I was standing on a street corner in Kolkata at night, and in the pouring rain, when, from a large clay pot, a man filled a ball of fried wheat with some magic liquid. The shell was wafer-thin and I had only a few seconds to get it into my mouth before it dissolved. I made it in time and, with a sharp crunch, a massive taste explosion went off inside my mouth, overwhelming my taste buds with pure pleasure.
It was a moment of culinary perfection in which I could revel for only a second before another ball was loaded and in my hand, requiring immediate attention. Jonty Rajagopalan had just initiated me into the Kolkata version of pani puri, a classic Indian street-food treat of deep-fried puri balls filled with pani or water, here enriched with tamarind and date puree, chickpeas, potato, onion, chilli, coriander, mint and kala namak, or black salt. It is sweet and sour, hot and cold, crispy and wet, weird and wonderful all at the same time.
Jonty is a food historian who has channelled her passion for Indian cuisine into creating the ultimate culinary tour of the country. On it, she explores the regional, religious, historical and cultural influences on food served everywhere from the most basic makeshift stalls set up by roadside hawkers to the homes of local people and the kitchens of palaces.
There was a time not so long ago when the idea of a culinary tour of India would have seemed absurd. Was India not a place where millions of people were starving? "Eat everything on your plate, think of all the poor hungry children in India," I was told as a child. Then there was the fear of "Delhi belly", stock advice to never drink the water, avoid ice at all costs, beware of salad and never eat the food served from street stalls. There were even sinister rumours that Indian cooks used spices only to disguise the taste of rotten food. All these things may have been true once, somewhere in India, and they may even be true now. If so, they are the exception rather than the rule.
Today, celebrity television chefs tour the country in search of authentic street food and local dishes, then rave about the creative, subtle use of spices they discover. Now you can follow in the footsteps of the likes of Rick Stein, guided down secret paths by Jonty on your own Indian kitchen confidential.
It's not a tour for everyone but, for anyone who already loves India and its cuisine, this is as good as it gets. I joined Jonty in Kolkata for the second half of her tour and, by the time I left her in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, a week later, I'd had the best experience of India in all my 69 trips there. My only regret was that I'd not been able to go on the whole tour, which also includes two other gastronomic hubs of India: Amritsar in the Punjab and Ahmedabad in Gujarat.
Everywhere we went, from a frenetic fruit and vegetable market in Kolkata to the back streets of the old city in Hyderabad, just being with Jonty meant we never felt like tourists. She seemed to know everyone, and they all seemed to love her and made me feel like a welcome guest. She led me down a labyrinth of winding alleys behind the Char Minar mosque and up anonymous stairways into family homes that were hives of cottage industry. Every room was busy with women making sweets and snacks on the floor while, up on the roof, men cooked samosas and pakoras in vats of bubbling oil on open fires. In a pottery village suburb along the Hooghly River, we had breakfast with rickshaw pullers and watched artisans making extraordinary, giant, lifelike Hindu idols out of river clay, then paint them in vivid colours and adorn them with elaborate jewellery.
Nor was it only the raw street-life experiences that showed me slices of an India I had never seen before; Jonty has friends in high places, too. One of them, Bomti Iyenger, an art collector and old-style Kolkata socialite, invited us to his gorgeous Raj-era apartment for an intimate dinner party of authentic home-cooked Bengali cuisine. Among the oil paintings and candelabra, in a scene straight out of a short story by Somerset Maugham, we feasted on fresh fish and seafood curries cooked with mustard oil and spiced with panch pooran, the classic Bengal five-spice mix of mustard seeds, fennel, nigella, fenugreek and cumin.
A lunch cooked in a unique Indian-Chinese style was served in Eau Chew, the restaurant and home of one of the established families of Kolkata's Chinatown. It included an intriguing "chimney soup" of vegetables and fish served in a bowl with a metal chimney in the middle of it, and hot coals burning away underneath. At the members-only Bengal Club, founded in 1827, we feasted on Anglo-Indian classics such as mulligatawny soup and railway mutton curry served by waiters in white gloves. Jonty puts her guests up in only the finest hotel in each city so, naturally, in Kolkata, it had to be the Oberoi Grand. I decided to walk back there after the meal at the club, a pleasant stroll along avenues of Raj nostalgia, down Park Street, then along Chowringhee Road beside the Maidan to Esplanade, and turn right into the genteel elegance of the hotel.
