Some Like it Hot in India’s Himalayas

New food trails take clients through the Indian Himalayas

By: By Graham Simmons

Great Escapes to Asia

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Ideal Itineraries

Imperial India Passage
Over the course of 13 days, clients will travel through Delhi, Varanasi, Khajuraho, Agra, Jaipur and Udaipur. The trip starts with rickshaw ride through Old Delhi, a visit to India’s largest mosque — Jama Masjid — and a trip to New Delhi, home to UNESCO World Heritage Sites Humayun’s Tomb and Qutub Minar. Next, clients visit two religious centers — Varanasi (Hinduism) and Sarnath (the birthplace of Buddhism)— before they see the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort. The Amber Fort, City Palace and the Jantar Mantar await guests in Jaipur. Before returning to Delhi, travelers make a final stop to Udaipur, one of the most romantic cities in Rajasthan.
www.pacificdelighttours.com 
Magical Rajasthan
Country Walkers offers a 13-day walking tour of India during which clients walk approximately two to four miles per day in and around the famous Golden Triangle region. The tour starts and ends in Delhi and includes: a sunrise visit and walking tour of the Taj Mahal; visits to small villages throughout the region’s countryside; a stop at an eco-friendly Bishnoi village; and authentic Indian music and dance performances.
www.countrywalkers.com 
Palace on Wheels
Train travel through India is one of the best ways to experience its broad landscapes and varied regions, and Palace on Wheels does so in grand style aboard its luxury trains. With its seven-day itinerary, it takes clients from Delhi to Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Sawai Madhopur, Chittaurgarh, Udaipur, Bharatpur and Agra. In Sawai Madhopur, clients visit the Ranthambhore National Park, home to the ruins of a 10th-century fort and a massive wildlife sanctuary, widely considered the country’s best place for seeing tigers. Other activities include stops to famous forts and palaces, gallery visits and meal excursions. Fittingly, the trip ends with a visit to the epic Taj Mahal in Agra before heading back to the Safdarjung Train Station in New Delhi.
www.palaceonwheels.net 

New & Noteworthy

Epoque Adds India Boutique Hotel to its Collection
Epoque Hotels, a Miami-based Internet booking and resource engine for independently owned boutique hotels, recently added the Minerva Grand Secunderabad hotel to its network of luxury properties worldwide. The 105-room hotel, in the heart of Hyderabad, accommodates business and leisure travelers with its ideal proximity to business and entertainment districts. The hotel also offers a wide variety of business services and meeting rooms, and its popular Enigma lounge and upscale restaurant attract locals and visitors alike. Average room rates range from approximately $93 per night for a Premium room to $185 per night for a Grand Suite.
www.epoquehotels.com 
PATA Heads to Hyderabad
The Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) held its annual Travel Mart in Hyderabad from Sept. 16-19. The conference gave industry insiders a chance to network with hundreds of suppliers and buyer delegates, attend educational workshops and explore Hyderabad through both complimentary and optional tours of the city and its outlying regions.
www.ptmindia08.com 

Hotel Packages

ITC Windsor, Bengaluru
Couples seeking romance in Bangalore might enjoy a stay at the aristocratic ITC Windsor, Bengaluru, part of Starwood Hotels and Resort’s Luxury Collection. The 240-room property is offering a Romance package now through March 2009 that includes a two-night minimum stay, champagne and flowers upon arrival and in-room, daily breakfast. Rates vary from about $360 per night ito approximately $593 per night.
www.starwoodhotels.com/luxury 
Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa
Through Oct. 31, the Park Hyatt Goa Resort and Spa is offering a Tropical Escape package designed to wine, dine and rejuvenate guests. The package includes: three night’s accommodations; roundtrip airport transfers; approximately $207 in food and beverage credits; complimentary lifestyle consultations; a 25 percent discount on spa therapies and laundry; and daily yoga classes. Code HY625 must be presented at time of booking and rates vary.
www.goa.park.hyatt.com 
Wildflower Hall, Shimla
Wildflower Hall, an Oberoi resort nestled in the Himalayas, offers a special yoga program, available now through April 15, 2009. The program includes gardenview accommodations; breakfast; yoga, fitness, lifestyle and review consultations; spa treatments; personal fitness, meditation and yoga sessions; and Ayurvedic treatments. The yoga retreat is available for either an eight- or 15-day package. Single occupancy rates range from about $2,600 for eight days to about $5,545 for 15 days. Double occupancy rates range from approximately $2,640 for eight days to about $7,690 for 15 days.
www.oberoihotels.com 

