Pushkar has developed a distinctive gastronomic culture that caters to foreign travellers. Homesick food it’s called, for people who’ve been on the road so long it doesn’t matter where they are at all.
It’s easy to see why people come to Pushkar. The setting is gorgeous: harboured by hills and wrapped around a glittering lake. There is the feeling of helpless piety that only mountainous deserts can invoke and the elegant intimacy of an old town. The roads snake amongst the buildings; and the architectural marvels of onion domes and carved jalis have been domesticated, till you become assured that such beauty is every Rajasthani’s birthright. The streets and ghats are surprisingly clean and well paved, save for the splatterings of innumerable cows and occasional camels.
Why it has become an international traveller hotspot is a bit more complicated. It is India, but without the noise and pollution and crowds of the big cities. It has the sleepiness of a village but one that has been forced out of its provinciality.
The colonisation by backpackers has made it seem a model town: an absurd place created and maintained by tourists, with multicuisine eateries at every step, schools of yoga, massage, Indian music and dance, shops selling herbal cosmetics, perfumes and the inexplicably dishabille clothing that characterises the backpacker diaspora. The shops afford a visual feast with embroidered textiles, silver jewellery and crafts. Visitors are first enchanted, then inured, then resentful of all the beautiful things. They have come to relax, to turn their minds away from the world: to pursue fun, relaxation, spiritual refreshment. There is the sneaking suspicion that if the population of India weren’t so unrelenting, that maybe, just maybe, the tourists could outnumber the locals here. And it underlines what has become a major reason for travel: the excitement of seeing people like yourself in an unfamiliar setting, thus providing the frisson of strangeness with little of the risk.
So it is reassuring to wander around and see the irate grandmothers, the kids doing homework, the private temples: all the signs of what seems a firmly ensconced native community. To look through the heavy carved doors into the beautiful courtyards still decorated with murals and hear people singing and praying in what is still one of the holiest places in India. And it seems all the more sanctified by the charm of flitting peacocks and playful hanuman monkeys and the men selling what they claim is the mythic healing plant, sanjivani. All day the traveller spots blast the repetitive techno that is soundtrack to the most thoughtless party reverie. And at dawn, the townsfolk exact their revenge as their equally trancelike bhajans reverberate across the mountain walls.
Pushkar is not populated by the flower power kids, as they have been mislabelled. It is more as if western clubkids, in trying to outdo each other with their costumes and the degree to which they’d gone native, had forgotten all their bourgeois proprieties so far from home. There were the nomads in tribal costume or with dreadlocks and loincloths, and the spiritualised acrobat of beatific countenance who juggled crystal balls. There was the boy with a blond afro who wandered around with a huge stick, in a suede skirt and looked more like a couture Pocahontas than the wise Tiresias he imagined himself to be. There were many Israelis of both sexes with straight, imperious spines and golden skin bursting out of inappropriate tops. There was the proprietor of a French-Indian restaurant: a buck wild Robinson Crusoe with rotten teeth that seethed of halitosis.
Predictably, the town has developed a distinctive gastronomic culture that caters to foreign travellers. Homesick food it’s called, for people who’ve been on the road so long it doesn’t matter where they are at all. They are so homesick they can no longer read foreign scripts, so many of the menus are written just as often in Hebrew and Korean as in English. The best of the restaurants have translated foreign recipes to Pushkar conditions as at the various German bakeries that manage to churn out great eggless croissants (surprisingly eggy) and even more amazing: eggless cheesecakes. Some of the foods are poorer for the effort, but are so proudly advertised on the menus it’s a shame to quibble.
Service is usually slow which is good because it means the food is fresh. And also good, because it makes hurrying impossible. People don’t come to Pushkar to hurry. They come to sit and wait for the food, to sit and wait on the streets, to smoke a spliff while they wait. And enjoy the stops between travelling, or talking about travelling, or patting themselves on the back for being such off-road travellers.
It’s a strange experience -- eating food cooked by a non-native’s interpretation of it. You are not sure if the flavours or textures are right, or if what you are eating is a good version as it’s so out of context. Food becomes food without hope, despite all the effort to render it more meaningful, more indicative of home. It becomes almost as without context as the traveller ghettoes themselves.
Baba lies down a lovely road, lined with old houses and temples, and promising alleyways. The walls are painted with the varying emblems of traveller dreamland: psychedelic swirls and peculiar elven figures. The service is so sleepily nonchalant, I am surprised when the waiter arrives an hour later with a gleaming golden pastry. It is a zive, a huge tube of bread that snakes across the plate, stuffed with mushrooms and stringy cheese, accompanied by a fresh tomato puree. It’s heartwarmingly wholesome and of Kalian proportion. Their menu is in Hebrew, a testament to the town’s many Israeli holiday makers, and like many eateries, they have everything from Indonesian gado gado, to the idiosyncratic Arab spice za’atar (a mix of roasted thyme and sesame seeds) to sprinkle on your lebneh (strained yogurt cheese). There are rows of that sinful hazelnut chocolate spread Nutella awaiting sale on the shelf or spreading between crepe sheets.
At the Third Eye, the fresh-out-of-the-army Israelis guard the restaurant like a teenage clubhouse; it manages to provide dishes that are more authentic than the mealy mush chunks others have called ‘falafel’. The khubz (bread) is fresh and spongy, and the platters of fried eggplant (squeeze lime over them), humous and chips are solid. The bamya (okra in a tomato sauce with rice) was as it was supposed to be: painless, consoling. I imagined the Indian might be good around town. Strangely, it wasn’t.
At MoonDance, for breakfast we have a ‘roastey’, the Pushkar version of rosti, the crisp shredded Swiss potato cake. It is a giant mashed potato cake that becomes the base for a pizza-like dish of cheese and tomato. Potatoes in their varying guises are common on the menus here. It seems there is a yearning for the comforts of bland food: baked jacket potato, mashed potato, potato pancakes, fried potatoes.
Later at the Hard Rock, we realise that if bad English can be poetic, wrong spelling transcends the comic. It’s the linguistic equivalent of seeing someone slip on a banana peel -- disaster could have been so easily averted and yet we are somehow so glad it wasn’t. We are especially buoyed by the mysterious Mush Mushaka. We have a tasty veggie sizzler and the spinach enchilada, with a filling that curiously seemed more like a cumin rich saag than anything Mexican. But it wasn’t the first such instance of fusion. We had seen pasta sauces flavoured with curry patta, and humous eaten with naan. There were thalis served with Israeli salads and something called zucchini dal.
I spotted another misspelled sign as I took the train home. It said ABANDENDED, and I wondered how long Pushkar would stay both off the rails, and on the map. How long it would be swathed in the complicated embrace of what is both foreign attention and disinterest. How as a visitor, you can’t be there without the knowledge that it is less a place, and more a PLACE TO BE.
Yet, I don’t know if it was the romance of my balcony view, or the stroll-able streets, or the folk music I had heard, but I was sad to go. Pushkar had made me melancholy; but it had absorbed me with its splendours despite the distractions.
The Ajmer Shatabdi leaves dark and early from Delhi and is a painless ride (leaves 6.10am, arrives 12.35pm). At Ajmer you can take a bus to Pushkar, an auto, or a taxi.