The Cuisine of Rajasthan

The Cuisine of Rajasthan

In Jaipur, Rajasthan, wedding invitations are addressed not only to the recipient, but to “his friends and friends of his friends.” This hospitality is reflected in the food; it is rich, full of vigor and full of color—to contrast with the desert, the locals almost always wear very colorful garb and produce very colorful food.

Taste the famous Rajasthani food in its various mouthwatering dishes, served sizzling hot, and you will never forget the sublime intricacy of taste that whirls around your tongue.

Rajasthan is the largest state in the Republic, located in the northwest of India near Pakistan. It stands out in terms of the intensity of its colors, the beauty of its palaces and fortification, and the sophistication of its cuisine. Indeed, culinary creativity in this princely state is closely associated with its nobility and royalty. Rajasthan’s positioning along important trade routes makes it a primary source of an impressively rich and assorted collection of spices, flavors and ingredients.

But if the cuisine of Rajasthan was shaped by wealth and prosperity, it was also shaped in good measure by hardship, war and the roughness of its terrain. In this mostly desert state with sand dunes and wind storms, the local cuisine gravitates toward foods with a high nutritional value, long shelf life and minimal use of water. Instead of greens, they use different types of local berries. Instead of tomatoes, they learned to sour the dishes with dried mango powder. An accent on buttermilk, yogurt and ghee (traditional Indian clarified butter) characterizes Rajasthani cuisine, as does the presence of legumes, lentils, spices and vegetables that grow in dry conditions. The results are sophisticated flavors, strong spices and deep complexity. For many, Rajasthan is the home of India’s most delicious food.

And it runs the gamut from very meaty to vegetarian. In India, game, including pickled boar and wild hare, is a popular choice. This meat is not only cooked in curries but also barbecued or pickled. One of the most popular game dishes is khud khargosh, in which a whole rabbit is stuffed with spices and wrapped in dough and cooked in an open spit. Another dish they love is called sula, which is basically meat or fish bits marinated in yogurt, ginger, garlic and spices and then barbecued.

Other groups focus mainly on vegetarian foods and don’t eat meat as well as garlic or onions. Instead, they eat a typical berry called ker and sangri, a type of bean. In the absence of garlic, asefotida is used to flavor food.

In general, Indian is among the hardest cuisines to pair with wine primarily because of the enormous complexity of each dish. It’s not just the hot spice component, which already presents significant wine pairing difficulties, but the variety of spices. Chilies contain capsaicin in their inner cavity and flesh that is an irritant to mucous membranes. Because cold milk is the most effective cure for a burning mouth, Indians drink yogurt, or lassi, which is sometimes flavored with sweet mango or rosewater during or after a spicy meal. The complexity of spices also presents wine pairing dilemmas. From cumin to saffron and cardamom to turmeric, it’s not easy knowing what the dominant flavors will be and therefore which ones should direct your wine selection.

In sommelier school, students are taught that spicy foods present an “impossible wine pairing” just like foods that are too hot (boiling soups) or too cold (ice cream). Practical tasting experience suggests otherwise and, thankfully, the heat can always be reeled in according to personal preference.

Pairing suggestions, therefore, need to pit creamy, rich, smooth and velvety wines against those sharp spice accents. A white wine that has undergone malolactic fermentation or light aging in oak for delicate renderings of vanilla cream and mango custard could work well. This could include Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc or the Italian grape Friulano, which are naturally creamy in texture. Another popular pairing rule is to contrast off-dry or slightly sweet wines against the tartness of a spicy dish. That’s why you’ll often see Riesling, Gewürztraminer or Vouvray on the wine list of your local Indian restaurant. These wines often contain just enough residual sugar to make them feel plush and soft in the mouth.

One last pairing option for dishes that could be described as fragrant, rather than spicy, is a wine with a particularly aromatic bouquet. For example, if the dish in question contains basil, coriander leaf or ginger, those ingredients can be underlined by the lively floral tones present in Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir. Not many Indian wines are imported to the U.S., but the subcontinent’s Sula Vineyard (located some 110 miles from Mumbai) makes a really simple but cheerful Sauvignon Blanc that would taste great with the dishes presented here. The wines of another Indian winery, Good Earth, are starting to see export to the United States, including a Shiraz sourced from the Nashik Valley.

Rajasthani Thali

The following platter is meant to represent culinary highlights from Rajasthan in the most simple and easy-to-prepare manner. Traditionally, each dish is served in a small bowl collected on a larger plate and served as one. Thali are offered with “veg” or “non-veg” options and served with sides of yogurt (raita) and Indian flat bread (roti or chapati) or fried rice (pulao). Serves 4.

