Soul food

Eat like a God in Varanasi

 

If Chef Vivek Singh suggests that you try an experience… do it!

When I asked him what I should do on a trip to India, he replied: “Go to Varanasi; eat at the Nadesar Palace.”

He told me I’d never forget these experiences.

I won’t.

 

Is it just me, or does almost everything in India come back to food? I’m looking at the evening sky in Varanasi, and the setting sun looks so much like a piece of tropical fruit that I want to grab and eat it.

Four of us are standing on an elegant, stone-flagged patio, drinking tea. We’re sipping from the tiny earthenware cups which chai wallahs use across India. Every time I raise the clay cup to my lips, I inhale an intense aroma of earth.

And suddenly, the distinctive smell takes me back to my early childhood – when puddles were as inviting as swimming pools, and the mud on your hands smelt as edible as chocolate. It’s an intense, happy memory.

But it feels at odds with the place, because we’re standing in the Nadesar Palace: probably the most exclusive hotel I’ve ever set foot in, and as far from muddy puddles as you can get.

hotel-3From the moment the gates at the Nadesar Palace swung noiselessly open before me, I knew I was stepping into something new. And before I could actually take a step, a turbaned chauffeur invited me to settle into my private golf buggy – and piloted me towards the hotel.

Arriving in India two weeks earlier, I’d been exploring the country and its food – and loving every second of it. I’d sat cross-legged in the garden of a Jaipuri family and shared a Jain feast cooked over charcoal. I’d explored countless bazaars; enjoyed dozens of varieties of street food. I will treasure those moments for ever.

But this was going be different, because I was stepping out of my comfort zone. I was swapping my life of budget travel for a pleasure dome where over 40 staff cater for just ten couples – in a Maharajah’s palace.

 

If you’re looking for luxury, you’ll discover lots of it at the Nadesar Palace.

But because this place is rooted in the soil and history of Varanasi – centre of the Hindu universe – the real luxury at the Nadesar Palace is discovering more about you.

 

My journey at the Nadesar Palace starts with Chef Saurabh Mathur – the man whose cooking Vivek Singh urged me to try. Dressed in gleaming chef’s whites, Saurabh invites me to join him on a tour of the palace grounds.

For any guest, this would be a pleasure. For me, as a foodie, it’s a joy – because the 26 acres around the palace are the open-air larder for the palace’s kitchens. Mango orchards, fields of yellow mustard, heads of flowering onion for kalonji seed, beds of fresh turmeric, … even wood apple trees… they’re all here. Pristine, organic.

As we meet each new crop, Saurabh explains when it will be picked, which dishes it will feature in and how it will be cooked. Although we won’t sample it today, I’m intrigued to hear him describe the drink served to guests as they first arrive: a fresh sherbet concocted from wood apple. The drink is unique to the Nadesar Palace, and I make a mental note to ask him some day for the recipe.

Saurabh is a natural host, and knows how to bring the grounds and everything inside them alive for guests. I’m in a state of grace – and we haven’t even got into the building.

 

Inside the palace, we’re welcomed by Piyali Pal, the Nadesar’s Wellness Manager. Piyali starts by explaining how guests are greeted at the hotel in regal style… as Maharajas.

Even as a verbal description, it’s giddying. As a physical experience, it must be off the map.

Following the Indian protocol for welcoming royalty, the first thing guests hear is a blast on a sacred conch – as they enter the palace under embroidered parasols. From there, you can choose to follow as much of an authentic Maharaja’s journey as you want: from consulting with the palace’s resident Hindu priest on your personal astrology –  to taking a purifying bath in rose petals, milk and holy Ganges water. During this abhisheka ceremony (translates as ‘coronation’) you experience the formal, ritual anointment of a Maharaja.

It’s as close as any of us will get to becoming Hindu royalty.

The mere sight of the sunken ‘Jiva’ bathing pool – afloat in a small sea of fresh rose petals – is enough to make me want this Maharajah lifestyle very, very much.

Piyali continues with the physical tour of the hotel. And if this place looks like an authentic Indian palace – that’s because it is.

In an innovative business move, the descendants of the Maharajas connected with palace are still very much part of the place today. Having agreed a joint venture with the Taj Group in 2002 to convert the building to a hotel, the family continue to be very involved in their heritage. Much has changed since the last Maharaja lived here – but the original family portraits, stately furniture and much else besides are exactly where the family put them. The desk where you check in is the Maharaja’s own.

Like a lot of historic buildings in India, the Nadesar Palace has been home to a number of dynasties – the East India Company and British Raj have both left their mark. But since the late Maharaja Lt. Col. H. H. Prabhu Narayan Singh conceived of it in 1889 as a place welcome distinguished guests – including King George V and Queen Mary – the palace has continued to do just that.

It’s the real thing.

 

And as Piyali explains, the same goes for each experience at the Nadesar Palace. The conch-blowing welcome for guests may sound a bit Hollywood (or Bollywood) – but it’s based on the Hindu shanka ceremony, where a conch is blown to signal an auspicious start.

“None of this,” explains Piyali, “is done for show. Like everything in the Hindu world, there’s a logic to it… nothing happens by chance.”

Which brings us to the heart of what the Nadesar Palace is trying to do.

“For more than three thousand years,” says Piyali, “people have been coming to Varanasi to think about the things that are important to them, to learn more about their belief and about themselves. We’re part of that tradition. The Nadesar Palace can be a place that helps you think, and connects you with what you want to do next.”

