In my last post I gave you an insight and a virtual sneak peak into the world of Narendra Bhawan, and in this post I want to take you through a very unique journey and the real reason for which I was at the luxurious property – food meditations.
Narendra Bhawan brings back the grandeur of pre-Independence royal families and imagines how the prince would have lived. The last reigning Maharaja of Bikaner, HH Narendra Singh ji’s life has been reimagined by the MSR group not only through the architecture and design of this haveli, but also through the lavish meals that the king must’ve thrown for his guests. From savouring the flavours without the sense of sight, to a mid-20th century global fare with classic literature that were contemporary back in the ‘60s, to a regal dinner at the nearby Laxmi Niwas Palace, where the once-smoking room is now an ornate dining hall with a staggering amount of actual gold.
Narendra Singh ji’s meditations on foods have been described thus:
The Maharaja maintained that memory recalls food that has flattered its taste and it mingles with all other pleasures, and remains at last to console us for their departure. The pleasures of the table afford neither ravishing pleasure nor ecstasy but it gains in intensity what it loses in duration. It is the more valuable because it exposes us to all other gratifications and even consoles us for their loss. Besides, there are often found collected around the same table, all the modifications of society which extreme sociability has introduced among us: love, friendship, business, speculation, power, ambition, and intrigue, all enhance conviviality. Thus it is that it produces fruits of all imaginable flavours and the ensuing meditations
I was rather intrigued by this concept as I’ve never earlier been a part of a food meditation and eagerly awaited what was in store for me for the three days that I’d be spending at the haveli.
The 1st meditation: A feast enjoyed blindfolded
We were welcomed into a private dining area with a dark floral wallpaper symbolising the night room exclusively designed for grand dinner parties. The ornate silver chairs and the golden and red gota that adorned the table as a centre piece, added a royal charm to the room and add to that the fine china and the crystal glasses. The ambience of that private dining room was breathtaking, but we weren’t prepared for what came next. Our host, Siddharth welcomed us to our first food meditation and took us by surprise when he mentioned that we will be having this 5 course dinner…blindfolded.
Initially there was a bout of hesitation but then I give into it and by the time the first course was served to me, I had already familiarised myself with the cutlery around me and made friends with those forks and knives…I didn’t really have an option! For the first time ever I was totally dependent on my taste buds and all my other senses except my vision to recognise what I’m eating and to understand that dish completely in terms of its aroma, texture and flavours. We were served a European dinner which was customised to be vegetarian for me, with an excellent rendition of all the non-vegetarian dishes that were served that night. From the tomato and bocconcini bruschetta to the french onion soup, to the mushroom and leak in cream stuffed vol au vents, to the double baked potato steak served with beetroot wellington, Chef Sunil played to his strength and served a delectable fare that night. I’d say that I did fairly well in guessing what was served to me and this surely ranks as one of my favourite meals.
The 2nd meditation: A literary lunch
The second meditation was closer to my heart, since I had often wondered how books and food – two of my favourite elements, can come together with relevance. This is where the literary lunch enchanted me the most. Our hosts after extensive research had put together a beautiful 6 course meal with pairing of food with excerpts from 6 literary classics that were contemporary back in the Maharaja’s era. Siddarth played host to my rather inquisitive and excited self by answering the questions I had regarding each course and their interpretations of it and together we all read the excerpts and waited with baited breaths for each course.
We began our courses with Sylvia Plath’s famous novel Bell Jar, where we were served salt roasted beet, stock braised leeks, goat’s cheese, balsamic drizzle and pomegranate blood. The goat’s cheese with a drizzle of pomegranate blood was served in a bowl which was covered with a “bell jar” with smoked infused inside. This was fabulous as it depicted the disturbed state of mind the author was in and her slow deterioration. I’d have to give it to our hosts for such attention to minute details. We further moved on to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, John Fante’s The Brotherhood of the Grape, Nicole Mones’ The Last Chinese Chef, Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, to Emile Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris and we ended our courses with James Joyce’s Ulysses (probably the only time I’d finish Ulysses!) I cannot pick a favourite course in this meditation as each dish surpassed the previous one. This meditation was showcased how well read the Maharaja was and the unique ways in which he chose to entertain his guests. If I have to pick a favourite meditation, it’d be this.
The 3rd meditation: The Kings table
Hosted in Lakshmi Vilas Palace, where the once-smoking room is now an ornate dining hall with a staggering amount of actual gold, this was a meditation where the meal from 1927 was reproduced for us. This was no ordinary meal. Maharaja Ganga Singh ji, the then king of Bikaner and a modern reformist visionary, and the only non-White member of the British Imperial War Cabinet during World War I, had hosted King George V and Queen Mary in this very same place, serving the exact course of dishes that were served to us.
In a room lit only with candles and perfumed with fresh rose petals, with walls that adorned almost 50 kilos of pure gold in them, this was as royal as it could get. We were served asparagus mousse, potage dubbary, fillet de pomfret, croquettes de canard sauvages, and just when we thought that this was it, the majestic “plate de Bikaner” was brought in. It is a Bikaneri thaali where each dish was a favourite of the king’s and prepared by the royal cooks under the supervision of the strict maharaj of the kitchen. Beautiful ornate crockery adorned our tables and conversations flowed with drinks, and at this point I couldn’t help but wonder how in this very same room the most important decisions about our country and its future must’ve taken place, over cigars and single malts.
The food meditations were much more than just food. It was about exploring your senses, heightening your understanding of what you eat, exploring the senses of touch and smell, and taking a deep dive into the history books. It is this that also defines Bikaner, a city rich with the history of food and culinary culture. Without food meditations, the Narendra Bhawan experience would not have been as engrossing an experience as it was. Perhaps they aren’t wrong, that anything can happen over a rich, hearty meal.
Here’s also a sneak-peak into other dishes that are served at Narendra Bhawan:
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