen emporium (that’s part of a hotel complex), but I’ve come here for the Rajasthani Royal Thaal, billed a ‘unique lifetime experience’. It begins with a thin, peppery papad mangori soup. A thaal (a large silver platter) is filled with small dishes, both sweet and savoury, with little dumplings as well as dal (lentils), vegetables, raita and roti bread followed by mishri mawa, a thickened milk dessert.
The history of Rajasthan is, of course, made manifest in its architecture. My Jaipur base at Samode allows me to visit Amber (also known as Amer) Fort, the majestic hill-top palace and stronghold that was home to the Rajput maharajas until they moved to the newly-built city. A museum is now housed in the City Palace, but it still hosts Maharaja Padmanabh Singh (at school in England) on his visits home.
The opulent lifestyle of the region’s princes and princesses before the reformation and independence of India was truly astonishing. Sitting sipping a cocktail on the terrace of the Rambagh Palace Hotel, watching peacocks strut on the lawn, one can only imagine what it was like to be part of the retinue (or even a servant) of the last fully-fledged maharaja of Jaipur, Sawai Man Singh II, and his cosmopolitan princess Maharani Gayatri Devi.
These days their salubrious family home is a hotel, a slightly more egalitarian aid to indulging royalty fantasies, and the region’s cuisine helps make that reverie taste just a little more real.
How to do it: TransIndus offers nine nights from £2,250 per person, twin-share, in standard-grade hotels, or from £2,950 per person, twin-share, in deluxe hotels. The price includes international economy flights, breakfast, all internal travel, transfers and English-speaking guides.
Read more of the India cover story in the December 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)