If one wishes to understand Rajasthani cuisine, it is imperative to take into account the landscape and climate of the region to inform that study. A predominantly arid area, the harshness of the weather and the environment has influenced the cuisine and the ingredients, as well as the substitutes used. An obvious example is the scarcity of water and its impact on the cuisine. As a result, it is used with caution; buttermilk or diluted yogurt is added to thicken curries and gravies. Or take the famous Dal Banjara, which is traditionally made from chana dal as it is the most commonly available and inexpensive dal in the region. However, with its transition to five-star hotel menus, Dal Banjara has evolved considerably, including the use of ghee, which was something the banjaras could never afford. But Rajasthani food lends itself to these convenient mutations. After all, creativity is an intrinsic tenet of the cuisine, albeit driven by necessity.
I had a cooking lesson from chef Murari Meena and executive chef Shivaji of Amanbagh Hotel in Alwar district, Rajasthan. Chef Meena hails from the neighbouring village of Ajabgarh, is a self-taught cook who was absorbed into the hotel kitchens after cooking for the project team. It has been eight years since and chef Meena has grown to become the in-house Rajasthani food expert at Amanbagh. He tells me that there is great diversity in the cuisine, but it is not in the way one would assume it to be so. For example, Lal Maas is cooked a particular way in these parts, but the recipe goes through a transformation by the time it gets to nearby Jaipur. It is but one of the dishes that belongs to everyone across community and class barriers.
Chef Meena, who hails from the predominantly Meena village of Ajabgarh, tells me that in their community whilst women do most of the cooking, it is the men who make the non-vegetarian food. He has learnt these dishes, not from his mother, but from his father, who is a fine cook. So it was not a big leap for him to take to cooking as a career; he had been learning all his life.
Economic factors are another aspect. Royal households had the resources to cook the same dishes in ghee and boasted an increasingly Mughal influence in successive years; inter-marriage being one reason for this merging of