Takeaway

Bean there, done that

Zac O?Yeah | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on December 29, 2017
Less is more: Fifty grams of sangri — which sells for over ₹540 a kilo in Rajasthan — is enough to cook a meal for a family of four.

Less is more: Fifty grams of sangri — which sells for over ₹540 a kilo in Rajasthan — is enough to cook a meal for a family of four.   -  Shutterstock

Rajasthan’s humble kair sangri — stringy desert beans and berries — is the dish of the year

It is that final month of the year when you look back, trying to recall if you have done anything worthwhile in the previous 11 months. Visiting Shekhawati for the first time in my life, I did more than cast an eye at the region’s painted havelis. None of the paintings depicted food, so I eventually lost interest, but, luckily for me, the hotel I stayed at happened to cook what is, perhaps, the most interesting thing to eat in all of Rajasthan.

Coming to Churu town, 198 km north of Jaipur, one passes the railway junction that is served by trains plying on the desert line to Bikaner, and then one takes a left up the winding Gudri Bazaar, which has sundry shops dealing in garments, auto parts and tyres, electronics and mobiles, jewellery, sweets and savouries. A sign saying ‘Malji Ka Kamra’ points into a narrow alley, where I find an opulent mansion painted pistachio green, with ornamental details in sugar-icing white. The three tiers are decorated with 3D figures of Indians and colonials, turbaned soldiers and buxom madams. Am I hallucinating or is this the world’s biggest birthday cake?

No, it’s a 100-year-old party hall built by a wealthy Marwari merchant to entertain noble guests such as the Maharajah of Bikaner, who made overnight halts here on his way to Delhi. The chambers where visitors slept have been turned into guest rooms, whose walls carry the original, albeit slightly time-worn fresco paintings from the 1920s. In the ballroom, the Maharajah would be entertained by dancing girls, while fancily-clad servants refuelled cups and topped up trays of spicy snacks.

That colonnaded ballroom is now a restaurant, where I sample my way through a limited but exquisite menu of local fare. On my table there’s gatta curry with those lumps of chickpea flour, badi papad in a yoghurt gravy, a seasonal dish made with baby melon and baby pumpkin, and of course laal maas, the mutton dish with its sting of red chillies. But what intrigues me most is something that the waiter simply introduces as ‘desert beans’.

“Desert beans?” I echo.

He nods, yes, I heard it right. The dish is slightly sour, presumably from the raw mango powder, and with an earthy, deeply natural flavour. The stringy beans have been cooked in yoghurt with cashews and raisins. Checking the menu card later, I see that the local name is ‘ kair sangri’ and it’s described as dried beans with desert berries. Indeed, the area surrounding Churu consists of a largely semi-desert landscape with sparse vegetation and tall sand dunes, and nothing much grows here except for millets, chickpea, lentils and a few trees such as acacia.

The hotel employs a local historian to guide tourists around the havelis. Of the 60 painted ones, only one appears to be inhabited, while another has been turned into a garment shop. The rest are crumbling.

As he shows me hundreds of frescoes (of royalty and rich people, mythological and historical events, city scenes and ‘modern’ things such as cars and trains and Bollywood actors) executed between the 1840s to 1940s, Lal Singh Shekhawat tells me, “They provide a key to an understanding of the traditional pattern of social life. The architecture consists of the exaggerated display of Marwari wealth.”

He calls the fresco paintings “gleeful” — there’s one, for example, that shows Jesus smoking. After walking for a few hours we sit down to have tea at Vijaykumar Chaiwala, a tiny stall that has been serving Churu its justly famous thick buffalo milk tea for the last 60 years. While we chitchat, I bring up the matter of the mysterious desert beans and he informs me that they grow on a tree called khejri. “In English, it is acacia.”

I knew that acacia yields a material used to make glue and contains tannin, which is turned into dyes and inks, but to eat acacia? Was I being fed twigs? That’s a new one.

Shekhawat patiently explains that the hardy trees bear fruit in the form of bean pods once a year, which are harvested and then dried, so that in the arid climate they can be stored for upwards of six years. This, I think, must be the ultimate foodstuff: growing where nothing else grows, it can be kept in anticipation of times of hunger, and tastes delicious. I ask him if they’re available in the market. He points out a nearby shop that has sacks of brownish, thinnish thingies like dried and shrivelled seaweed. The price is surprisingly high — ₹540 for a kilo of ‘sangri’ — but that’s because of the desiccation process: five kilos of fresh beans becomes one when dehydrated. The shopkeeper explains that 50g is enough to cook a meal for a family of four. They should be soaked overnight in buttermilk, together with a spoonful of the equally costly desert berries (known as ‘ kair’), until soft. The precious stuff is then fried in butter with regular spices, while yoghurt is added to create the creamy gravy.

Sounds simple, so I stuff my suitcase with desert beans and berries to last me a decade — which makes the long trip totally worth it. I am not sure when I might be back again, but I suppose the answer is: when I run out of desert beans.

Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist. His latest books are the crime novel Tropical Detective and the travelogue A Walk Through Barygaza (both out this month); [email protected]

Published on December 29, 2017
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