Shashi is an excellent cook

Shashi is an excellent cook. She is also a Brahman widow. And for the Brahman of Rajhastan, especially in the rural areas, this has ramifications.

Shashi was born in a small village in Rajhastan, in the north of India. Like most girls in that part of the world, Shashi was trained from an early age to cook and run a house. In other words, to be a wife. When she was in her early twenties, she entered into an arranged marriage with a man from Udaipur and had two sons with him. When Shashi was 31 and her sons were only young, her husband was murdered by his business partner.

“As a widow,” Shashi says, you are already suffering. “As a Brahman widow, you are made to suffer more. It is almost as though it’s your fault.” For 45 days, she had to remain at home with her head covered, wailing during the day. Other women from the village joined a roster to join in the wailing. Once the sun set, she was allowed to eat but could not eat or drink during the day. Once the 45 days had ended, Shashi was able to stop wailing but had to remain at home, still with her head covered for a year.

Brahman widows can never remarry. They are not supposed to do menial labour. Life was tough for Shashi and her young sons. She started taking in washing from hotels, but had to do it secretly. Then she started cooking in a local restaurant.

An Irish tourist complimented Shashi on her food and way with flavour and asked if she could teach him how to cook the dishes he had enjoyed there. Shashi spoke no English and couldn’t write Hindi. She taught her first lesson with shaking hands and says with a laugh that she ended up spilling a lot of hot food, her hands were shaking so much.

I had never heard of Lonely Planet. But now I know that Lonely Planet means busy.

From that first lesson, came more. Five years on, Shashi has quite a following, with glowing reviews on Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet and a full diary. “I had never heard of Lonely Planet. But now I know that Lonely Planet means busy,” she laughs. She can speak English fluently enough to deliver a six-hour class of masala chai, pakora, the magic sauce curry base with variants, biryani rice and a range of breads, with jokes in between. She can also translate the ingredients and methods orally into French for the Francophones, not to mention Swedish and a smattering of German.

Her son, now grown up, helps out and is joined by his new wife, deftly cutting herbs without a board, just a sharp knife and great technique.

Entering Shashi’s house, you learn a lot about spice. You also learn a lot about feeling the food you’re making and working the chapatti or parantha dough until it’s ready. And then there’s the other stuff. You learn about triumph in adversity and about seeking opportunity. Perhaps you learn that where there’s light, there’s hope. But also, you learn to be thankful for the situation you are born into and grateful for people like Shashi who are willing to share their experience and also their craft with you.


Click here for Shashi’s website






Writing about my recent trip to India is not easy. Not because I didn’t have a good time, because I had an incredible three weeks. And not because there is nothing to write about. That’s just it. There is so much to write about and a raft of far more talented people than me have already done so. Beautifully expressive phrases as well as the more clichéd variety, ‘it was an assault on my senses’, or ‘I was in sensory overload’, have all been used before. How can I possibly convey the Indian experience with words?


Even taking photographs was, in a way, disappointing. A picture may well paint a thousand words but it falls short of conveying the vastness, the intensity of the colours of saris, peacocks, spices, rock; the proportions of forts and temples and wide open desert; the backing track sounds of a multitude of horns, temple bells, cows, dogs and people that accompany any view. Or maybe I just don’t have a good enough camera.


Regardless. The fact is, India, or more specifically, Rajhastan, surpassed all my expectations.


I expected a lot of colour. But I hadn’t counted on how much colour there would be. Saris of all colours, vibrant and rich, at times sparkling with gold or silver thread were everywhere. Western fashion has not reached the villages and towns of Rajhastan. The women all wear their saris with pride, often with a colourful veil covering their heads. And they wear them all the time. Obviously, perhaps, but I hadn’t expected to see such vibrant and beautiful attire being worn to dig ditches at the side of the road, to pass bricks up along the chain to build houses, to walk barefoot down the road with a bundle of branches on their heads or a basket full of dung.


I expected a lot of new sounds. But I hadn’t anticipated the incessant sound of beeping horns. And when I say incessant, that’s exactly what it is. Not only do they sound their horns as we might to alert people who are pulling out without looking and to avert accidents. But they also sound their horns when they are coming up behind a cyclist, or pedestrians walking along the road with their backs to the car, or to trucks they’re overtaking, or to buses…just because. Then they toot to say thank you once passed or they might give more of an angry toot if the original toot had no effect. Often it’s not only one toot, but several. A lot of the trucks have a tune toot. Incessant.


Another constant was the sound of bells, drums and singing or chanting at certain times of the day. These came from temples, be they large community temples or smaller family places of worship. These calls to worship and sounds of praise and offering became familiar and almost comforting, as they represented faith, family and a history stretching back over centuries.


I expected to smell a lot of different scents. To be honest, and I’m ashamed to say this, I expected India to be a lot more dirty than it was and I expected I would smell this imagined dirt. I didn’t. Exhibit A; the 30km cycle tour we did in Udaipur, cycling through the town, and out around the lake and through rural villages and farmland. The aroma of chai being brewed on the side of the road, the spices mingling with the almost burnt milk. Incense being burned in tiny roadside temples. Floral scents from vines and flowers growing. The sharp smell of cow dung. And then the most delicious scents of curry simmering and chapatti being cooked over the flame.


I knew that cows were sacred and revered. But I had no idea of the status that gives them in realtime. Cows wander freely in cities, villages, countryside and across roads. Completely unperturbed, cows wander across the road, taking their time and in no way concerned with holding up traffic. Gods exist within the cow, which is why Hindu culture do not kill cows for meat. Another more earthly reason is that cows provide milk for drinking and cooking and in so doing provide a lot more ongoing sustenance than killing a cow for meat would yield.


I knew that the curries would be authentic and better than I had tasted elsewhere. But I hadn’t anticipated loving them so much that I’d be happy eating curry at breakfast, or at least a masala omelette or Indian breakfast bread. I didn’t get sick of the curries once and was constantly wishing I could have the recipes of the dishes I was eating.


Then there’s the history, the architecture, the vast landscapes, sweeping skies and the warmth of the people who want to know where you come from and how you’re enjoying their country.


India. Incredible.