Like most things in India, food is an event, a celebration, and it is one of the core elements that defines the Indian way of life. It’s a process, a journey that is as multifaceted, refined and devotional as any fine art.
Many of my non-Indian friends find it incredibly baffling and amusing how Indians can incessantly talk about food – before, during and even immediately after a meal! Just like one of England’s legendary debates on the correct order of putting jam and cream on the scones, food in India is an equally hot and contentious topic thanks to the mind-boggling variety of regional cuisines and preparations.
Even within the same region, each sub-culture can have a different variation of a preparation, which means that there is nothing like a typical Indian dish! It is this diversity that makes Indian cuisine so fascinating and adds to the allure for gastronomes world over.
This is why, for foodies who are seeking an extraordinary culinary experience on their holiday to India, I thoroughly recommend spending time with a local culinary expert. This could include learning from a top restaurant chef, cooking alongside a home cook who will show you how to make their family’s traditional dishes, or even joining volunteers cooking local meals for others. The options are endless and can be tailored to your own unique interests!
What are the top 12 expert-led culinary experiences and classes in India?
Ancient medical science of Ayurveda originated in India. Indians firmly believe that one is what one eats and regulation of diet is one of the core elements of Ayurveda. Traditional Indian food is very rich in therapeutic elements including antioxidants, dietary fibres and pro-biotics and many of these properties are further enhanced by the way the food is processed, blended and preserved including traditional techniques such as sprouting, malting and fermentation, which are beautifully highlighted in the accompaniments that are a central feature of any Indian meal.
Voted as the best destination spa in the world by the readers of Conde Nast Traveller in 2019, Ananda in the Himalayas is perhaps the finest wellness retreat in the country for those looking for a holistic rejuvenation and wanting to learn all about the principles of Yoga and Ayurveda. In Oprah Winfrey’s words, “going to Ananda is more like a pilgrimage than a visit”. For me, being in the Himalaya itself is an incredibly spiritual experience and in my opinion, no other retreat in the country offers a more special and peaceful setting than Ananda.
Ananda’s wellness cuisine incorporates key principles from Ayurveda, taking into consideration not just taste, but suitability to individual body type. The emphasis is on fresh natural foods that are low in fat and calories, and the avoidance of added or artificial salts, colours, flavours, or preservatives. More than a strict regime, Ayurveda and Yoga are a ‘way of life’ that can be easily followed at home.
For those interested in internal healing, Ananda’s wellness cuisine concept can be understood and practised at their show kitchen where expert chefs will instruct you in how to incorporate simple Ayurvedic principles at home.
Another retreat that closely follows the principles of Ayurveda is Shreyas Retreat, located on the outskirts of Bangalore in South India. Inspired by the tradition of vegetarian, seasonal, cereal-rich and herb-infused cuisine, Shreyas offers the perfect farm-to-fork experience. Their head chef Rajan has been creating holistic and nurturing dishes based on Ayurvedic philosophy for the past 17 years and comes with over three decades of experience in the Indian Army as well as several embassies.
One of the most unique socially-conscious experiences offered at the retreat is a chance for the guests to cook and serve lunch to children at a nearby orphanage that is funded and supported by Shreyas, reinforcing the traditional Indian concept of community service. This service also facilitates internal healing through the ‘joy of giving’. It is such a humbling, positive and meaningful way to engage with the less privileged community.
A fairy-tale land of majestic forts and ornate palaces as well as a vibrant culture, Rajasthan represents India of most travellers’ imagination. One of the best ways to experience its regal grandeur is by being a guest of a princely family in their ancestral home and immersing into their age-old cultural traditions and lifestyle.
One of my favourite hidden gems, which is also renowned for its culinary flair, is Shahpura Bagh, located in an idyllic countryside setting between Jaipur and Udaipur. A lush estate with myriad birds in residence, the luxurious retreat offers nine suites set in 40 acres of nature in two restored ancestral bungalows.
There is plenty to do in the area including farm visits, interactions with local artisans, sunsets at Dhikola Fort, birdwatching excursions and laidback village walks. Wholesome Rajasthani food is a standout feature at Shahpura Bagh and under the expert guidance of Maya Singh, one could enjoy an exquisite and in-depth culinary session to learn about the family’s royal recipes that have been passed down from one generation to the next.
