“A tour group? As in, a group of tourists packed in a charter bus with their issues on display for everyone to see? Swooning over the ‘exotic’ on display at tourist hotspots where I’m sure to be ripped off? Sounds great, let’s do it!”
My sarcasm did nothing to deter her. Unfazed—as though she expected my response—and determined to make her case, my wife Karissa continued. “The company limits each tour to eight travelers, places four to a car and, while they do visit some historic sights, they make a point of going off the beaten path. And it’s a vegetarian company— meaning that we can eat everything offered!”
Being a vegetarian in rural Washington was beginning to test the finitude of Karissa’s passivity for well-intentioned waiters promoting chicken as a meatless option. Moreover, she had lost her taste for the only vegetarian option available at coastal restaurants: iceberg salads.
A few days went by until the question came again. “Do you want to go to India for our anniversary?” We hadn’t traveled since our honeymoon six years prior—a short trip across the border into Canada—and we’d felt pulled to India for just as many years. I couldn’t decline, despite how reluctant I felt about a structured tour.
“OK, if we’re going to travel with a group, let’s invite friends,” I suggested. It was all the confirmation she needed. We contacted and received an affirmative reply from our close friends Mike and Pam, who were teaching in China at the time. Karissa immediately booked reservations for four.
We arrived in Delhi late— while I don’t recall the exact time, I do remember it being late enough that one does not expect to see chipper individuals milling about. Yet, there they were, Singhji and Zac—the co-owners of Veg Voyages and our guides for the next two weeks—their smiles wide and welcoming. After acclimating for a couple of days in Delhi, we piled into compact SUVs, veered into traffic, and we were away on our excursion.
And a remarkable excursion it was. Of course the food did not disappoint—it far exceeded our expectations—but perhaps the most surprising thing was what we thought we knew about Indian food coming into this trip. Our previous exposure to Indian fare—presumably homogenized and bolstered up by the culinary heritage of restauranteurs and the average American palate—was infinitesimal compared to the vast possibilities that emerged from Rajasthan’s austere desert landscape. Sixteen days, ten different locales and approximately forty-five vegetarian meals into our trip, we had not eaten aloo gobi, chana masala, naan or any other standards found on the menus of our favorite Indian restaurants in the States.
As the tour came to a close, our group had a deeper appreciation for the regional nuances of Indian cuisine. And I had come to accept that tour companies weren’t inherently dastardly businesses. In fact, Zac and Singhji’s joint ability to tread thoughtfully through communities and interact respectfully with community members, whilst providing their clients with an insightful and relaxing experience, warranted admiration. What was more, during the course of the tour, Singhji’s joviality and Zac’s attentive consideration for people in which he came into contact fostered the workings of new friendships that have lasted to the present day. Our days in Rajasthan were too few; our introduction to Rajasthani culture too brief; our return inevitable.
Seven years later, Mike and I arrived once more to the same welcoming smiles in hopes of broadening our personal understanding of Rajasthani cuisine. We returned to the desert with Zac, Singhji, and this time Zac’s wife Yusi, with the express hope of documenting the preparation of certain Rajasthani dishes.
Mike, Pam, Karissa and I have partnered with VegVoyages to pursue a dream we’ve had since that original tour so long ago. We are in the process of putting together a cookbook/coffee-table book that showcases a variety of the unique and wondrous dishes of Rajasthani cuisine. We will feature various cooks from the region—including the hospitable and generous women of Singhji’s own family!—and deliver recipes from home kitchens as well as palaces, truck stops as well as restaurants. We will dive into the cultural importance of certain ingredients and dishes, and showcase the beauty of the region through original photography.
The *yet unnamed* book will be published by Yellow Heron Press and set for release early next year. You are invited to follow the project as it develops here at our blog. You can also see some of the photos taken during the making of this book at Rob’s website.