Meet two Indian men doing very different things with turmeric – and meet one confused food blogger.
The tiny charcoal brazier stands 12 inches high off the patio – about the height of a seated baby – and a whole team of adults fuss around it as if were a new born child.
We’re sitting in the garden of Punit and Sanjana Kothari, in Jaipur. I have been in India for 48 hours, and in that time I’ve enjoyed more hospitality from the Kotharis than you’d expect from a whole country in a month. They’ve taken me to meet the city’s most famous paneer wallah; paid for me to swallow a flaming, camphor-coated paan; escorted me to markets; fed me; poured me drinks until late in the night.
But now we’re stepping up a gear. To experience a truly authentic Rajasthani feast, we’re sitting cross-legged on rugs in Punit and Sanjana’s garden, enjoying food cooked over charcoal… served on leaves… and eaten with fingers. There isn’t a utensil in sight – just the essential ingredients of heat and hunger.
The food is some of the best I’ve ever eaten.
On the far side of the brazier are a man and wife who’ve come to prepare the rotis. They’re dressed in the flowing robes and headscarves that would look out of place anywhere except the pages of a glossy Indian tourist brochure – or a Rajasthani wedding. The man feeds the charcoal, and adjusts the vents. His wife rolls and cooks the rotis. They are very good at what they do.
To my left are Punit and his wife Sanjana; to my right is their friend Pankaj. We’re eating a traditional Rajasthani dish – dal baati churma – and I am learning new things. I am learning that a seemingly impossible foodie combination doesn’t just work… it’s irresistible.
Spiced dal + roti + melted ghee + heaped jaggery = bliss.
And this blog is going to be my personal dal baati churma.
I’m going to try to take two very different stories that maybe wouldn’t sit together in a regular foodie post – and blend them into something new.
India has taught me that you can happily mix stuff that shouts ‘don’t’.
This post is my attempt to blend savoury and sweet in one story.
Punit and Pankaj are men in their early 40s. They met at school, aged ten, and started a friendship that’s lasted a lifetime.
Today, they both use Rajasthani food to create magical effects for the people who consume those ingredients – but in very different ways.
If you’ve eaten in one of Vivek Singh’s restaurants, then you’ve sampled the fruits of Punit’s hard work. If you paused over the freshness and pungency of a dish with turmeric – or wondered at the brilliant red hues of a dish with Kashmiri chilli – thank Punit. He’s the guy who grows the spices exclusively for the Cinnamon Group in carefully selected areas of Rajasthan, dries them, and airfreights them direct to London. Ten days before your curry was brought to your table, Punit was overseeing the drying and grinding process in Rajasthan.
Punit and Vivek worked together when both were starting their careers in hospitality. Their careers took them both to Bangkok. Years later, when he launched the Cinnamon Club in 2001, Vivek wanted to take Indian cuisine to new heights. One of the people he called to help him was Punit.
Punit remembers the conversation: “Vivek called me from London, and his question was this…. ‘how do we capture the flavour of the freshest chillies?’ We worked together to find the answer.”
For the last 14 years, Punit has perfected the process that keeps the Cinnamon restaurants supplied with the yellowest, freshest turmeric and the reddest, freshest chilli. For foodies interested in the minutest detail of provenance, the tumeric on your plate has been dried in the earth before harvesting; the chilli has been sun-dried for seven to ten days (depending on the season and temperature) before being turned to tan on the other side for another week. It’s then ground, and flown straight to London. Every shipment is tested for organic purity, and in over a decade only one single batch has failed (by 0.5 microns).
Looking to the future, Vivek and Punit are working to source more organic spices together from India, including cumin, black cardamom, coriander – and, of course – cinnamon.
Punit’s passion for spices spills over into the way he and his family cook and look after guests. As we eat, I ask myself if I’ve ever been looked after more generously by new friends – and the answer is ‘no’.
So much for the first serving of this blog – a story of shared, foodie passion for fresh ingredients.
The next serving is less traditional.
Both involve the power of fresh turmeric – but that’s where the similarities end.
The year is 2008, and Pankaj and his family are sitting by the hospital bed of their eight year-old son, Bhavya. They have been told their boy has days or hours to live.
Twelve days earlier, Bhavya had been diagnosed with dengue fever. Each year, up to 500 million people worldwide contract the disease. The vast majority recover in a matter of days. Tragically, 20,000 people die.
Listed as a tropical disease, dengue fever is spread to human beings by mosquito bite. Early stages include a high temperature, vomiting, muscle pain and skin rashes. In a tiny minority of cases, the disease goes on to cause a collapse in the number of the patient’s blood platelets – followed by internal and external bleeding – and death.
For the average reader of this blog, your platelet count will be between 150-450k per microliter of blood. Bhavya’s platelet count was at 6k. His blood pressure had collapsed, his breathing was shallow and he was bleeding from his eyes. Despite every effort by the hospital to help him, Bhavya was entering the final stages of dengue shock syndrome. The hospital had exhausted every known remedy.
