My most memorable holiday was taking the Maharajas’ Express from Mumbai to Delhi back in 2010. I was born in India but on the other side of the country in a coal mining town called Asansol, about 200km west of Kolkata.
I hadn’t really seen the western part of the country, certainly as a tourist, and even though I lived in Mumbai for a while, I had never done this train journey, so I was desperate to experience it.
It was a 10 day trip, and all night the train would travel and all day we would get off, leaving our luggage on board – almost like a cruise – while we went off to explore.
The train is a wonderful way of seeing the country. You see India in a completely different light – it’s just fantastic. It makes you realise what an incredibly vibrant and varied country it is: on one trip you can drink sundowners on the sand dunes, take in views from old forts and shop in amazing, bustling markets.
Being a chef, the markets were a highlight for me. When you visit one of the big ones in places like Jodhpur or Jaipur, there’s this cacophony of sound and colour; you have vegetables next to rice, next to flowers, next to noodles, next to Nokia SIM cards. It’s just an absolute overload on the senses, and that energy, that colour, the smells, it’s all intoxicating.
The markets seem to have a life of their own, each one different depending on what part of the country you’re in and what time of day it is. They tend to start off rather serenely in the morning, get incredibly busy around mid-morning, and then die off as quickly as they started.
As we travelled steadily north, I noticed that every place we stopped had some kind of street food or snack or local speciality, always slightly different to the one in the previous place. These little treats inspired one of the dishes that you can sometimes find on my menu, something I call the Mumbai Jaipur Pink City Express – a collection of four of five different vegetarian dishes all using yoghurt and chickpea, some with bread or poppadoms.
I love it when you’re travelling and you come across something that really inspires you, some dish you’ve never eaten before, that you can bring back home. There’s such an appetite for great Indian food in the UK now – people really get it, in a way they didn’t 15 years ago, when everything had to be tandoori or curry or whatever. Now people know the difference between Keralan cooking and Bengal cooking and Rajasthani cooking.
I tend to get back to India a couple of times a year – I’m going to Delhi next week for a bit of work. Every time I find something new.