Local Favorites

Market to Market
An authentic Indian shopping experience would not be complete without a visit to its many bustling markets. Chandni Chowk in Delhi is one of the country’s oldest and busiest markets and specializes in almost anything, including jalebis (sweet, butter-fried flour dough). In Hyderabad, pearl and bangle markets are found in the Charminar Old City markets. The flea market at Anjuna Beach in Goa offers crafts from jewelry to sarongs, set against a rocky beach landscape. Clients who love all that glitters will be enthralled with Jaipur’s local markets, famous for jewelry and gems. Precious silks are a specialty in Kanchipuram, Varanasi and Assam.

Bannerghatta National Park
Clients who want to take a walk on the wild side will delight in this 25,000-acre park, a haven for panthers, lions, tigers and a wide variety of exotic birds,
located outside southern Bangalore. Here, clients can take a small safari through the park’s Lion and Tiger Reserve via the Karnataka State Tourism Development Corporation’s large and well-equipped vans. Trekking through the parks hilly, natural terrain is also popular, and the park also boasts a zoological museum and Butterfly Park. The best time to visit Bannerghatta for a chance to spot wild animals is from November to June.

Colorful Cities
From pink and blue to gold, Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer possess eye-catching palettes for memorable cityscapes.

Japiur, Rajasthan’s capital is known as the "Pink City" thanks to the ochre-pink-hued walls of its older buildings and city walls. The city, founded in 1727 was originally designed to emulate the red sandstone buildings of Mughal cities and was repainted pink in 1876 for a visit by the Prince of Wales.

Blue hues light up Jodhpur, Rajasthan’s second largest city, thanks to the indigo-hued houses that surrounds its Mehrangarh Fort. The blue houses, originally built for Brahmins, were painted blue to deflect heat and mosquitoes. The 15th-century fort is a popular spot for locals and tourists alike thanks to its glittering mirror work, murals and gilt. Set against a backdrop of blue, it’s particularly stunning at sunset.

Golden sandstone used to build the Jaisalmer Fort has given Jaisalmer the nickname of the "Golden City." At the center of the city, in the heart of the Thar Desert, lies the Jaisalmer Fort. As India’s only "living fort," it is home to some 5,000 residents who wander through its 12-century temples, palaces, mansions and winding lanes to this day.

Destination Resources

Delhi Tourism and Transportation Development Corporation 
www.delhitourism.nic.in 
Department of Tourism, Art & Culture, Government of Rajasthan
www.rajasthantourism.gov.in 
Department of Tourism, Assam
www.assamtourism.org 
Department of Tourism, Government of Kerala
www.keralatourism.org 
Ministry of Tourism, Government of India
www.incrediblendia.org 
Karnataka Tourism
www.karnatakatourism.org 

Calendar

Oct. 2: Gandhi Jayanti. To honor the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, thousands travel to the Raj Ghat where he was cremated. The holiday is one of three official and declared holidays in the country and is observed throughout India.

Oct. 13-14: Marwar Festival, Jaipur. This annual event celebrates the artistic heritage and folklore of the Marwari culture through music and dance.

Oct. 28: Diwali. Also known as the Festival of Lights, Diwali is the most revered of Hindu festivals. It celebrates the day the Hindu god Rama (Vishnu) ended his 14-year exile and commences the start of a new year. Celebrations differ throughout all of India, and many incorporate dazzling firework displays.

Nov. 7-13: Pushkar Fair. Every year in the desert town of Pushkar, nomads gather for the world’s largest camel fair. Popular contests include a bridal competition and moustache judging, and the event is a big draw for many tourists. At the fair, cattle are bought and sold, fine crafts and jewelry are sold and performances entertain the crowds.

Jan. 19: Adoor Gajamela, Kerala. Also known as the Great Elephant March, this annual affair takes place on the 10th day of the Sree Parthasarathy Temple. Elephants play an integral role in Kerala, and are often referred to as the "sons of the sahya" (Western Ghats or Sahyadr mountains). Caparisoned, decorated elephants are a major highlight for locals and tourists alike, as are snake-boat races.