In one of the hospital corridors, Pankaj was approached by a stranger. The man was visiting a relative, had heard about Bhavya’s condition, and had come back to offer the family a natural remedy.
The man wasn’t a doctor, had no medical training – but offered Pankaj a remedy for his son because he’d seen it work before. Pankaj agreed to try it – totally at the family’s own risk.
Pankaj vividly remembers the conversation with the stranger. “He said the remedy could make my son’s platelets go up – but that he was worried. He wasn’t sure. He said it had to be my decision. I told him that I was ready to try anything. I trusted him.”
Three days later, Bhavya was fully recovered.
In the following days, Pankaj tracked down the stranger to thank him. They discussed the recipe: an infusion of turmeric, combined with aloe vera juice, papaya leaf and neem leaf.
Pankaj immediately wanted to share the cure with others: “Why shouldn’t other people have the happiness my family felt to see our son recover?” He made small batches at home. If he read about a local patient with a blood platelet crisis, he took a batch to the hospital. Some accepted, others didn’t.
Word spread. As the season for dengue fever came around each year, from September to November, people made their way to Pankaj’s house. At first, he prepared cures for 100 people a month. Today, he might treat as many as 2,000 people a day. He has never charged a single patient.
To get to this kind of scale, you need a lot of back-up – and the network built slowly. “Punit supported me from the start,” says Pankaj, “and that made me strong.”
Following Bhavya’s cure in 2008, Pankaj – together with his father, mother and wife – distributed the cure as a cottage industry. In 2010, members of the wider family and local community joined in. “They recognised the cause,” says Pankaj, “and saw how happy it made us to be involved. They came forward to help.”
Today, the 17 year-old Bhavya helps create the cure that saved his life – along with dozens of other children from the community. “This was the ‘wow’ moment for me,” says Pankaj, “when our kids and our neighbours’ kids understood what we’re doing, and wanted to help mankind.”
The cottage industry has turned into a big deal. Doctors and medical journals contact Pankaj; businesses give him raw ingredients for free; his employers give him paid leave each year from September to November.
Eight years on, Pankaj has shared the remedy with over 100,000 dengue sufferers – with 100% cure rate, and no recorded side-effects in any patient.
As he tells the story, Pankaj has two gears. Describing the science behind the disease and the cure, he’s buttoned down and detailed – talking about platelet types and numbers, blood pressure levels, physical processes. It’s like talking to a doctor.
But ask him about his interaction with the people he helps to cure – and he beams. “One father of a recovered child asked me what he could give me. He said I could take anything he owned. I told him he owed me nothing… that I’m just a medium… and he should thank God, not me.” His face lights up – and I sense is that every patient cured reconnects Pankaj with the joy of his son’s recovery.
Other than the sheer physical fatigue of the role (Pankaj gets up at 4am in fever season to work for 18 hours on preparing cures) his only complaint is when someone tries to sell the cure. Batches sometimes get onto the black market, and are advertised for around IR 500 (£5). Pankaj has to track down the seller, and get the remedy back.
Beyond that, he sees every part of his huge volunteer role as a privilege. “If I help mankind,” he beams, “God will help me.” He’s one of the most contented people I’ve ever met.
So where does that leave the two halves of my blog – the sweet and savoury?
As a foodie, I find it completely natural that Punit should be flying Rajasthani turmeric thousands of miles to give diners in London the best possible experience. I understand what’s happening.
As someone who’s only ever know western medicine, I’m excited that Pankaj’s remedy has cured over 100,000 people of dengue fever – but I’m also confused. I’m confused because the cure is created by one family in their home – and not sold by a pharmacist in a tamper-proof bottle, with a brand name and a best-before date. I don’t understand what’s happening. I want to believe, but there’s a western, cultural brake in my head that won’t let go.
Shouldn’t the numbers be enough? 100,000 cured! What more evidence do I need? I ask myself… if Pankaj had patented his cure, branded it, charged for it – would I find the evidence easier to accept? Sadly, that might be true. The power of western marketing has tinged my thinking.
Years ago, I read about a family in Hyderabad who treat up to 500,000 asthma sufferers a year – with a secret remedy of a live fish swallowed whole. Meeting Pankaj, I have the privilege of encountering another of India’s leading healers. And if Pankaj himself is part of the cure… if it’s his belief, the strength he finds in his family, friendships and religion which helps heal so many people… does that change anything?
The warmth from the brazier spills over the rugs towards us. Punit takes a thick roti from the charcoals, and breaks it into molten crumbs in his hands. Sanjana pours over ghee, and teaspoonfuls of jaggery – and serves it to me with the sharp, spiced dal.
It is delicious.
India has a lot to teach me about mixing sweet and sour; about mixing science and belief. I have a lot to think about.
But some lessons have gone home this evening:
- Charcoal is the best cooking medium
- Leaves are the best plates
- Fingers are the best cutlery
- Punit, Sanjana and Pankaj are the best hosts in Rajasthan