Friday 21 February 2020

Celebrating Indian Cuisine - the Inaugural Royal Cuisines Festival

On a recent trip to India I was invited to attend the Inaugural Royal Cuisines Festival in Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh. From the middle of the 19th century until 1947 when there were 150 princely states, tikanas and jagers in Central India, can you imagine the richness and diversity of the food culture?

The Madhya Pradesh Tourism association created this colourful festival to highlight the heritage and food culture of the province and share the flavours that were hitherto only accessible to those who were guests of the royal families. 

Many of these recipes are still jealously guarded within families and in some cases known only to the cooks. Ten royal families accepted the invitation of the Tourism Minister Surendra Singh Baghel, to participate. The event was held at the Minto Hall Palace, the former home of the assistant viceroy of India and launched by the first minister of Madhya Pradesh in the midst of a media frenzy. 

Field kitchens were set up behind the palace where the royal couples watched over their chefs and students from the Bhopal Institute of Hotel Management while they prepared their dishes. 

Ravi Pratap Singh Ranawat from the Sarwaniya Royal family was preparing an intriguing family speciality called Chicken Sula. First the chicken was marinated overnight, then it was covered in a secret masala spice mix, then cooked and wrapped in overlapping chapatti and tied into a parcel before being cooked in a pit in the ground. Ravi was adamant that the recipe was secret but the Royal house of Garha in the nearby kitchen was equally adamant about the importance of sharing so the recipes and techniques would be passed on to the next generation. He told me that recipes had been lost in the past because they had ‘died with the cooks’, who have refused to share their legacy. 

Many of the royal families are now impoverished but some like the Holkar Royal family of Indore and Maheswar has embraced the hospitality business and have restored some of their palaces, as with Ahilya Fort, on the banks of the River Narmada in Maheswar. Prince Richard Holkar, a descendent of Queen Ahilya Bai who ruled from 1755 to 1795. Richard, a superb cook, divides his time between India and his second home in Paris. His cooking maintains the authenticity of the Holkar flavours using beautiful fresh produce from his organic farm and gardens. Guests come from all over the world and return over and over again to this hidden gem well off the beaten track. His chef Krishna, cooked three dishes, stuffed baby aubergines, Batteyr Survedar Quail Curry and Rosso Golla Espresso, Krishna was super excited when the first minister Kamal Nath personally complimented him on the Quail Curry and asked for a tiffin box of it to take home. 

Students from the Bhopal school of hospitality were honoured to have the opportunity to participate in the event, they were stirring huge metal kari’s of masala, making chapatti on a stone in the gardens and most exciting for them was having their photos taken with Indian celebrity chef, Harpal Singh Sokhi in his turquoise and orange turban. I did so many spontaneous interviews for Indian TV and my photo appeared in several Indian newspapers. 

In most people’s mind, the city of Bhopal, where the festival was held, is firmly connected to the Union Carbide Tragedy of 1984, when a gas leak was responsible for the deaths of over 15,000 people. The incident understandably decimated the tourist industry both in the city and surrounding area. This was my first visit, to what is a truly beautiful city, built around two large lakes with two outstanding museums, the Tribal Museum and the Museum of Man as well as an unforgettable Chowk (bazaar). 

The Royal Cuisines Festival was a brilliant excuse to visit, otherwise I might never have gone, but if you are planning a trip to India, add Bhopal to your itinerary, it won’t be inundated with tourists.