I have now been in Udaipur for almost three months, and I am long overdue for a second blog post. As I have been pondering what to write, one topic keeps coming to the foreground as the one I feel like I can talk about the most: food.
In my experience, food is the default topic of conversation in India. It’s generally the third question I’m asked when I meet someone (Where are you from? Are you married? How do you like the food?), and its power to connect people and build relationships is well known here. Indians have a deep culture of hospitality. In Hinduism there is a saying that “a guest is a god.” When guests come to the house, you invite them in, serve them chai (Hindi for tea), and then if they stay for more than a few minutes, serve them food in generous quantities. As a result of this hospitality, I have had the privilege of sampling the home cuisine of many different families in Udaipur — widely accepted to be the most authentic and best-tasting way to experience Indian cooking.
Food is seasonal. I know well from growing up on a farm that different vegetables ripen at different times of the year. Certain foods store well, and others must be eaten soon after harvesting or else they will spoil. In India, there is a further understanding that foods have the power to warm you up or cool you down, and so should be eaten at the appropriate time of year. Arriving in the heat of summer, and after enduring two bouts of heat-related illness in my first few weeks, I have become well-acquainted with the cooling foods: yogurt, raw onion, melons, coconut water, wheat-flour; and I have learned to moderate my consumption of warming foods: cloves, cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, meat, corn on the very hottest days. We are now entering the rainy season here in Udaipur, and as the weather cools, people’s diets are changing accordingly.
Food is regional. There is no “one” Indian cuisine. Any Indian will tell you that every 100 kilometers there is a new culture, a new language, and new varieties of food. Even within a given city or town, every family has a slightly different cooking style, depending on their caste and religion, and personal taste.
Of the many different kinds of breads made here, very few are leavened at all. There are far too many breads to name, but I’ll describe a few. The most common by far is roti or chapati: a “simple” flatbread made from whole wheat flour and water and cooked on a dry pan. A person is not considered to be a good cook until he or she can reliably make round roti that inflate like a balloon, which takes considerable practice to master. Other flatbreads include parathas, which are folded with oil between the layers of bread and occasionally filled with spices, cheese, potatoes and the like; puri, which are similar to thick roti, but they are deep fried, rather than pan-grilled; and naan, which is made with white flour and leavening and mostly made at restaurants or catered events. The specialty bread of Rajasthan is bati: a round roll, which was traditionally roasted in the coals of a fire, but nowadays is usually cooked in a stove-top cooker. Often the finished bati are cracked open and drenched in ghee, so the whole roll is infused with buttery flavor.
Dal bati’s cousin dish is dal dokli, which uses a similar dal, but with small pieces of dough cooked into the dal.
Another dish common in Rajastan and also in the neighboring state of Gujarat is pakora kadhi (pronounced “kuddy”). This dish consists of deep-fried chickpea flour fritters, “pakora” in a yogurt-based gravy. It is most often served with roti.
Many of the people in Udaipur — including all of the Brahmins and Jains — are “veg” and do not eat meat or eggs. However, Rajasthan also has a mutton (goat) dish that is specific to the region and truly delectable: “jungle maas.” Jungle maas literally means “wild meat” and refers to a rich, spicy stew. The story goes that in older times, when the rulers of Mewar and other Rajasthani kingdoms would go hunting, the hunting party could bring only a few spices that were easy to carry — nothing too bulky or perishable — so they would bring garlic, dried chile peppers, and salt, and prepare the hunted meat in the field. The secret to the rich taste of jungle maas is slow simmering for several hours over a fire, allowing the meat to cook in its own fat until it slides off the bone. A slightly more modern version of this mutton dish is “lal maas” which means “red meat” and is a similar stew, but with tomato and onion to fill out the gravy and more spices such as cloves, cinnamon, coriander powder, cumin, turmeric, ginger, and black pepper. I have had the luxury of being served both of these dishes by Rahul and Sandeep (the koftgari artists I am learning from) who cook the meat over a wood fire on their rooftop terrace.
The last dish I’ll mention is the humble “bindi ki sabzi,” which is spiced, stir-fried okra. This dish is beloved by nearly everyone I have talked to, and is a quick and simple meal to prepare on a busy day or late night. Paired with roti and (in the summertime) fresh mango juice, it makes for a delightful meal.