Indian food ranks among the world’s most aromatic and flavorful cuisines. While Tandoori, Mughlai and South Indian cuisines are well-known in western countries, the foods of northeastern India — exotic yak cheese, orchid buds, rare chital fish and rich pork dishes — are not, but a food trail through this region reveals some astonishing taste delights.

Flavors Found in Nature
The formerly independent state of Sikkim, located in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, has an eclectic cuisine, based around the staples of the Tibetan diet with the addition of some rare local specialties. Visitors invariably get treated to some of the finest delicacies that the region can offer. In West Sikkim, the heartland of the Sikkimese tea and cardamom growing industries, the exotic flora feature widely on local hotel and restaurant menus.

Young monks of Rumtek Monastery in the Himalayas enjoy awesome valley views. // (c) Graham Simmons
Young monks of Rumtek Monastery in the Himalayas enjoy awesome valley views. 

A typical meal at the new Norbu Gang Resort consists of sisnu (dal or lentil soup with nettles and ginger); bamboo shoots with yak cheese; pickled orchid flowers with tomato, oil and herbs; and ferns with garlic and onion. The subtlety of the flavor combinations nearly defies description.

Alcohol is extremely popular throughout Sikkim. In the case of some of the more suspect local brews, you might find yourself wondering whether a free seeing-eye dog is supplied with every bottle. For safety’s sake, stick with tomba or chang, a rice wine described as a beer but tasting more like Japanese sake. Made from fermented millet, it is served in a bamboo cylinder and sipped through a bamboo pipe. The cylinder is topped off with hot water and the resulting brew packs a real punch.

If You Can’t Take the Heat …
Farther along the food trail, the tea-growing state of Assam makes its own strong contribution to the culinary palette of northeastern India. In the state capital, Guwahati, the Paradise Airport Restaurant serves an excellent Assamese thali, a meal of several dishes served in a compartmented, stainless-steel tray. Dishes include rou maas tenga (a sour fish curry); khar (banana peel in baking soda — an acquired taste, which I didn’t have long enough to acquire); paka kharisa (subtly curried bamboo shoots); and aloo pitika (mashed potatoes with mustard, onion, ginger and green chilies). The meal is complemented by pudina chutney, a concoction of fiery small red chilies mixed with crushed mint, garlic and ginger that nearly burns a hole through the roof of your mouth.

The hottest of all chilies, however, is found in the Assamese city of Tezpur. The Naga Jolokia is said to be the hottest chili ever discovered. Its heat was measured at more than 855,000 Scoville units (the standard measure of chili "hotness") compared to 580,000 units for its nearest rival, Mexico’s Red Savina habanero.

Professor Naren Hazarika, a professor of chemistry at a local college in Tezpur, is a particularly devoted aficionado of the Naga Jolokia. His wife, Mrs. G. Sultana is also a chemistry teacher and, in her spare time, grows and harvests the plant for home use. The couple’s two young daughters, however, don’t particularly like the Naga Jolokia.

"We can’t eat it. It’s too strong for us," they said, almost in unison.

As for the flavor of the Naga Jolokia? If I ever get my taste buds back, I’ll let you know.

Head to Meghalaya
The Khasi people of the Indian state of Meghalaya have possibly the strangest — if not richest — cuisine in the whole country. A typical Khasi meal includes such dishes as jadoh (saffron rice cooked with pig lard); dohkleen (pigs’ brains with ginger); dohsniang (pork with onions and vegetables); and dokha (a hot fish curry). The flavor of these dishes is much better than their descriptions. These dishes are available both in the state capital Shillong and at Cherrapunji, billed as the wettest place on earth.

While you can get a good meal in Cherrapunji, the city is now suffering from a shortage of drinking water. Because Cherrapunji lies atop a high limestone plateau, rainfall drains away immediately, ending up on the plains of Bangladesh far below. Water has to be carried up from the plains during drier winter months.

So, while the food of northeastern India is some of the most unusual and tastiest to be found anywhere, don’t forget one crucial accompaniment — bring your own water.

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