Gourmet holidays are not new in India although it's only recently that this has become a selling point drawing eager food connoisseurs from across the globe.
“And what would you like to have for dinner?” a very talented Chef Kathir asked us. Merrily swinging on the oonjal — at Maison Perumal, a bijou B&B in Pondicherry — our tummies still happily full from the memorable lunch of fluffy aapams, and aromatic, straight-from-the-kadai vegetable stew, we asked him what he could do for us. “Why, anything you want!” he replied, clearly surprised that it should ever be thought otherwise. That dinner, made to our individual, fussy specifications — tomato mint soup, vegetarian steaks (without aubergines) plus palm-sized chapathis and subzi, topped off with piping hot gulab jamoons — was certainly the highlight of an otherwise hot, humid weekend in Pondicherry, and it made us wonder — were we on a bespoke, foodie break after-all?
Then again, gourmet holidays are not exactly new in the country, having been, for long, very much part of the Indian holiday scene, only without the glossy brochures and showy adjectives. Because, long before it became fashionable in the West, India had a long history of supporting local cuisines, prepared traditionally, using only seasonal ingredients, although its only recently that this has become a selling point, drawing eager food connoisseurs from across the globe.
Ajay Mathulla, at Tranquil Resorts, a luxury homestay in Wayanad, says they receive a lot of compliments on their food, which includes both local and Continental fare. “We don't have an a la carte menu,” says Mathulla, “We simply draw a new one up everyday, and even if a guest stays with us for a week, no dish is repeated!” At Maison Perumal, we witnessed a somewhat similar practise — the day's menu was neatly chalked-up on a blackboard; but the chef was always ready, and more importantly, happy to tweak it to individual tastes.
Mrs. Meyyappan at The Bangala, a sumptuous heritage stay at Karaikudi, talks about how much the guests love the authentic Chettinad meal, consisting of seven lavish courses, served on a large banana leaf. “They find the vast spread very exciting — six vegetables, rice and kurma, fish and chicken, plus appalam etc — and our visitor book is full of glowing compliments, some of them in French!” she adds. “And even though we do a set menu for groups, we cater for the guests' food tastes, as we just did for an American group who called up at 7 a.m., asking for ‘Uppu Kari' a typical Chettinad dish!' But The Bangala kitchen — ably spearheaded by a chef who's been with the family for over 45 years — not only specialises in local Chettinad cuisine, it also does an excellent fusion dinner, a typical one, for instance, starting with a soup, moving on to warm cheese soufflé, followed by pepper chicken with dosa and curry, and topped off with a decadent strawberry cheesecake.
At the family-run Tranquil resorts — where Mathulla says they “personally have a say on how the food is made, and we're right there with the guests, eating the same food” — it is home recipes, passed on in the family, that are the big draw. “Our guests have even asked us to bring out a cook-book and we also conduct cookery lessons at Tranquil” adds Mathulla. And he lists appam-stew, served with caramelised onions, and the Kerala sadya, served on plantain leaves as some of their specialities.
“People come here to see the place,” says Mrs. Meyyappan, “and the food is a big bonus.” In some cases —such as ours — the holiday itself was saved from mediocrity by the food, though the exquisite interiors and the friendly staff (who thought nothing of especially grinding a chutney or two for breakfast) was not far behind! Which was why, when the entire staff at Maison Perumal, led by Dinu, the manager came around to say bye, and asked us to visit again, we simply nodded. As if we wouldn't!