Every time I get to Jaipur, I count down to the meals! Well, to be honest with you – wherever I travel, I look forward to the food! I know of some people (yes, they exist) who don’t really have much regard for food. Statements like – ‘food is what I need to keep going, that’s it!’ have caused my facial expressions to take a drastic turn, almost as if I’ll snarl, but better sense has prevailed on most of these occasions!

I was recently in Jaipur for JLF (as it was their 10th edition) and took a bright and adventurous bunch of students from O.P. Jindal Global University for a 10 day class in Jaipur, Ajmer and Pushkar. Experiential learning is the need of the hour, and to have spent time with these students has been an absolute eye-opener, as much for them as it was for me. To think freely, to write creatively and to explore without boundaries was the theme that I had set before we embarked upon this journey. Sadly, we didn’t have time to eat in Ajmer, I have memories of visiting Mayo College years ago, and I was pretty gutted about that. There’s incredible Mughlai fare available in the old town – some of the best keema/kaleji, nihari and aloo gosht, to name a few dishes on offer. This time around the students and I had to be content with an absolute delightful visit to the Dargah with the Chishty Foundation. Their love, warmth and hospitality are things I will hold close to for years to come. My conversations with Syed Salman Chishty Saab and Syed Aman Chishty Saab have only just begun! And, we ended our half day visit to Ajmer with cups of steaming chai in the library of the Dargah. As we sat on carpets and shared stories with one another, I realized that we were on a unique journey.

Pushkar has its own charm. I recall my first visit many moons ago, as a teenager, wandering around the sleepy touristy town. Not much has changed – there are more tourists here than most parts of the country, menu cards are written in French, Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic, Russian and even English! And, foreign exchange is accepted in almost every second store! Pushkar is what very few other Indian towns can even think of being – incredibly liberal for one. We made our way to Pink Floyd Café. Not much has changed! Terrible service, decent food and breathtaking views! We pretty much took up the entire terrace and waited for hours before our food arrived – but by then we were ravenous and ended up eating everything in the space of seconds. There was one man running the entire show. Much like Basil from Faulty Towers! The Pushkar experience for the class wasn’t going to be complete without a long stroll through the market and a quick stop to the Brahma Temple. We had been to different places of worship on the same afternoon and the students were exposed to culture, faith and a sense of belonging. As I later read their essays, I could tell how this day had impacted them.

What’s up Jaipur?

After having traveled far and wide, I must confess that the best meals are found in the homes of locals. It doesn’t take rocket science to figure that out! And, as with every trip to Jaipur – a feast at Devyani and Shaan Bhatnagar’s house is a must for me. The best Junglee Maas that I have had or I will ever have. Years ago, when I first met them, I had never thought how close we would get – and, food played a role in that! I refuse to board my flight/train till I am not given my share of meat doused in ghee and red chilies. When I hear people describe Junglee Maas it sounds so simple to make but let me assure you, it’s far more complicated than what meets the eye!

If you’re attending JLF in the month of January, your culinary extravaganza begins in one place and one place alone – at the residence of the Kapur’s! Mita ji’s warm invite reaches us way before we begin packing our bags for JLF and the warmth and love with which she feeds us is indescribable! The Rajasthani fare is absolutely top draw and the evening is one of mirth, conversation and seeing friends (old and new)! I love how the menu is planned meticulously and the attention to detail is marvelous. I’m usually next to the Laal Maas counter befriending the server!

My recommendations for Jaipur:

Handi: I met Kunal and Apra on a lazy afternoon away from the thousands at the lit fest. MI road seemed so much quieter! I made my way to this well-known establishment with the hope of a gastronomical adventure! And, boy were we pleased by the end of it! I had eaten at Handi a few times before and have had the most wonderful experience every single time I was there. But, this time around – I wanted to eat with the family that runs and owns the restaurant and hear directly from them – what makes their restaurant tick? Jaipur being tourist central, new spaces opening up every other day, how do they manage to keep expectations in check? I’m a foodie and I always worry that I’ll walk into one of my favorite restaurants and walk out feeling disappointed and letdown. So, what’s the trick? After having spent the afternoon with them, it was obvious that they’re completely hands-on with their restaurant. From kitchen staff to service, they look into every aspect of Handi. Kunal spoke to me about a tasting session that is conducted daily – to make sure the curries are accurate and that they don’t taste similar to another item on the menu. And over our 2 hour conversation, I found out about his love for cricket and his aspirations to play for India. Somewhere along the way he chose to give it up (made one Ranji Trophy appearance) and focus on the family business that revolves around hospitality. I can see the precision, the thinking and the ability to make quick decisions, much like a batsman, in Kunal. I was given a free hand to choose anything on the menu but left it to my hosts. And, disappointed I was not! The mutton seekh, keema baati, laal maas, bajre ki roti and the butter chicken was on point. I have a confession – I don’t like butter chicken. But, here the chicken was grilled in the tandoor and then broken into smaller chunks, the gravy wasn’t sweet and it went perfectly well with the hot roomali rotis. Apra and I spoke about the arts in Jaipur and she’s doing an incredible job in her own space. It’s wonderful to connect with likeminded people and see that food isn’t just a business – there’s SO much more to it. Next time in Jaipur – Handi should be on your list!

Meraaki Kitchen: Completely by chance, I walked into the pop-up by Meraaki Kitchen at the Lit Fest this year. It seemed cool, it seemed chic and it smelt good. For me, as I write on food, I trust smell over how a dish is presented, smell over vision (till the taste buds take over). And, the place was packed. Good signs for what seemed like a fusion restaurant. I made my way to the furthermost table and waited to order. What caught my eye on the menu was – Wasabi golgapas, Khow Suey and the Parle G biscuit with a mix of chai ice-cream sandwiched in between! Genius!

I met with Shivika and Neha, the two women behind Jaipur’s latest game-changer at their INCREDIBLE new restaurant location. It’s massive! I could invite my entire friends circle for a get together and there would still be enough space to play basketball. And, what I really loved about the interiors is how well it’s been put together. Each part of their restaurant has its own story, own décor and own vibe.

Neha was on Masterchef India and did extremely well – I haven’t seen the show but those who watched it spoke of her belief and passion to become a chef. By training Neha is a scientist and studied engineering at the undergraduate level. Yes, Sir! You heard that right! But, her love for food and wanting to feed us hungry folk made her quit her job in Mumbai and move to Jaipur to work with her cousin Shivika. Neha’s the one in the kitchen, working her magic and creating dishes that I have no doubt will become household names in Jaipur!

Shivika has spent her life in two cities, both of which are a foodie’s delight – Hong Kong and Boston. I spent a fair bit of time chatting with her so as to understand her decision to move to Jaipur and to do something of this magnitude. She’s the kind of girl who thrives to succeed and works day and night to make things happen! You just get that vibe from her – a complete go-getter. And, I sense she plays a huge role in designing the space and making everything come together. I meet a lot of people in the hospitality sector and there are but a few you can keep talking to – Shivika is one of those! I hope to see her again and pick up from where we left off – I think it was my love for wasabi golgappas that took me away from the conversation!

Meraaki Kitchen opens their doors soon and you must hit it up, folk of Jaipur! Try the Tornado Fries, Khow Suey, Wasabi golgappas (my favorite, I could have 20 easily!) and the Hong Kong Waffles! Thank me later! I have great expectations from Meraaki Kitchen – here’s to new beginnings!

See you soon Jaipur! I’m coming back for more!