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A Cooking Lesson in Udaipur India

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We arrived in Udaipur, the last city on our northern India tour. We were joyfully greeted by Rosie, whose AirBnB we were staying at and Aditya, who helped us with ninety percent of our transportation needs throughout this seven week journey. It was so nice to finally meet him as we've exchanged multiple emails over the past two months (multiple is an understatement actually). He was heaven sent. Although we paid a bit of a premium, he made everything flow seamlessly. Can't thank him enough.

Rosie is originally from London but moved to Udaipur fifteen years ago when she first visited and never left. She has since bought an adorable three story complex in a prime location. The first floor is her studio where she lives part time and rents out part time, the second floor is the apartment we were renting for the next four nights and the third floor was a chic patio that overlooked Lake Pichola. Only we had access to this which was nice. The layout was a bit different than pictures lead us to believe but it was still perfect. She sure was a spunky funky monkey and her interior design resembled that spunky funkiness. It was great. Very homey.

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This squirrel was looking for you, he thought you were nuts...

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After we settled in and enjoyed the views for awhile, we wandered over to a little cafe a few minutes away called Jaiwana Bistro Lounge. We got two cappuccino's which were actually pretty decent compared to the rest of the coffee we've had in India thus far.

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Now that we were as energized as the Energizer Bunny (and could keep going and going and going), we roamed the tiny streets of Udaipur. Udaipur has been referred as many different names such as the "City of Lakes", "Venice of the East", "White City" and "Most Romantic City of India". Those are some high expectations I sure hope it lives up to.

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It was about 5:30pm by this point so the sun was close to setting (I know, all we do is watch the sun set. We live such hard lives these days). After a few right turns, a few left turns, a few uphills and a few downhills, we randomly stumbled upon a perfect look out area where we sat on the edge of the water. There was a combination of locals and tourists but the one thing we all had in common was the appreciation for what's in front of us. The picturesque lake was glistening thanks to the brightly shining sun.

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As it slowly became dark, we made our way to Rainbow Restaurant where Rosie eats every night. They have a table reserved for her at what she calls beer o'clock. There's four o'clock, five o'clock and then beer o'clock. You go girl. Rainbow had impeccable views (food was eh). All the hotels light up, which provides a mirror like reflection on the water. It was pretty romantic if I might say.

The next morning, we had a FaceTime date with Vinny's parents. It was so nice to catch up with them on our patio overlooking the lake. It was as if they were there with us. Technology never ceases to amaze me. Vinny is such a family man and I know how much he misses everyone back home so being able to see them somewhat live and in person made him overwhelming happy.

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Later in the day, we took a walk to the City Palace, which boasts a wonderful blend of Medieval, European and Chinese Architecture. City Palace is a marvelous assortment of courtyards, pavilions, terraces, corridors, rooms and hanging gardens. Encircled by fortifications, this imposing Palace is wholly built in granite and marble. It comprises eleven wonderful palaces, which were constructed by different rulers, yet they still resemble one another. With the sheer glimpse of unique paintings, antique furniture, exquisite glass mirror and ornamental tiles, there is something incredible every direction you look. Here is the exterior...

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And some beautiful stained glass...

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And fabulous views...

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And the assumption they must have been fairly short back then...

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This display made me laugh because it is showcasing a variety of awards and tributes, including a TripAdvisor certificate...

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We realized it was 3pm and hadn't had lunch yet (such first world problems) so we grabbed a quick bite from O-Zen Cafe which was just average. However, our waiter was ridiculously funny. Very peppy and so excited to have us as his customers. When he asked where we were from, we said USA. He asked what state so we said California. Then he asked what city and when we answered with Los Angeles, he yelled "from Hollywood to Bollywood". I laughed for a good two minutes. He sounded like he was in a Broadway show with so much emotion in face, depth to his voice and expression in his hand gestures. It was amazing. He was actually the first person we've met that was genuinely excited we were from LA. No one else seemed to care which is refreshing. Pop culture, celebrities and the latest diet fads are of no interest over here.

That night, we took Shashi's Cooking Class. What a neat, authentic experience this was. There were five of us in total which gave it a more intimate feeling. Me and Vinny, a somewhat older couple and a solo male traveler (named Kim as well), who all happened to be Australian.

