Cookout in the wild

In category Shared Wisdom [Borrowed Wisdom], Lifewatch gives space to views/articles that we, in our wisdom, need to be promoted extensively. Pl. find here a write-up by Geetanjali Krishna that appeared in Business Standard (Nov. 21, 2014)

It’s often exhausting to be as excited about diverse things as I tend to be, but I live for times when I get to combine random interests. So imagine my enthusiasm when early one morning, a food historian friend, Ashish Chopra, invites me to a culinary workshop he’s organising at Corbett Tiger Reserve. “You’re going to love the chef,” says he. “Dr Izzat Hussain is a Yunani physician who uses his knowledge to give a healthy spin to Awadhi cuisine. And he’s a direct descendent of the last Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah.”

The next thing I know, I’m checking into Jims Jungle Retreat, or JJR, in Dhela, a village close to Corbett Tiger Reserve. It’s late in the evening and everyone’s already at dinner in the inviting, warmly-lit pavilion. A gentleman in an impeccable chikan kurta is chatting with a couple of guests. He must be the ladle-wielding Yunani doctor, I surmise. Then I overhear his conversation: “Once my begum was suffering from an upset stomach. For two days she tried a diet of boiled khichdi and found neither relief from her malady nor nourishment from her diet. I prepared shami kebabs using a mix of special healing spices. Then I fed them to her with a parantha made from soft, milky dough. Her condition improved before she even finished her dinner!” Any doctor who prescribes kebabs instead of pills is a doctor worth knowing, I muse, as I walk up to greet him.

JJR Dining Room

JJR Dining Room

“A Yunani practitioner will advise you about foods to eat and to avoid,” says he, by way of introduction. “As a chef, I can also tell you how to make it.” We sit down for dinner with other attendees of the workshop — foodies and gourmets all. The highlight for me is the humble masoor dal, cooked to creamy perfection with milk and spices. As we dig in, Hussain, or Nawab Sahib as he’s known, explains how he applies the principles of Yunani medicine to his cooking. “As a chef I add whatever it takes to make my dishes taste good. But as a physician, I make sure to add spices and herbs that counteract its ill effects,” he says.

I sign up for a morning walk with the in-house naturalist, Balam Singh, to work off the night’s excesses. We’re off at the crack of dawn and soon come to a mound of freshly-dug earth — the handiwork of wild boar. “They were here less than an hour ago,” he whispers. Ahead, we see the unmistakable pugmarks of a tiger. “Last month, we sighted one while on a morning walk,” says he. A tall tree across a dry riverbed is home of the Great Hornbill, a weird bird that I see for the first time. Its low-pitched, deep call echoes in my head as we return to JJR, to the smell of French-pressed coffee.

Nawab Sahab preparing the handi gosht

Nawab Sahab preparing the handi gosht

“When I met Nawab Sahib in Lucknow for a TV show I was working on, I thought it would be great for food enthusiasts to interact and learn from him, even as they tasted his delicacies,” says Chopra at the breakfast table. Having the workshop in a jungle camp was an added twist, he says, introducing me to food bloggers, restaurant reviewers and other foodies like myself attending the workshop. Nawab Sahib joins us and reveals some of his culinary secrets. “Use milk instead of water to make gravy for mutton. Not only will the curry taste creamier but milk will counteract the acidity that the meat creates when eaten in excess,” he suggests while making shami kebabs and a rich mutton biryani for lunch. I watch him cook while he allows me to nibble on the kebabs straight off the pan. Chopra joins us, as do a couple of other guests while we watch the chef add spices to the mutton. “I’m adding cardamom to aid digestion, ginger powder for its antioxidant and carminative properties, and cinnamon, which is an elixir for our bodies as it works on the pancreas and our enzymes,” he says.

One thing’s for sure. Nawab Sahib’s food isn’t light as I’d imagined it would be. It’s full of the good stuff, but he assures me that his signature spice blends ensure that we’ll suffer no ill effects from eating it. He prepares for me a healing beverage with ginger and vinegar. It’s not unpalatable, and somehow does make me feel lighter and more energetic. So much so, I’m raring to go on a safari with Rahman, JJR’s expert naturalist.

As JJR’s owner, Daleep Akoi, puts it in his blog, wanting to spot a tiger in the open jungle is like wanting to pick up a chick in a nightclub: the more desperate you seem, the lesser are your chances. Well, I’ve no expectations as Rahman hands me the binoculars. We’re standing above a chasm, and he’s spotted a leopard on a distant promontory. Usually, binoculars aren’t my best friends — by the time I adjust the focus, there’s nothing left for me to see. I raise my pair with little hope, and there it is! A beautiful leopard stares at us across the chasm, turns and melts away into the jungle.

Dazed by the sights, sounds and smells of the jungle, I realise with a pang it’s time to leave already. In the now-familiar dining area, Nawab Sahib has produced a meltingly delicious orange halwa. “The trick is to use only milk in it, no water,” says he as he entreats me to try some. It’s indeed a great idea to have residential workshops such as this one against a backdrop as picturesque as JJR’s, I reflect on my way back to Delhi. If only Yunani medicine also had a prescription to nullify the effect of the calories consumed.

Geetanjali Krishna for Business Standard

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