Jaipuri Mewa Pulao (Jaipur-style Sweet Rice)

2 cups long-grained white rice
1 cup ghee
4 cups milk
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ cup charoli seeds or pine nuts,finely chopped
25 skinless almonds, finely chopped
25 pistachios, finely chopped
½ teaspoon saffron, dissolved in a
small amount of warm milk

After soaking the rice in water for two hours, heat the ghee in a pot and add the drained rice and milk. Cover and simmer over a low flame for 10 minutes, taking care to stir the rice often so that it does not stick together. When the rice is tender, add the sugar, cardamom, nutmeg, charoli seeds or pine nuts, almonds, pistachios and saffron.

Preheat oven to 350°F degrees and place the rice mixture in a shallow pan. Cook until the top of the rice is crunchy, about 10 minutes.

Kesar Murg (Saffron Chicken)

½ cup vegetable oil
2 bay leaves
½ tablespoon ground clove
½ tablespoon cardamom
1 cup onion, puréed
1 teaspoon ginger, pureed
2 teaspoons garlic paste
1 teaspoon ground coriander
4 teaspoons cashew nut paste
2 pounds boneless chicken, cut into large pieces
1 cup plain yogurt
Salt to taste
Ground white pepper, to taste
Chili powder, to taste
½ teaspoon saffron, dissolved in a small amount of warm milk
¾ cup fresh heavy cream
Coriander leaves, chopped for garnish


Heat oil in a large skillet and add bay leaves, ground clove and cardamom. After a few seconds, add the onion, ginger and garlic paste and fry on low heat until the excess liquid has evaporated. Stir in the coriander power, cashew nut paste and cook for about one minute on a medium flame. Then, add the chicken, yogurt, salt, pepper, chili powder and saffron. Reduce heat and simmer until the chicken is cooked. Whisk in the cream and cook for only a few more minutes. Sprinkle with coriander and serve hot.

Aloo Ka Bharta (Spiced Mashed Potatoes)

5 large potatoes, peeled and boiled
2 onions, finely chopped
2 green chilies, chopped
1 teaspoon mustard oil
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon red chili powder
½ teaspoon cumin seed, roasted and crushed
Coriander leaves, chopped, for garnish

Mash the warm potatoes with a fork into coarse chunks. Add the other ingredients and mix in a large bowl. Plate and garnish with chopped coriander leaves.

Lal Maas (Spicy Lamb)

½ cup vegetable oil
2 large onions, chopped
2 teaspoons garlic paste
1 teaspoon ginger, puréed
2 pounds mutton or lamb, cut into cubes
1 cup plain yogurt
2 cups chopped tomato
2 bay leaves
5 cloves
15 black peppercorns, crushed
2 teaspoons red chili powder
4 cardamom seeds
½ teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoons ground coriander
Salt to taste

Heat oil in a large skillet and fry the onions until golden brown. Put aside a tablespoon of the fried onions to use as garnish later. Add the garlic paste and ginger and stir for a few minutes before adding the mutton. Cook for about 10 minutes, add the yogurt and stir. Add the chopped tomatoes, bay leaves, cloves, black pepper, chili powder, cardamom seeds, turmeric powder, coriander and salt and simmer over a low flame until the lamb is tender and falls apart with a fork, about one hour. Garnish with fried onion and serve hot.

Bhindi (stuffed okra)

½ pound okra
3 teaspoons chickpea flour
1 teaspoon cumin
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
½ teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon garam masala
½ teaspoon turmeric
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons lime juice
¼ cup vegetable oil, divided
¼ teaspoon cumin seed, roasted and crushed, divided
½ teaspoon onion seeds
4 fresh green chilies, finely chopped

Clean and dry the okra, cut off the tips and slice down the middle, not going all the way to either end (this is where the stuffing will go). In a bowl, mix the chickpea flour, half the cumin, fennel seeds, chili powder, ground coriander, garam masala, turmeric, salt, lime juice and tablespoon of the oil.

Mix evenly and use this as stuffing to insert inside the slice made into each okra vegetable. Heat the remaining oil in a large skillet and fry the leftover cumin, onion seeds and green chilies for one minute. Add the okra and cook with a covered lid for about ten minutes. Remove the lid and stir for five more minutes until the stuffed okra falls apart and becomes crisp.

Daal (Lentil Curry)

In Rajasthan, it is common to eat this with puffed dough dumplings called bati.
2 cups dried kidney beans, soaked in water overnight
¾ cups dried black lentils, soaked in water overnight
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 onions, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ginger, puréed
2 teaspoons garlic paste
2 tomatoes, finely chopped
2 green chilis, chopped
2 teaspoons garam masala
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
2 tablespoons fresh heavy cream
4 tablespoons ghee
Salt and pepper to taste
Chopped coriander, for garnish

Boil the beans and lentils until soft; drain and set aside. In a large pot, heat the oil and fry the onions until golden brown. Add the ginger and garlic paste; after one minute add the tomatoes. Stir and add the beans, lentils, green chili and all the spices; cook over a low flame until the sauce is thick. Just before serving, add the cream and ghee. Serve hot.