Still considered their custodians by the locals, the family is deeply involved in looking after the local community and have ensured that sustainability and social responsibility remain the heart and soul of Shahpura Bagh. Part of the revenue generated by the hotel is contributed to the family foundation, which funds a variety of projects in the region including rainwater harvesting, healthcare, children’s education, preservation of local arts and organic farming.
Another royal household that is renowned for its culinary prowess is Chanoud Garh, located in a beautiful village between Jodhpur and Udaipur. Intensely personal and engaging, Chanoud Garh is a lovingly restored 300-year-old fort-palace with just ten rooms, where one enjoys being an esteemed guest of the royal family belonging to the legendary Mertia Rajputs.
The palace kitchens are personally presided over by Thakurani Sahiba Marudhar Kumari where one can learn the art of preparing traditional family recipes inspired by Rajasthani, Marwari and central Indian cuisines. All the ingredients used, including the wheat, pulses and milk, are organic and sourced from the palace’s own estate. Besides culinary experiences, days can be spent taking invigorating jeep drives in the desert and exploring the village with the retired headmaster of the local school.
I come from Gujarat in Western India, which is home to the most varied and delicious vegetarian food in the country. Gujaratis are renowned for their love of food. What better way to experience this than by enjoying a hearty home-cooked meal on a lush organic farm located in a quintessential rural setting on the outskirts of Ahmedabad and learning all about the vegetables, pulses, herbs and spices used in the region?
Try your hand at making bajra rotla, a traditional Gujarati flat-bread made of ground pearl millet, typically had with curried vegetables, a thick spiced gravy of yogurt and chickpea flour, and a variety of accompaniments including pickles and jaggery made of fresh sugarcane juice. SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association) – a well-known non-profit organisation who we work very closely with – have partnered with the community of Ganeshpura village to set-up a unique eco-tourism project.
They promote the importance of organic farming and allow urban dwellers and foreign visitors to experience untouched and blissfully sustainable traditional rural living and food. 100% of the revenue generated through this project is utilised to support the community.
Another food heaven that is very close to my heart is Mumbai, which is home to some of the most popular street food dishes in the country such as vada pav, an Indian-style burger consisting of a deep fried spiced potato dumpling placed inside a bread bun with a variety of chutneys; bhelpuri, a savoury snack made of puffed rice mixed with vegetables and tamarind and coriander chutneys; grilled sandwiches; pav bhaji, a thick vegetable curry served with a soft bread roll; and kanda poha, a light and healthy snack made with pressed rice, boiled potatoes and finely chopped onions sautéed with mild spices, just to name a few. Mumbai is also home to the Parsi Zoroastrian community and an ideal base to sample their incredibly unique cuisine.
Accompanied by a renowned city-based chef, you will embark on a journey to explore some of Mumbai’s mouth-watering culinary delights discovering local food markets, small family-owned eateries as well as famous restaurants and bars. During the tour, you will also have a chance to learn about Mumbai’s unique tiffin delivery service operated by the dabbawallas.
More than 200,000 lunchboxes are transported between individual homes and offices on a daily basis using a variety of modes of transport with such accuracy that the Harvard Business School has awarded them its coveted Six Sigma status. Being my second home in India, food trails in Mumbai are a regular feature every time I am visiting with my family.
South Indian food reminds me of dosa, a crispy savoury pancake; idli, a soft and fluffy steamed cake made of fermented rice and lentil batter; and umpa, a traditional breakfast dish made of roasted semolina. After Gujarati, South Indian is my second favourite Indian cuisine. But there is much more variety to South Indian food, ranging from Coromandel to Malabar coasts and of course the interior parts between the two.
Kiran Rao, the owner of Chennai’s Amethyst Café and Pondicherry’s award-winning Coromandel Café, has pioneered the region’s luxury café culture. After finishing her education in England, when Kiran moved back to Chennai in the late 90’s, she missed the relaxed buzz of European cafes and decided to create a cultural sanctuary in her 100-year-old ancestral home that would provide a relaxed atmosphere for social interaction as well as showcase her love of European and traditional regional food.
Kiran’s empire has grown over the years and she now owns various cafes, boutiques and event spaces in Chennai and Pondicherry that have become sought-after venues for artistic, literary and social initiatives. With a major in history and social anthropology, Kiran’s perspective and understanding of Indian heritage is insightful and extensive, and sharing a delectable meal and a rich conversation with her at her charming home in Pondicherry is a privilege that is usually reserved only for her close friends and family.
