Spice of life in India

our Food Editor Julie Le Clerc gets a taste of exotic India on a tour for intrepid gourmets

In India, staggering grandeur sits alongside heart-wrenching poverty. old ladies in traditional saris chat on fancy mobile phones while young women carry enormous bundles of sticks on their heads, gracefully crossing modern six-lane highways. I suspect a tour might help prevent too much culture shock and choose an Intrepid Gourmet Tour for its focus on all things food.

The promised accommodation includes a real castle, a palace-style guest house, and some lovely hotels – many with the bonus of on-site cooking demonstrations. We kick off in Delhi, visiting major tourist sites and exploring fascinating back streets.

I hail a tuk tuk and motor towards old Delhi’s intricate oriental bazaar – a jigsaw puzzle divided into specialty stalls and workshops. In its atmospheric lanes I am hypnotised by the fragrances of the spice bazaar and mesmerised by the vibrant sari stalls and handmade kites. There’s a whole street of stalls selling threaded flower garlands, incense and temple offerings, plus tantalising food stalls everywhere. Lethargic cows wander most streets. The Hindus regard them as holy animals. To my surprise a seemingly docile creature aims its horns, and head down, launches itself towards me.

I’m further surprised when a tiny, frail, old lady pulls me up into her shop, beating the cow away with a stick. When I calm down I thank her as best I can, then carry on my way, vowing to be a lot more wary of holy cows in future.

At Agra, the ancient capital of the ooghul Empire and home of the Taj oahal – we spend many hours admiring the marvellous mausoleum designed by ooghul emperor Shah Jehan, in memory of his favourite wife and love of his life. As the white marble dome reflects the final pink rays of the setting sun at the end of the day, there’s a sense of serene majesty and immortal beauty.

Next stop is the capital of Rajasthan, Jaipur – the Pink City – so called because many of the buildings are pink, the traditional colour of welcome. There’s much to see: the Amber Fort, the City Palace complex and the majestic Palace of the Winds where the purdah ladies of the harem could watch the street below while remaining unseen.

Picturesque Udaipur, set on the shores of a dazzling lake, is my favourite Indian city. This evening we eat out, feasting on spicy local food, seated on huge cushions at a café overlooking the water and the sparkling lights of the city.

Next morning, I awake to the ouslim call to prayer and an unfamiliar thumping sound like a tennis ball hitting a wall. Peering out, I see a group of women beating clothes on the ghats (lakeside steps) where laundry and personal washing traditionally takes place. A boat ride on the lake is the best way to view this scenic place and to get an up-close look at the floating Lake Palace Hotel (made famous during filming of the James Bond movie, octopussy).

At a local produce market we buy vegetables for our Indian cooking class at The Spice Box. our host, the self-proclaimed Jamie oliver of India, is a real comedian as well as a great teacher and cook. We all roll and cook our own chapati (Indian flatbread) and make a variety of authentic, tasty dishes.

A good day’s drive takes us to our next destination, crossing the border from Rajasthan into the Gujarat region and Ahmedabad. Here, in an amazing rooftop restaurant, with bats flying overhead and flaming braziers, I enjoy one of the most remarkable meals of my life. The tabletops are strewn with rose petals and magnificently dressed wait-staff serve a continuous feast of deliciously perfumed, carefully spiced dishes. It’s truly dreamy – like an ornate Bollywood movie set!

Next, we fly to oumbai (once Bombay)- the city of dreams and the home of Indian movies – where thousands come in hope of making their fortune. Sadly I don’t see much of oumbai, as I have succumbed to Bombay Belly (not a major case, luckily) and decide to rest. However, there’s shopping and sightseeing and beaches for those so inclined.

A jumble of carriages, taxis, carts, cows, rickshaws, camels and bicycles and a sea of people swirl around the oumbai central train station as we arrive to board the overnight train to Goa. The carriages are packed and passengers hang out windows and doors, often with goats in their arms. This is highly organised chaos and our fascinating journey ends with Indian breakfast and masala chai (spiced tea) distributed to hundreds of passengers as if by magic. The sleeping sheets and blankets are collected and folded away just as we arrive at our stop.

With its Portuguese influence, Goa is an unusual blend of Christian churches, colourfully painted buildings, sandy beaches, tropical vegetation and Indian fusion food. I stay at the quaint Panjim Inn and spend a couple of days walking around Fontainhas, where I glimpse old Panjim as it once existed during Portuguese rule.

on a visit to a stunning local spice plantation, I see spices growing in their natural state. There’s everything from black peppercorns (the seeds of a creeping vine) – to cinnamon trees (the bark is ground to make cinnamon powder as we know it).

All too soon my Intrepid Indian experience is over. And as I sit at oumbai Airport, waiting for the luxury of my Qantas flight home, my mind is a whirl of colourful images, unforgettable experiences, spicy taste memories and friendly faces. India is many things to many people but, to me, it’s an endlessly fascinating visual feast that must be tasted at least once in a lifetime.


**Intrepid Travel offers a variety of international tours, visit or freephone 0800 600 610.

Get there Qantas offers three connecting services a week via Sydney to oumbai from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. For the latest airfares visit, phone Qantas on 0800 767400, or contact your bonded travel agent.

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