Kheere Ka Raita (Grated Cucumber Yogurt with Mint)

1 cup grated cucumber
1 cup plain yogurt
½ teaspoon cumin seed, roasted and crushed
1 green chili, finely chopped
Ground white pepper and salt to taste
2 teaspoons fresh mint, chopped, plus extra for garnish

Mix all the ingredients in a bowl and serve at room temperature. Garnish with chopped mint.

Spotlight on Rajasthan

No state in India is more colorful than Rajasthan, which is located in the northwestern part of the country. From the bright tones reflected in the saris to bangles worn by its female inhabitants and the kaleidoscope of saffron yellows, chili reds and curry greens found in the traditional spice box of every kitchen, this sun-soaked land reflects the most brilliant hues of the rainbow. Even its principal cities and tourism destinations are color-coded. Jaipur is known as the “Pink City,” Udaipur is the “White City,” and Jodhpur is Rajasthan’s famous “Blue City.”

Jaipur boasts some of the most fascinating architecture in the region and the Hawa Mahal building in the center of town looks like a creamy wedding cake with layers of balconies, domed roofs and towers. The main sites are the City Palace Museum in town and the Amber Fort (the old capital), which is a short drive away from the museum. Lines of tourists wait to ascend the fortress walls and ramparts up the cobbled streets on elephant. If you are staying in this Pink City, the most beautiful hotels are the Rambagh Place and the Samode Palace Hotel. Like most of the luxury hotels in Rajasthan, both are former Maharaja palaces, managed by the Taj Hotels group.

Udaipur is the most feminine and delicate of the three cities and its stunning cityscape is shaped around the petite Lake Pichola. The main attraction is the City Palace that stretches along the eastern shore of the lake. The palace highlights Rajput military architecture and the insides of the buildings are lavishly adorned with colored glass, mirrors and frescoes. Not to be missed is a visit to (and hopefully stay at) the Lake Palace Hotel located on a tiny island and accessed only by boat.

A few hours drive outside of town is the Devi Garh Resort. Its elegant restaurant serves traditional Thali (a vegetarian or non-vegetarian platter of traditional curries) and makes a perfect lunchtime destination. Also fascinating is a stay at the Chhatra Sagar campsite some 75 miles from Jodhpur. Canvas tents are erected on the rim of the sandstone dam and many activities are offered here, including cooking courses, bird watching and visits to the nearby villages.

In Jodhpur is the impressive Mehrangarh Fort—described as the most majestic of Rajasthan’s palaces. From the rampart walls, you can admire a sea of blue-washed houses and see the soaring tip of the Umaid Bhawan Palace Hotel. Construction of the palace began in 1929 and took 3,000 men and 15 years to complete. Of India’s many states, Rajasthan indubitably merits a trip on its own.

For a video slideshow of the Rajasthan’s people, place and architecture, click here.

Here are some other places to eat and stay:

Home stays in Rajasthan: Think of this as an Indian version of B&B’s. You will be taken care of by a local family in their home. And the best part? The home cooked meals, of course. In Jaipur, one of the most popular home stay hotels is Madhuban. Check out other options here.

The Taj Lake Palace: This palace in Udaipur will remind you of the Taj Mahal, only this palace glitters in the middle of Lake Pichola. Built in 1746, it’s set against the lofty Aravalli mountain range. Royal butlers are on call to look after your every need, and since it’s a Taj hotel, it’s very luxurious. The hotel has a fantastic spa and also helps in arranging safaris, palace and city tours as well as wildlife treks. 

Laxmi Misthan Bhandar (LMB): Be sure to stop at this dessert shop in Jaipur, which serves some of the best desserts that Rajathan has to offer. At the top of your tasting list should be ghewar—a honeycomb look-alike prepared with flour, clarified butter, sugar, nuts and saffron. The sweet shop also has a dining area, where the restaurant serves up many dishes, such as Rajasthani thali, which is a platter made up of yogurt kadhi, ker sangri (a typical local vegetarian dish) and Jaipuri Aloo (potatoes).

Rooftop Terrace restaurant at Udai Kothi Hotel: This boutique hotel in Udaipur was voted by The New York Times as one of the best wedding venues in Rajasthan. The rooftop restaurant is best at night when you can see the reflections of the neighboring palaces in the backyard lake. The gentle music, muted lights, diverse menu and perfect service make this an ideal romantic dinner location. And if you decide to spend the night, your suite will include a butler. Don’t forget to opt for a private yoga lesson and a body massage on your suite’s terrace.

Published on December 31, 2010