I was up and showered while the peacocks were still dreaming this morning, and I’ve spent most of the day looking for tigers from the back seat of an olive-green jeep. I’m not complaining; my stay at Taj Hotels’ Baghvan safari lodge, Pench National Park, been as fascinating as it has been luxurious. I’ve seen monkeys, hornbills, jackals, bison and deer. But no sign of Shere Khan. And, as the sun begins to set, what I really need is some spicy food and a chilled glass of white.
So I’m feeling pleased with myself that I’ve arranged for Mukesh, the chef at my Indian safari lodge, to show me around his kitchen and give me a cookery demonstration.
He lays a trio of black, clay pots on the counter in the lodge’s colonially-inspired reception room. They’ve been hand made by the village potter, who spins the clay on a wheel made from wood and dried mud. “These hand-made pots are handy,” I say. “What are they called in Hindi?”
“Handi pots,” replies Mukesh. Of course they are. He’s smiling, as ever, but he’s completely serious.
He’s going to cook a chicken tikka, a lentil masala and an eggplant masala.
He brings out a tray of spices in little white bowls and I give each a sniff like I’m some kind of perfumier. Mace, cumin seeds, bay leaves, cardamom, turmeric and coriander powder are all lobbed into the handi, adding to the standard base mix of fried onions, garlic, chilli and ghee.
Channeling Keith Floyd in my linen shirt, I request some wine. I’ve been throwing myself into the Indian vino during the trip am surprised by the quality and the range of grape varieties. So far I’ve tried a Sauvignon Blanc, a White Zinfandel, a Grenache, a Viognier and a Merlot. All the whites are easy-drinking with the tropical- and stone-fruit character you’d expect from a warmer climate.
They don’t seem so be big on off-dry whites here though, which is surprising given the spiciness of the food. This time I go for an oaky Chardonnay. Possibly not the best complement for curry but enjoyable enough.
Mukesh works fast and all three courses are ready within 15 minutes. Each dish is profoundly rich, deep and complex. I’m told this is because of the freshness of the spices, which are grown and ground on the premises.
I ask Mukesh if it’s possible for him to write me down the recipes. He smiles and nods. The following day I’m presented with a bound scroll. I feel like Indiana Jones; the most I’d expected was a bit of headed A4. I wait until I get home to unravel its mysteries; mysteries, dear reader, that I am about to reveal to you…
For more about the Taj Baghvan safari lodges click on Baghvan, Pench Nation Park