an indian excursion

A whirlwind trip to India with the patrons of the Auckland Writers Festival takes in a charming hotel, a couple of modern Indian cookbooks – and Bolliwood hysteria.

They say, “Everything you have ever heard about India is true, but the opposite is true too.” After 10 whirlwind days on a trip with the patrons of the Auckland Writers Festival to northern India, I will second that.

We started in New Delhi, moved on by coach to Agra to see the magnificent Taj Mahal and then had five days in Jaipur to attend that city’s famous literature festival. Along the way there were glorious buffet meals, superb street food, some interesting meals in restaurants and of course numerous visits to stunningly preserved temples, forts and other historic edifices that reached back to the 15th century.

No, it was not hot (I needed a sweater and jeans most of the time and I hadn’t packed those – thank goodness for the wonderful pashmina stores) and no again, neither I nor anyone else in our party of 20 was ever sick (we were careful to eat only hot cooked food). We stayed in the stunning Imperial Hotel in Delhi which is totally reminiscent of the British Raj, while in Jaipur we almost took over the Narain Niwas Palace Hotel. Almost everyone simultaneously declared it the Third Exotic Marigold Hotel. It truly could have been.

The Literature festival was crazy. Stephen Fry, Margaret Attwood, Atul Gawande, Esther Freud, Helen McDonald and a host of other well-regarded authors, musicians and artists took to the stage to share tales of their writing. The five-day programme was bulging with opportunity for the thousands that attended to listen and learn, while the extended lunch buffet feasts were filled with every day with different curries, breads, rice dishes and more. Delicious!

Ten books were launched during the festival, and two of those were cookbooks. In their own way these events were complete opposites. The first, Indian Accent, was an utterly sophisticated book from the Delhi restaurant of the same name. The panel to launch the book in the crowded Google-sponsored Mughal tent was headed by journalist and socialite Shobhaa De who took the audience through the book with the author, adventurous and cutting-edge chef Manish Mehrotra, and Rohit Chawla, one of India’s top food photographers.

Indian Accent opened in Delhi in 2009 with an inventive Indian menu at The Manor, New Delhi. It serves Indian food for the 21st century with a unique marriage of global ingredients and techniques with the flavours and traditions of India and has become India’s most celebrated restaurant. It is the only Indian restaurant named in the current list of the World’s Best 50 restaurants, and for one short minute I thought about buying the book to bring home to the very talented Sid Sahrawat of Cassia in central Auckland. Two things put me off. First was Mehrotra’s food is probably as inventive and interesting as the food as Cassia but certainly, by the look of the pages, is no better. It is good to know that here in New Zealand we have an equivalent. And secondly, the book was as big as a tombstone, and weighed in around two or three kilos. Try putting that in your suitcase!

As I took my seat in the Mughal tent for the second cookbook launch, Rajasthan On A Platter: Healthy, Tasty, Easy I pondered why almost every other seat was taken and the crowds were building on the edges. The authors were two seniors, Suman Bhatnagar and Pushpa Gupta, both beautifully dressed in saris and their silvery grey hair neatly swept back into buns. Their book is a simple publication with the look of home-shot photography. They explained to a very calm, polite, but somewhat disinterested audience, Rajasthani cuisine is famous worldwide and in this book they explore the different types of Rajasthani dishes and its nuances. They were very proud of their recipes, carefully researched and tested, and emphasised the health factor and calorie analysis of their food.

I whispered to the women next to me, “Why are these elderly ladies so popular with so many young attendees?” They explained that the following session, Literature vs Cinema – Influence in Shaping Beauty Ideals had been transferred at the last moment to the large marquee we were sitting in and that everyone was claiming a place to see their Bolliwood heroes.

And that was exactly why the crowds were there. I still think about those lovely ladies and how excited they must have been to draw such a huge audience. By the time their session wrapped up more than 4000 Indians, both young and old had gathered. Some were even perching in the surrounding trees for a better view. I hastily exited, giving up my seat to my daughter Katie who was keen to see the next session. She loved it, texting me, “This panel is mad. But everyone here is a crazed fan screaming at every word.” Incredible India. Lauraine Jacobs