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A journey to Rajasthan with Vivek Singh

A journey to Rajasthan with Vivek Singh

by Nancy Anne Harbord Friday, October 9, 2015

We continue our exploration of Indian regional cuisine, this time with chef Vivek Singh, executive chef of The Cinnamon Club restaurant group. Here in interview, he takes us through the culinary riches the various peoples of Rajasthan have to offer and the history and adversity that have shaped the cuisine.

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Specialising in vegetarian food, Nancy has cooked her way around Europe and now writes full time for publications and her blog, Delicious from Scratch.

Vivek Singh moved from India to London in 2001, opening his first restaurant, The Cinnamon Club, the same year. Two more venues – Cinnamon Kitchen and Cinnamon Soho – followed over the next decade, and Singh is now executive chef of the successful restaurant group. His ancestors came from Rajasthan and Singh spent three years living in the region before he travelled to the UK. He told us what he loves about the area and its people, as well as taking us on a culinary tour of the dishes and ingredients of Rajasthan, and the influences that have moulded them.

He told us: 'I absolutely loved the time that I spent there. I have many fond memories and a real respect for the traditions of the region – how the spirit of the people endures. Rajasthani cuisine, as well as the terrain, culture and people, is very rich, with vibrant colours. There are also lots of forts and palaces, home to royal households.' The region's history is one of royalty and warrior princes and princesses, with the original inhabitants of Rajasthan undertaking many battles with the Afghan Moghuls during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Singh told us: 'There were long expeditions, with people sometimes living hard, nomadic lives. Quite often you would find the same people having access to the most ridiculous, aspirational luxuries part of the year (it would not be out of place to find caviar or Champagne), then living an extremely basic existence, just surviving off the land, at other times. The terrain is difficult – it is extremely hot with very little growing there, very little vegetation at all. Adversity, both in terms of what can be grown and the lifestyle of living outside, has shaped the food into the rustic, hearty, gutsy cuisine you can experience today.'

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A nomadic lifestyle meant a staple such as ghee, which can last for months, was very commonly used.
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A young man prepares goat milk infused with saffron in his street food stall in Bikaner, Rajasthan.
Rajasthan has a very rich and diverse tradition of vegetarian cuisine, with hundreds of varieties of dishes from very few ingredients.

'The people and chefs are incredibly resourceful. They have very few ingredients – onion, some dried vegetables and lentils, yoghurt, very basic spices, some chilli – and with this they are able to create so many different types of dishes, over and over again. People learn to adapt. Goat milk is used in the region, as is goat meat. When you have less vegetation and lead a nomadic lifestyle, moving around with big herds of cattle is very complicated. But goats are more easily manageable, they don't need much grass and can nibble on any roots, so they require less space, less effort, less looking after. Ghee is also commonly used in Rajasthani cooking; it is an ultra clarified butter that is cooked for much longer, until it has absolutely no water or moisture left in it. Properly made ghee lasts forever, it never goes off, so when you're living outside with little refrigeration, ghee is a very reliable cooking ingredient.'

The Rajput warriors loved hunting game, so there is a long tradition of cooking these meats in Rajasthan. More common meats, poultry and some freshwater fish are also used, but Singh says 'equally, Rajasthan has a very rich and diverse tradition of vegetarian cuisine, with hundreds of varieties of dishes from very few ingredients.' The Marwari people, themselves strict vegetarians, are a trading community that originated in Rajasthan. Singh tells us: 'There is a saying in India, 'You will be able to find the Marwari even where a bullock car can't reach', meaning where there is no access and no road. These traders have excellent business sense and spread themselves all over the country. When these people travelled in the olden days, often by camel, they were away from home for long periods of time and would miss their home-cooked food. Their eating houses, known as Marwari bhojnalaya, sprung up all along the path of their trading routes, which in practice was almost everywhere, bringing their simple, inexpensive, meat-free cuisine to every part of India.'

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Singh tells us that the food of the region is savoury, spicy and sour, with a lot of chilli typically used. He cooked us two dishes to showcase the delights of this cuisine – one featuring rabbit, a meal with its roots in the nomadic warriors of yesteryear; and one vegetarian, a popular street snack in Rajasthan. 'Khad khargosh is a spiced rabbit leg, wrapped in bread. In the past, when hunters would kill a rabbit or hare, they would season it with plenty of spices, like garam masala or cloves, or tenderise it with something like papaya juice. They would then wrap the meat in bread, wrap that parcel in leaves and cover the whole thing with clay. They would dig a hole in the desert and bury this package, returning after a hunting expedition to find the whole thing baked and cooked through in the heat of the sand. Through the clay, the leaves and the bread, the rabbit is baked long and slow. This dish shows the ingenuity and adaptability of these people, and their spirit of hunting and living off the land.'

 

His Deep-fried banana chilli with potato and fenugreek is an elaborate version of a well-loved snack in Rajasthan, mirchi vada (chilli fritter). Vivek Singh told us: 'It can be bought on the street all day and symbolises India's relaxed, unstructured all-day dining. In India, people have been snacking for hundreds of years and there are no real set times for meals. That street ethos is the second story that I am telling, through my chilli fritters. Big, fat chillies are filled with spiced potato then dipped into gram (chickpea) flour batter and deep-fried, low and slow. For this meal I am serving the fritters with Ker sangri, a traditional bean and berry delicacy from Rajasthan which pays homage to their sensibility of simple cooking and using the same ingredients again and again.'

Vivek Singh paints a vivid picture of life in Rajasthan over the eras and the people who built a culinary legacy, despite the deprivation they battled daily. The role of the Rajput warriors who forged Rajasthan is equally fascinating, as is the breadth of the dishes they mastered. Another insight into the unique characteristics of India’s regional cuisines and their almost infinite variety.

 
 
 

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A journey to Rajasthan with Vivek Singh

 
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