A Dish Worth 1,000 Spices

Travel long enough and you find them. Search them out even. Those people who go the extra mile and define what good hospitality is all about. These are the Journeymakers and, this month, I’m working with American Express to celebrate them.

When I first heard of Journeymakers, I couldn’t help but think about Shashi from my trip to Udaipur, India. If a picture’s worth 1,000 words and my India trip resulted in almost that many photos, I figure I’ve got about a million or so words to write. 

And a good portion of those words would be dedicated to the night I spent cooking with Shashi. A word about Shashi: she’s a firecracker of a lady, a great home cook, and embodies everything positive about my India experience (kindness, hospitality, and genuineness). 

When I travel, I always try to cook with a local and I was determined to make that happen in India. It’s hard to recall why I decided on cooking in Udaipur but what I do remember is that when we asked locals, Shashi’s name kept coming up. It was the purest form of grassroots marketing and finding her place was just as rustic — we’d ask one store owner who’d direct us to his friends place who’d tell us to ask someone down the next block  — and we kept leap frogging our way through the city until we arrived.

We headed up a steep staircase past a few vacant floors of an apartment building and finally arrived at Shashi’s thimble-sized apartment. She greeted us in broken English, we replied in even more broken Hindi, and a lot of charades ensured.  We surmised that she wasn’t planning on teaching during our time in town but, after she saw our disappointment, she said she’d open up a special class just for us.

Six of us from all over the world, some students, others backpacking, and others from other parts of India, crammed into her rustic kitchen. She started the night out by grinding fresh spices for homemade Masala chai and then put us all to work. We sat cross-legged in a circle each working on bits of dishes. As we prepped she insisted we learn about all the spices she had and taught us how she makes her ghee. 

But, then, as she began to effortlessly pull our prep into a full feast of masala chai, potato pakora, vegetable palau,  tomato masala, and even a sweet parantha, she opened to us and told us her story. The tragedy she’d be through personally and how cooking helped her endure. How, when she thought she’d lost everyone and everything that mattered to her, she continued to cook and decided to teach classes to make ends meet. But that it quickly became so much more than a job for her and she felt it her duty to get people to be as passionate about cooking as she is. 

We spent the whole evening there — nearly six hours — and there were plenty of things I learned including every detail of that phenomenal homemade parantha. But, at the end of the day, it was about more than just cooking. Shashi welcomed us into her tiny abode without hesitation and we spent a night almost as part of her family — cooking and conversing with her, joking around with her young sons, and, of course, eating way too much. Shashi’s passion was infectious and it has stayed with me even years later. It’s a memory that reminds me that, despite different backgrounds and culture differences, we all speak the same language in the kitchen.


This story was sponsored by American Express but all content, ideas, and words are my own. Thanks for supporting these sponsors who allow us to keep Salt & Wind up and running. // Fortress detail photo by Rowena Naylor; Udaipur photo by Alejando Moreno de Carlos; Masala chai by Shikhar Bhattarai; Spice photo by Aida Mollenkamp

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