As much as I think about and talk about food, I am still very actively engaged in my research of Indian weapons and metalwork here in Udaipur! You can expect another update in the coming weeks regarding that research, with some photos of what I have been working on. In the meantime, if there is any particular topic you’d like to hear more about, send me an email, and I’ll do my best to work it into another blog post!
Special thanks to Surveer and to my landlord Buwanesh Tanwar Narayan Kothi. If you ever need a tour guide or a place to stay in Udaipur, Buwanesh is the guy to talk to: Hotel Picholi +91 94142 63314
Greetings from Udaipur, Rajasthan! I have been in India a little over 3 weeks now, and it is a completely different world in so many ways from anything I have experienced before. I will be here through December, and I would like to share my journey with all who are interested: my experience of the culture, the people, the food, and my research in weaponry and metalworking in this region of the world. So let's start at the beginning.
On Saturday, April 2, I left my home town of Hebron, NY for a nine-month stay in India. I had been planning this trip since July 2020, when I applied for the Fulbright grant, a prestigious award given to students and scholars from all around the United States to conduct research in countries all around the world. Once I applied, I entered a state of uncertain anticipation, including two rounds of highly-selective screening, COVID-19 spikes in the US and India, three delays in the Fulbright timeline, all while attempting to schedule classes and commissions and advance my craft. It was with some disbelief then, that I packed up my apartment, locked my shop door, and left home at 4 AM to drive to the airport (Thanks, Mom!) for my 14-hour flight to Delhi.
View from my morning walk to the City Palace, overlooking lake Pichola
Once the capital of the Mewar Kingdom, Udaipur, known as the "Venice of the East," is nestled in the hills of Southern Rajasthan around a series of large, man-made lakes dating back as early as the 14th century. I came here because it is the heart of a rich metalworking and weapon-making tradition that stretches back centuries. The high value placed on opulent weapons with abundant surface ornamentation, preferably in gold, was shared by both the Rajputs: the Hindu ruling class of Rajasthan, and the Mughals: the Muslim empire that encompassed the majority of Northern India during the 17th century. Udaipur is still well-known today for koftgari, which was the most common technique for embellishing weapons in the region, and is of central importance in my research. Koftgari involves preparing an iron object (such as a sword hilt) with fine crosshatching scratches, pressing a thin gold or silver wire onto that prepared surface, and then burnishing the metal to lock the wire into place and smooth the surface. Master koftgari artist Sandeep Singh, who lives in the city, has agreed to teach me the craft, and the City Palace Museum is hosting my project and providing me with access to their collection of swords and daggers for careful study.
Inside the City Palace, Udaipur
I’ve dedicated the first few weeks in Udaipur to getting my bearings: meeting people, starting Hindi classes, and attending to the other necessities of life like food, housing, transportation, and government paperwork. From the day I arrived, I’ve been aided by the overwhelming hospitality of the Indian people I have met. The afternoon I flew in, Sandeep brought me to his home, offered me tea and sweets, gave me a tour of his workshop, and showed me pieces of his family's collection of antique Indian blades. In subsequent days Utesh Dungerwal, who works at the City Palace, brought me on his motorbike (the primary mode of travel in the city) to several possible apartments for me to rent, and invited me for tea and snacks at his house every afternoon, where he lives with his wife, parents, and three daughters. I share an office at the City Palace with a delightful person, Mudit Charles, and the curator Dr. Hansmukh Seth has already introduced me to many people and helped me to navigate the museum archives.
Overlooking Udaipur at Carni Mata Temple with Shourya, Haldik, and Arpan
On the research front, so far I have spent most of my time at the Palace reading books in the library, learning about the history of the Mewar rulers and the city of Udaipur to give myself a solid historical background to study the weapons in the collection. Hansmukh Seth has set aside a selection of historical swords and daggers with particularly nice koftgari work, and I am eagerly looking forward to giving them some proper examination. I have also spent a few days with Sandeep at his workshop, where he demonstrated silver koftgari on a small hammerhead. I posted a video of the demonstration on my Instagram page if you are curious about the process.
Going forward, I plan to split my time between Sandeep's workshop and the City Palace, combining practical study with examination of historical pieces. I hope to collaborate with Sandeep on some projects, as well as create some work of my own. While there are logistical challenges gaining access to appropriate materials and tools for forging, grinding, and heat treating knives, Sandeep and I are working together to overcome these challenges, so I hope to report favorable developments on this front in the coming weeks!
Street view from my apartment window in the Old City, Udaipur