Shashi began the evening by telling us a little bit about herself. At around 45 years old (give or take a few) she's had a hell of a life already. Born in rural Rajasthan, Shashi grew up like most girls in her area, training for marriage. Under her mother's watchful eye, she started cooking at thirteen so she was well-prepared when, in her early twenties, she married a man she had never spoken to, a man whose photo she hadn't even seen. It was an arranged marriage like most Hindu unions. Years later, her husband suddenly died when she was only thirty one years old. That's my age. Wow. Shashi was left with two small sons and the status of widow. As a Brahmin (the highest ranking of the four social classes) she is not allowed to remarry. Ever. For a year, she was forbidden from leaving her home at all, a rule that can't make it any easier to support two children. She struggled to make ends meet and eventually started doing laundry, making one rupee per piece. Since this was completely against her religion and a disrespect to her caste, she had to work in secret. Manual labor was forbidden.

However, Shashi is the perfect example of a strong woman who could not be held down. About six years ago, she was coaxed into starting a cooking class for tourists by a guest who appreciated her value as a chef. She didn't speak a word of English and during her first session with an Australian couple, her hands shook so badly that she broke enough dishes to consume the day's earnings. Plus, she spilled tea all over herself. One day, after class, one of her students told her he was from Lonely Planet and he was going to cover her in his guidebook. She had no idea what Lonely Planet was until she started getting phone call after phone call and her business sparked like a firework on the fourth of July. One thing lead to the next, and now years later, she is number one on TripAdvisor with over two hundred and fifty reviews. Crazy how quickly a good thing spreads thanks to the worldwide web and word of mouth. And how inspiring is she that with absolutely nothing, she created something wonderful.

Today, Shashi's English is fantastic, her hand is steady, her wit is razor-sharp and her cooking class was easily one of the highlights of our trip so far. What was supposed to be four hours turned into five and hours and cost only 800 rupees each (about $11.76). I honestly think she can charge double, if not triple, and it would still be worth it.

We started the evening with learning how to make real, homemade masala chai tea. Then we made three different kinds of Pakora - onion, potato and mixed veggies. To compliment the Pakora's, we whipped up a coriander chutney and a mango chutney. Did you know that coriander is cilantro? I sure didn't but then again I'm not in the kitchen all that often (okay ever). Apparently most countries refer to it as coriander except for America. Go figure.

First chop the vegetables into the batter and mix...

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Then the frying...

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Then the eating...

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Next up was what Shashi referred to as her "magic sauce" which is basically an aubergine (aka eggplant) and tomato masala. This one "magic sauce" can be used on multiple dishes including but not limited to aloo ghobi (potatoes and cauliflower), aloo mater (potatoes and peas), aloo tamater (potatoes and tomatoes), sabgi/shag (mixed vegetable) and chicken curry (no English explanation needed). We chose the aloo ghobi for tonight, which made me happy because it's one of my favorite dishes. While the sauce was brewing, we made paneer butter masala, fresh chapati, fresh naan and fresh Indian cheese (oil, salt, black peppercorns and greek yogurt). Talk about food overload. They were going to have to roll me out of there.

Halfway through our lesson, the power went out in the entire neighborhood. Uh oh. This can't be good. Shashi and her son weren't phased at all though. They got a lantern, lit it and continued on with their demonstrations. Really? How are we going to cook the food? Don't you have a local LADWP you can call? About fifteen minutes later, the power went back on. I guess this happens frequently, which isn't surprising.

Shashi is a machine in the kitchen although the only machine she employs is a blender. Everything else is done by hand and by eye. No measuring cups either. A pinch of this, a fist full of that. "Make more flat", "add flour", "now flip" were common phrases for the naan and chapati. "You stir", "you mix" and "you chop" were common demands for the sauces and vegetables dishes.

Here is Vinny kneading the chapati dough...

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Next you roll out the dough to be perfectly flat and round...

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Then you put the dough on a frying pan and lightly spin it until it starts to bubble...

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And lastly, once it looks like a fluffy pillow, you take it off to cool down...

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Around 9:30pm, it was time eat. I've never worked so hard for my food. So much preparation and focus goes into every little detail. But it sure was worth it. My belly was smiling from rib to rib in pure happiness. This was a semi-pizza naan that might look like a mess but tasted like a million dollars.

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It wasn't the tang of the onion that made my eyes water but the simplicity of Shashi and her acceptance of the trials and tribulations that life has dealt her. On the wall hung a poster that was titled "What Is Life". If I can live the majority of my days to these standards, I will be satisfied and fulfilled.

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She left us that evening by saying "My family has been a disappointment to me, my brother-in-law has a small heart, my friends are jealous and I have felt very much alone, but now through my cooking classes I have a brand new family, as big as the whole world." As she finished, she tied each of us with a red thread signifying our forever relationship.

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Thanks, Shashi, for providing us with such a memorable evening on so many levels. Your humor, life lessons and ability to make ridiculously mouth watering food was beyond appreciated.

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