by Eric Pateman
India is a land of extremes, untold treasures, mystery, humanity, opulence and modesty. I recently explored the northern environs of this magnificent nation with my wife and 3 young daughters (ages 10, 9 and 6) on a journey that took us from remote jungles to industrious cities, from quaint villages to inconceivable palaces.
With three weeks spent traveling by air, rail, auto, bike and on foot, the one thing I can tell you about India is that you always need to expect the unexpected! There is always something around the corner that will captivate and mystify you! The people are generous, and kind, and they offer a level of service that can only be described as anticipatory rather than the customary reactionary kind we are so used to tolerating in North America. You will rarely be left wanting anything and they will embrace you and open their homes and villages to you.
We started off by landing in Mumbai and then driving five hours to Pench down roads that, unless you have experienced them, are done no justice by words. Cows in the middle of the streets, more cars and horns that I even knew possible and we even got passed by a motorcycle carrying two people and four live goats!
We spent the first week of our trip in the region of Madhya Pradesh immersed in the jungles of PenchandKahna at two different jungle lodges: Jamtara Wilderness Lodge and Kahna Jungle Lodge. The lodges were super comfortable and well-appointed but it was the service that took them from good to great! Warm towels, hot water bottles, breakfasts on the hoods of the jeeps, every dietary restriction, nothing was amiss! The great grandfather of the current lodge owners was instrumental in helping to preserve the lands and ensure the survival of the tigers in the region, and these lodges are a testament to his vision and passion.
I have to be honest, India was never on my bucket list as a wilderness safari destination, but I was blown away with the beauty and access to animals, and I guess I should have expected more given this is the land that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. We spent many hours exploring the vast trails looking for the elusive tigers which make the area so famous, but also large herds of guar (Indian bison, cheetal, sambar, nilgai, wild dogs and pigs, plus smaller concentrations of leopards, sloth bears, deer, hyenas and more. The girls were entranced with the monkeys (some of which even jumped onto our train), wild peacocks and, of course, the elephants!
When we were not out on safari, there were many other activities to keep us entertained and more importantly from my parental standpoint, learning every step of the way. Cooking classes with exotic ingredients that re-acquainted us with what things are actually supposed to taste like (pomegranate, spices, chai tea, etc.), saree tying lessons, visits to local villages, schools and even a jaggery farm where they produce the traditional non-centrifugal cane sugar which is used in so many of their local dishes.
As a chef, culinary traveler and overall food fanatic, the most obvious draw to India for me was the culinary scene. Our second week saw us travelling from the jungles to explore cities filled with culture and, of course, food. Delhi, Jodhpur, Deogarh and lastly Jaipur were on the agenda, with experiences in each ranging from dining in history-laden palaces on 24k gold cutlery to sitting in the warm dirt and eating with our hands while watching chefs cook over an open fire in the middle of a local farm. The cuisine of India is regionally and seasonally diverse, and showcases an extraordinary array of flavours, textures and colours. And while my daughters are certainly more adventurous eaters than many kids their age (a product of their environment, I am sure), the cuisine is very accommodating to all palates and dietary preferences (it is not just spicy curries).
When travelling, I seek out experience-based eating. I am not one for arriving with my guidebook in hand, quickly directed to the most advertised or expensive restaurants. I want to find where the locals eat! I want to learn and to experience a variety of ingredients, styles and techniques. I want to shop the markets, eat the things you are not supposed too (there is a reason my wife packed what most would equate to a full pharmacy in her suitcase) and taste things I have never experienced before.
This adventurous spirit led to us enjoying meals in village homes and learning to make traditional dishes including poha as well as a variety of curries. We tasted samosas and sweets, kulfi and pakoras and endless cups of chai from under the stairs of markets where vendors sat cross-legged and waited on an endless line customers. We also had farm lunches with simple fire cooked breads topped with ghee (clarified butter) and that incredible local jaggery sugar, and even more local breads stuffed with goat meat and buried deep in a fire fueled with dried cow dung known as “Gomaya” or “Komaya”.
I could have spent weeks just exploring the markets and kitchens of the people. So many new flavours and textures just begging to be discovered!
Food is one of life’s great connectors and something that bridges all cultures. From India’s top chef, Asish Kumar Roy of the famed Taj Hotels, to farmers growing sugar cane, home cooks, and even the son of a Maharaja in Devshree who now owns a stunning Relais and Chateaux lodge, the people who welcomed us into their homes and businesses always made us feel part of their family when seated around a table filled with endless conversation.
While there is no doubt that tourism is important to the villages we visited, the people were genuinely proud to show us their homes and share a meal with us. The fact that we brought our girls with us, to regions rarely frequented by foreign children, made us even more of a welcomed spectacle with the sharing sweets, being invited to fly kites on the roofs of local homes, and endless hand gestures as conversation flowed freely, even without a single understandable word between them.
People today are looking for transformative experiences when travelling, and this is even more important when travelling with kids who should be in school. They require the ability to learn and gain some cultural context. The ability to expose them to history and culture was of paramount importance for us. India is obviously so vastly different than Canada, but the education for the girls (and even for my wife and I) when you have the ability to touch walls and forts from 700AD and stand beside the world’s largest sundial that was built hundreds of years ago, really puts things into perspective and offers a level of learning that no book will ever offer.
BOOKING A TRIP TO INDIA
As you may have gathered, travelling is a big part of my life (and my family’s life). I am someone who only books a flight in and out, and a hotel room the first night, only if I am pushed. After that, everything else is left up in the air as I have severe FOMO and require flexibility when travelling.
That all being said, India is a country that is intimidating even for experienced travellers, and I went with a planned itinerary. Our trip was curated by a company called Encounters Asia who did an incredible job of allowing us to not only see such a variety of experiences in India, but they were adept at handling a family with three young girls and making sure they were well looked after including activities, adjoining rooms, cooking classes, cultural experiences, guides and so much more. They also catered to my FOMO and allowed us flexibility with our guides, times and plans, so I felt (somewhat) in control of our plans. We can’t wait to return and explore of India – heading south to the Goa coast next time. India has captured our hearts, our palates and our adventurous spirit!
Other fantastic hotels we stayed at:
TASTE OF INDIA IN CANADA
In Canada, we are so fortunate to have a large immigrant population of Indians who are willing to share their culture with us including their culinary flavours. If your trip to India is still a ways off, you can enjoy the flavours locally. While there are many great Indian restaurants available from Coast to Coast, some of my favourites in Vancouver and Toronto include the much-awarded Vij’s and cheap and cheerful House of Dosas in Vancouver, and Pukka and Aanch Modern Indian, both of which offer a modern twist on Canadian/Indian in Toronto.
About Eric Pateman
Eric is one of the world’s leading experts on Culinary Tourism and is one of our nation’s leading ambassadors of Canadian cuisine. He owns and operates the successful Edible Canada brand of companies, which includes an award-winning restaurant, retail stores and a culinary travel division. Additionally, Eric has a salt company called Amola and a consulting practice that keeps him travelling around the world about 250 days a year for both public and private sector clients to define cuisines, build brands and shape the future of food. You can follow Eric’s global culinary adventures on his Instagram account @ericpateman.