Mrs Meenakshi Meyyappan, locally known as Arajachi, is a living legend. Matriarch and owner of The Bangala in Karaikudi, her kitchen is an institution of traditional Chettinad cuisine and her home is a living museum of her family and cultural heritage. Chettiars are a wealthy merchant community with business interests across Asia spanning from China to Myanmar and Malaysia, trading in gems, spices and silk. Their impressive mansions, many over 200 years old, are mostly vacant today as most of the families have settled abroad or in business capitals across India.
Mrs Meyyappan spent most of her married life between Chennai, Karaikudi and Malaysia but when her family opened The Bangala as Chettinad’s first ‘heritage hotel’, she decided to move back to Karaikudi, as The Bangala gave her the natural opportunity to hone and showcase her flair for hospitality and present and serve the best food in Chettinad. Their legendary family recipes have been beautifully captured in the book The Bangala Table - Flavors and Recipes from Chettinad, which Mrs Meyyappan has co-authored with her friends Sumeet Nair and Jill Donenfeld.
This beautiful volume, featuring an extensive collection of 150 vegetarian and non-vegetarian recipes including classic Chettinad fare as well as Raj-era ‘butler cuisine’ is a must-have for any food lover and chef. In 2019, The Bangala’s kitchen was rated 7th best in India by Conde Nast Traveller. A masterclass with the family’s renowned chefs offers an extraordinary opportunity to learn the age-old recipes that make up one of India’s best kept culinary secrets!
Located in the historic town of Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, Svatma is a charming heritage hotel partly housed in a 100-year-old building. Renowned for its traditions steeped in arts, music, culture and dance, Thanjavur is home to UNESCO-inscribed Brihadishwara Temple, which is one of India’s finest architectural gems.
Wellness and cultural immersion take centre stage at Svatma and its General Manager and Executive Chef K Sridhar’s love of home-style pure vegetarian Tamil cooking is mastered as an art form in the hotel’s refined kitchens. From classical Carnatic concerts to the intricate arts of Tanjavur Painting, bronze sculpting, Bharatnatyam and traditional handloom weaving, Thanjavur will enthral you in many ways.
For a taste of traditional Keralan food, there are very few experiences that are as authentic and interesting as a cooking demonstration with Renu Abraham Pottamkulam and her daughter-in-law Tracy Thomas at their charming waterfront home in Cochin. Quite a contrast to Tamil Nadu’s vegetarian fare, Keralan food is based on fresh seafood and meat dishes including mussels, fishes and prawns.
The famous Malabar biryani consists of rice cooked with chicken or beef and spices and is typically served with a variety of chutneys and pickles. My favourite Keralan meal is Sadhya - a vegetarian feast containing 24 to 28 types of dishes that is usually had to celebrate important festivals such as Onam.
One of the most interesting cities in India, Hyderabad rose to prominence during and post Qutub Shahi era when it flourished in fine arts, architecture and international trade. Known as the ‘City of Nizams’, it is home to one of the most extravagant collections of jewellery in the country.
With such an illustrious past, it is natural for the city to have an incredibly rich heritage in food. In fact, it is the only Indian city to be officially recognised as a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy. I firmly believe that the authenticity, quality and repertoire of food available in traditional households cannot be replicated in any restaurant or hotel.
The charm of having a lovingly curated meal accompanied by personal stories of old Hyderabad offers an extraordinary insight into the city’s culture and traditions. In the royal Nawabi style, imagine sitting down for a traditional chowki dinner where food is served on low four-sided tables with people sitting on the floor with bolsters to lean on, and enjoying some of the finest delicacies.
Imagine feasting on haleem (pounded wheat and mutton cooked overnight), biryani (a rice dish cooked with meat and spices), kebabs, vegetarian dishes such as kut, mirchi ka salan (a chilli and peanut curry) and baghare baigan (a brinjal curry with varied breads), halwas and other sweets including Badam ki Jaali, which was served to Queen Elizabeth when she visited the city.
Dilkash Abbas, Dilnaz Baig and Farah Bangera come from a distinguished Hyderabadi lineage. Experiencing traditional Hyderabadi hospitality and food in their beautiful homes is a truly special and memorable experience. Dilkash is a fabulous cook herself, and her home is filled with a stunning collection of local handicrafts such as Kalamkari (hand-painted or block-printed cotton and silk) and Bidri (intricate metal craft).