In Hyderabad, just staying at the Taj Falaknuma Palace was a good enough reason to go there. As soon as you climb into the ornate horse and carriage that carries you from the imposing gate house past manicured gardens to the former home of the Nizam of Hyderabad, perched 2000 feet above the city, you know you have arrived somewhere truly special. It is a crazy blend of Renaissance, Baroque, Indian and Italianate architecture, packed to the rafters with Venetian chandeliers, frescoes, sweeping staircases and objets d'art. This was the perfect base from which to set off on exciting forays into the vegetable, spice, bangle and pearl souks, and among the ancient Sufi tombs, palaces and mosques of the Arabian Nights-style old Mughal capital.
Trying out local fare is strictly optional. On her food walks, Jonty explains everything you see being cooked on the street with such enthusiasm that it's hard to resist trying almost everything – but there is no pressure. She even arranges for a special stall to serve safer versions of delicacies such as chilli fritters, butter-fried masala dosas and pani puri (using mineral water and no ice) for anyone concerned about how far to go in terms of adventurousness and food hygiene. I suffered nothing more than an expanding waistline on the whole trip, but I did decline the nihau goat's tongue and trotter soup.
We saw a different side of the city at the Park Hotel, a product of the new, rich young India that is thriving in places such as Hyderabad, where there is a new town with a large IT and software industry. Despite the futuristic architecture and the cool café crowd, the hotel's fine-dining restaurant, Aish, has established itself as the best place in the city to taste the three distinct regional styles of Andhra Pradesh cuisine. Jonty arranged for us to experience the classic cooking style of these three regions in a single meal. It was a fascinating food journey that included the sophisticated and subtly perfumed, Persian-influenced biryani dishes of the city, then the pumped-up, fiery, "no mercy with the spices" style of coastal Andhra with sensational giant prawn, crab and fish curries, and then the even spicier (really) inland Rayalseema style of chicken and lamb curries.
The next day was easier on the waistline and the endorphins, as we learnt about how Hindus fast during religious festivals. We spent a relaxing few hours in a wonderfully atmospheric haveli in the heart of the old city, listening to our charming hostess, the owner, as she explained the secret of how Hindus make a feast out of a fast. Avoiding cooked foods and spices, and eating only fruit and raw vegetables, they nevertheless manage to make a wide variety of tasty and mostly healthy treats.
As part of the Gujarati section of her tour, Jonty told me, she introduces her party to Jain cuisine. The Jains believe that all life is so sacred that not only are they strictly vegetarian, but they will not eat anything that grows under the ground in case insects are harmed by harvesting it. Even this cuisine never fails to impress everyone who tries it; it's delicious despite the absence of ingredients such as onion, garlic, ginger and root vegetables. The night street-food walk in Ahmedabad sounds wonderful, from the kebab and naan stalls of the Muslim quarter to the vegetarian stands of the Hindu and Jain districts. In Punjab, participants get a chance to be volunteer cooks for a day at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, and to visit an organic farm and attend a wedding to feast on tandoor favourites.
My tour ended with a night off (or so I thought) to immerse myself in the pure pleasure of staying at Falaknuma. I began with a cold beer on the terrace at sunset, listening to a group of local qawwali musicians. My room was so splendid that I decided to order in-room dining for my last meal. I should have known better. Jonty had arranged a surprise farewell feast, the details of which I will not divulge here as it would be like revealing the ending of a brilliant book. All I will say is that anyone who goes on this tour and enjoys every minute of it as much as I did will not be disappointed.
The Telegraph, London
Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific operate regular flights to Kolkata from Sydney and Melbourne, with transit stops in Singapore and Hong Kong, respectively. See singaporeair.com; cathaypacific.com. Australians require a visa to visit India. See vfs-in-au.net.