Plate up

Gaytri Singh Rathore
One way to introduce yourself to Rajasthan's culture is through its rich food. Try a thali or two in Jaipur

Arid Rajasthan, where historically wars and famines went together, developed culinary traditions that are complex in their variety. There are simple, rustic dishes made from wild beans, berries and millet, and regal recipes that make generous use of butter, oil, spices, saffron and dried fruit.

Thalis, or meals on a platter, have always been an integral part of the dining experience in Rajasthan, be it in the palaces of Jaipur and Udaipur or the homes of peasants in the Thar. A theme that runs through them all is the intricacy of the process that went into creating these dishes.

Ker (a commonly grown berry in the desert) and sangri (a bean from the state tree, Khejri) are used in pickles and dried-vegetable dishes, and are popular with both rural and urban folk. Another popular dish is dal baati - baatis are dumplings made from wheat or millet flour, cooked over hot charcoal and ash, and served with yellow lentil curry (dal) and loads of ghee (clarified butter). Traditionally this is accompanied by choorma - crushed baatis or rotis mixed with jaggery and ghee. Kheechada, a gruel of crushed millet, served with brown sugar and ghee, is a regional delicacy, as is gatte ki sabzi - dumplings of chickpea flour in a thick spice-laden gravy. Garlic chutney with dried kachari (wild-growing cucumis) and red chillies is a fantastic accompaniment to all of these.

The royal khansamas (the kings' chefs) of Rajasthan devised a number of mutton recipes that are lip-smacking but extremely difficult to replicate because of the technique involved. Lal maas is made by marinating tender pieces of red meat in a spicy yoghurt-based masala overnight and then slow-cooking them over coal. Barbequed meats - known as sula - also require hours of marination before they are smoked over burning charcoal, using dollops of ghee. Another popular mutton delicacy is the kheema baati - baatis served with spicy minced meat.

Suvarna Mahal at Rambagh Palace serves one of the best thali spreads of its type. The appetisers include vegetable kebabs and barbequed lamb, and among the main courses is the restaurant's signature dish, lal maas, and gatte among others. For dessert, if you can manage it (and you should), there are the rich malpuas (deep-fried pancakes) and rasmalais (cottage cheese balls in sweet cream).

You can also try other cuisines at Suvarna Mahal, but it's best for a regal Rajasthani dining experience in a spectacular hall with rich gold inlay on the walls and ceilings.

At 1135AD, a restaurant that opened recently in Amber Fort, you'll be served your lunch on pure silverware and matching cutlery, and you'll eat it under a recast roof with gold inlay and leaf work. Enough to transport you back to the days of the rajas. You could start the meal with stuffed roasted paneer (cottage cheese) and follow it with a thali of ten items, including lal maas, served with flavoured rice and naan bread. If the food isn't captivating enough, there is live folk music and dancing in the courtyard.

Handi, on MI Road, is a must-visit for meat-eaters. It serves tender mutton cooked in traditional pots (handis) and smoked with burning charcoal, along with wafer-thin roomali rotis.

If you are a Rajasthani thali connoisseur, you must try the one served at Chokhi Dhani, about 22km outside Jaipur. This place comes alive every evening with a village-fair-like atmosphere. The entry fee covers the entertainment provided in the faux Rajasthani village - by magicians, acrobats and puppeteers - various games, hookahs, and a traditional rural meal in their dining area too. The utensils used are eco-friendly dried-leaf plates, bowls and earthen tumblers. Dinner begins with garlic chutney, jaggery, and the famed choorma. The rotis are made of millet, barley and wheat, and served with ker sangri pickle, gatte ki sabzi, khato (a tangy chickpea flour curry in buttermilk) and many other dishes from the countryside. Be warned: you can't avoid overeating because they don't stop serving you.

Sri Thal Village Restaurant, in Vaishali Nagar, is Chokhi Dhani on a lesser scale, serving thalis for about Rs 400 apiece. Its dal baati choorma thali is popular, as is the bajra ka kheechada.

Laxmi Misthan Bhandar, popularly known as LMB, is a landmark in the walled city of Jaipur, in the main Johari Bazaar. It is famous for its snacks and sweets, and is also popular for its vegetarian thalis. Try the kachoris and traditional Indian sweets like ghewar.

Natraj, also on MI Road, serves simple and inexpensive north Indian and Rajasthani thalis, with different breads, gatta, sangri and yoghurt salads. Next door is the equally pocket-friendly Surya Mahal.

If you want some excellent dal baati choorma at a reasonable rate, go to Thali House near Sindhi Camp. A meal for two won't cost more than Rs 400 here.

Try the non-vegetarian thali at Spice Court on Jacob Road. The keema baati is popular with tourists and locals alike.

Mohamaddi, near Chand Pole, is the place for kebabs and spicy kheema.

While the thalis at Rawat Kachori, near the bus station, are economical, people flock here for the street food, particularly the kachoris, a deep-fried snack. Opposite Rawat is Kanji, another great place to try traditional snacks or sweets, especially ladoos (balls made from flour and sugar).

And finally, wash it all down (or cool yourself after a round of shopping) with a lassi (a sweet yoghurt-based drink) at the famous Lassiwala Pan Shop at Ajmer Gate.

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