Bengali sweets are my favourite! Sandesh and Rasgulla made of fresh cottage cheese; Mishti doi, creamy yogurt mixed with date palm jaggery; as well as Patishapta, thin crepes stuffed with a filling of jaggery and grated coconut, are just divine! Savoury dishes are cooked in mustard oil, which gives them quite a unique and punchy flavour. Bengali style Chana Dal - a delicious lentil dish cooked with Bengal gram, Baigun Bhajja – pan fried aubergines sizzling with aromatic spices, and Bhappa Aloo – potatoes cooked in coconut paste and mustard oil with a traditional combination of five spices are some of my favourite savoury dishes.
The most popular and known Bengali dish though is maach (fish) and bhaat (rice). Freshwater fishes, prawns, mustard, poppy seeds, and rice form the staple Bengali Cuisine. With countless rivers surrounding the region, more than forty types of freshwater fish can be found in Bengal. One of the famous fish dishes is Bhetki Paturi, which is succulent barramundi marinated with Bengali mustard and steamed in a banana leaf.
There are very few places that capture the essence of Bengal as beautifully as the impressive heritage retreat of Rajbari Bawali, located on the outskirts of Kolkata. Built around 250 years ago, this grand mansion showcases the opulence and aristocracy the Zamindars (landlords) of Bengal were once renowned for.
Traditional food and service are a highlight aspects of The Rajbari Bawali. The historical form of service à la russe is a manner of dining that involves courses being brought to the table sequentially, and the food being portioned on the plate (usually at a sideboard in the dining room) by servers before being placed on the dining table. This colonial tradition was adopted by the Bengalis and is still continued in many households.
Typically, a Bengali meal starts with bitters – Shukhto to cleanse the palette. This is followed by a green leafy vegetable preparation before moving on to the main course of dal (lentils) accompanied by at least three types of fried vegetables, fish and meats. The main course is followed by chutney and popaddum, which serve as a pallet cleanser before the dessert. The retreat’s Resident Director and Executive Chef, Mrinalinee Majumdar conducts exquisite culinary sessions that offer a perfect opportunity to understand all the ingredients that create the essence of Bengali Cuisine.
Punjabi food is the most famous and loved Indian food all over the world. It is fabulously hearty, just like Punjabi people who are renowned for their benevolence and gallantry. One of the most unique and spiritual places to experience authentic Punjabi culture and cuisine is the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine for followers of Sikh religion. Ever since the temple was built over four hundred years ago, free hot meals are served at the temple every day to all visitors regardless of their religion or faith.
Locally known as langar, more than 100,000 people are fed on a daily basis around the clock. The temple’s massive kitchen is entirely run by an army of volunteers and is considered to be the largest community kitchen in the world.
Joining hands with the volunteers in the kitchen not only allows an extraordinary opportunity to learn about the local cuisine, but it is also an immersive experience highlighting the importance of seva (community service), which is one of the core principles of Sikhism. Although the food is relatively simple, sharing a meal with thousands of people from all walks of life is a truly humbling experience.
For lip-smackingly good local delicacies, an expert-led food trail through the old town is a must for any gastronome. My absolute favourites are Amritsari kulchas, a crispy wood-fired flatbread stuffed with potato or cottage cheese, which is served with chole and spicy chutney; chole puri, chickpea cooked in a wonderfully rich and spicy curry served with a soft deep-fried bread; and lassi, a rich and creamy yogurt drink available in a huge variety of flavours from mango to almond and saffron.
Another meal that I really enjoy is makki di roti and sarson da saag, which consists of a fresh mustard-leaf vegetable served with a wholesome cornflour flatbread. It is a seasonal dish available during winter. If you have a sweet tooth like me, North Indian sweets are to die for! My favourites are jalebis and gulab jamuns, and the tiny and unassuming shop of Gurdas Ram Jalebi Wala is perhaps the finest traditional mithaiwala (sweet maker) in town.
As you can see, Indian food is something I feel very passionate about and I would be delighted to discuss Indian culinary journeys further. Please do contact me directly or at The Explorations Company if you would like more information.
Images kindly provided courtesy of:
The Bangala (copyright Catherine Karnow), Chanoud Garh, Shahpura Bagh, Rajbari Bawali, Shreyas Retreat, Ananda in the Himalayas.