The hospitality industry is all about people. Our experience of a resort or service is ever so dependent on how our interaction with the human beings associated with it went.
On a recent trip to The Gateway Resort by Taj, which is located on the Pushkar-Ajmer Bypass road in Rajasthan, I found that the zinda-dil General Manager Nagendra Singh Hada literally brought the property to life. Of course he has a fantastic palace property and a crack team of consummate professionals backing him up. But it’s the larger-than-life personality and energy that he brings to the table that make all the difference.
Hada, who has been with the Taj group for 27 years, is adept at translating his personal penchant for the wilderness into memorable experiences for his guests. After years of heading the Taj Safaris, he’s now taking the West by infusing adventure into the otherwise largely religion or destination wedding slant of the palace property that Taj took over just six months ago.
In just over 10 weeks, he’s added a number of signature experiences and surprises. As part of a group of media people invited to partake of the pleasures, I was privy to quite a few of these specially curated special moments.
I enjoyed the little hike up the hill, passing goatherds with their flocks and pausing to admire the surrounding countryside.
What awaited us at the top was the most picture-perfect setting for sundowners. We had these cute camp chairs and a retinue of stewards serving us a choice of customised tea and coffee with snacks and gin & tonics produced with a flourish for those so inclined!
It was so much like a scene from Out of Africa that I almost expected Meryl Streep to walk up in her hat!
Another day, we had the chance to experience a walk through the sand dunes and brush, then feel relaxed and rewarded by another mobile picnic.
All through my stay, I relished the local touches on the menu. Be it chaanch-roti at breakfast (a traditional dish where yesterday’s chapatis are soaked in buttermilk made from yoghurt and water and then spiced with cumin, coriander, red chilli powder and garnished with finely diced raw onion) or delicious flat breads freshly baked a la minute by the village women. One poolside dinner had a smorgasbord of local delights, from a surprisingly soft ker-sangri to crisp-fried, saffron-laced jalebis, straight from the kadhai.
Hada also digs deep into tradition and history to bring out some really exotic recipes that he then recreates with flamboyance. I had first had his trademark Jungli Maas at another Taj property, the bewitching Baghvan in Pench, Madhya Pradesh. Mutton that is slow-cooked with just braised red chillies, salt and ghee, it makes for some truly magical mouthfuls.
On this journey, Hada recreated this dish as well as Doodhi Kheema, a melt-in-your-mouth creamy concoction that skims all the rich ingredients available to the wealthy in this arid land and combines them to create a dish redolent of subtle spices and immense depth of flavour.
He also introduced me to Khud cooking, which involves stuffing and wrapping poultry in leaves and then sealing the bird in an underground pit with charcoals. Healthy and flavourful, both the non-veg as well as vegetarian variant with cauliflower fell apart in my mouth in the most delicious way imaginable.
At an enchanting evening dubbed as a Wilderness Experience, we were ushered into a starkly stunning clearing under the stars. We sank into comfortable cane chairs that faced the sole tree in the centre, hung with a multitude of oil lanterns. As we soaked in the rustic charm of the setting, some folk musicians seated themselves on the chabutra (circular platform) under the tree and gave us a wonderful performance as the team plied us with drinks and appetisers.
Hada’s bag of surprises is seemingly bottomless. While these musicians took a break, he read us some rousing patriotic poetry penned by his own uncle. It was especially befitting in this locale, which itself is no stranger to stories of valour and sacrifice as it was part of the 12th century CE Rajput king Prithviraj Chauhan’s territory.
As though the past and the present were melding in a surreal blurring of boundaries, the soulful strains of an instrument struck up in the distance. It soon became apparent that it was approaching us. We peered keenly beyond the pool of light, trying to spot the source of the music in the shadowy periphery but the darkness seemed to swallow up everything. Suddenly, someone shone a light on the duo emerging from the night. It was a colourfully dressed team of two, a bagpiper and a dhol player. The energy they created was palpable.
Hada introduced the skilled bagpiper as Jamal, an international artiste from Bikaner. I was blown away by his incredible lung power, his infectious smile and cheery shimmy executed as he played and danced around.
As though that wasn’t a sweet enough way to end the last night on the trip, Hada pulled yet another card from up his sleeve! He asked everyone to try the dessert of the evening and guess what it contained.
This rich porridge-like preparation made with condensed milk had the most intriguing epithet — Fursat ki Kheer! For me, the name brought to mind long, leisurely afternoons in pink sandstone palaces, where richly adorned queens dozing on hand-painted swings came up with new recipes for their cooks to conjure up.
So what did that recipe from Hada’s own family kitchen contain that none of us could fathom? Apart from the milk and sugar and cardamom and raisins, the main ingredient was — wait for it — wheat flour! Yes, each grain of what we thought was broken rice, was actually wheat flour mixed with water and individually pressed by hand to create the perfect shape and size. Someone had certainly lavished a lot of love and labour on that bowlful, making it even more precious. I raised my bowl to Nagendra Singh Hada, who truly knows what the traveller craves even when we don’t know it ourselves.
Fursat is a luxury that few have in today’s fast-paced world. A Kheer that prompts you to slow down and savour our lives? Yes please, I’ll have a bowlful of that and then some!