As we all know, Varanasi is the holy city famed for its open-air, riverside cremations. It has the most bewildering energy of anywhere I’ve ever been. Imagine a city as ancient as Stonehenge, with the spiritual complexity of Jerusalem, the culture of Rome… add in Glastonbury crowds… and place it all on the bank of a holy river. That’s Varanasi.

I cannot even start to unpack it.

Sharing her wide knowledge of Hindu and Indian culture, Piyali takes me on a virtuoso virtual tour of the city and the best of its giddying 108,000 religious monuments. “108 is a sacred number in the Hindu universe,” she explains. “As always, there’s a logic to it. The diameter of the Sun is 108 times the diameter of the Earth – and the distance from the Sun to the Earth is 108 times the diameter of the Sun.”

Over half an hour or so, Piyali connects me to Varanasi’s Hindu deities, temples, traditions – and their connection with modern India. By the end of our virtual tour, the Nadesar Palace has fully shape-shifted in front of us. From modern hotel, it’s morphed into an extension of India’s oldest, most spiritual and most thought-provoking city.

I need something to eat.

If you read Amitav Ghosh’s outstanding novel, Sea of Poppies, you’ll come to the chapter where the character Neel Rattan Halder – a Rajah in 19th century Calcutta – tries to negotiate the social minefield of a dinner party with Europeans.

Tradition dictates that the Rajah must eat alone.

“We didn’t plan it this way,” jokes Saurabh, “but you’re going to eat in the Nadesar Palace as a Maharaja – completely by yourself.”

And so it happens

Sitting at a table on the patio – in front of the series of fountains – the only human beings I can see are the musicians playing classical Indian instruments, on a stage to the side of the building.

Otherwise, it’s just me, the candle on the table, and the warm Varanasi night. Just like a Maharaja.

Some time later, Saurabh places a thali in front of me.

True – it’s a metal tray, about a foot across – but that’s the end of any similarity with any thali I’ve ever eaten.

What’s in front of me is ‘satvik khana’ – which translates as ‘food fit for the gods’.

So much for the name. The history which created ‘satvik khana’ involves thousands of years of research by Hindu rishis into the properties of every ingredient. Not simply the taste – but also its impact on different parts of the body, on its ability to promote health – and even its ability to enhance spirituality.

I’ll let the Nadesar Palace’s menu talk for itself: “Satvik – pure vegetarian food – is prepared without the influence of onion and garlic. Bringing calmness, purity and balance – it promotes longevity, intelligence, strength, health and happiness. If you are pursuing spiritual advancement, then purity of thought is said to depend on purity of food.”

From a Western perspective, we normally set the first hurdle for food as ‘tasty’, and the next as ‘healthy’. That’s as high as we ask food to jump. The possibility that the dish in front of you might have an impact on a specific part of your body, on your mind – or on your soul – simply doesn’t come into it.

There are seven pots of food on the thali in front of me, and four types of bread. I recognise most of the food from my tour with Saurabh.

As we walked through the gardens, he’d explained the essentials of ‘satvik’ cooking: using the simplest possible spices and ingredients, and sourcing as much as possible for the meal from the exact place and moment where it will be eaten. Satvik philosophy goes much deeper than ‘food miles’. Coming back to the logic of Hindu ‘connectedness’, the conviction is that the earth you stand on – and the season you’re in – will give you exactly what you need to thrive today. In each season, the land around you will provide precisely what your body and mind need.

From a western perspective, it’s quite a leap. Look at the average UK shopping basket (or Sunday supplement recipe) and both are packed with ingredients from far-flung continents and seasons. It’s about as far from the ‘satvik’ approach as you can get.

But right now, I’m in India, and the food in front of me has been cooked by a man who trained in Rishikesh to prepare ‘satvik’ food – and who shares the Hindu belief that what you eat directly impacts on your body and soul.

The seven pots and four breads in front of me are some of the most simply spiced Indian food I’ve eaten.

It tastes divine.

Pausing between mouthfuls to admire the different flavours and textures, it takes me almost an hour to eat the thali.

It is as special an eating experience as I’ve ever had.

As I come to the end of the meal, late into the evening, there’s a chance to thank in person all the people who made these experiences possible: Saurabh Mathur, Piyali Pal – and also the hotel’s Senior Manager Ananth Gaddala and Executive Chef Anup Gupta – who graciously welcomed me into the Nadesar Palace, and encouraged me to talk to their team. When I asked Ananth and Anup for their thoughts on the Nadesar Palace, they both insisted that they trusted Saurabh and Piyali to have shared the information I need.

It’s late at night when I finally leave the Nadesar Palace, and head back across the couple of miles to my hostel in central Varanasi. I flag down a cycle rickshaw, and I’m floating so happily from my visit that I instinctively offer to the driver to swap places – inviting him to sit under the canopy, while I pedal. It feels right. But he won’t have it.

I feel very, very peaceful.

Am I this serene because I’ve eaten food fit for the Gods?

Is this what it feels like to eat food from the ground you’re standing on – and to be in tune with the moment?

I honestly don’t know.

Other people have been thinking about this for thousands of years; next to them I have no insights to offer.

And in terms of the Hindu web of cause and effect, were these experiences the unfolding of some irresistible, universal logic? Was I meant to go the Nadesar Palace? If so, what happens next?

All I know is that Vivek Singh told me this would be unforgettable.

And it was.

 

 

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