What better way to celebrate my Gran's 80th birthday than to get away for an extended weekend break to a boutique resort in the Himalayas? Shaheen Bagh on Mussoorie Road proved a delight for the soul, and for the taste buds.
Before I say anything else, let me say that we are a family of foodies. In fact, we're a family of anything that involves letting our hair down and having a ball. And all us women in the family love planning (this means that when I'm away with my grand mum, my mum and my aunt, my little plans don't stand a chance, and so I find myself in this blissful state where I don't have to make any decisions or stress about a thing or even bother straining my brain to think about anything. Everything is more than well taken care of, and I can spend my time snoozing on an arm chair in the sunshine). Hardly surprising then that though we were going to be away for only 3 nights and we were a modest party of eleven, the food and booze preparation for this trip had begun about 9 months in advance.
The day before we all set out from our various corners of the country and world, a WhatsApp exchange on the family group established that we had about 5 cartons of alcohol, a bagful of cigars, 2 cartons of snacks, bagfuls of biscuits to be doled out in case we felt peckish while in our rooms, 3 massive cakes, and should expect 3 ridiculously-sized meals a day. And for the thousandth time in our history, we all agreed that we were crazy people, but who the hell cared, Nani was only going to be 80 once, and we were having a reunion after yonks. Can't argue with that. Somehow the food and booze and us managed to reach Shaheen Bagh and get settled in. And frighten a timid couple that was staying in the only spare room at the resort. Oh well.
A moment here to talk about Shaheen Bagh. This antique property about 12 kms from the Forest Research Institute in Dehradun and an hour away from Mussoorie, is set in the heart of the lower Himalayas, surrounded by spectacular mountains. Sandhya and Arun Gupta, the owners, are a very friendly couple, deeply involved in the running of their resort, and always around to make sure you're comfortable and well cared for. Arun is a wildlife photography hobbyist and we'd often spot him crouched behind his telephoto lens, waiting. Sandhya catered for every request we made and even took to the kitchen to fry bhaturas for all of us because her cooks didn't know how to. The property itself is beautiful. The old antique wing has a large front porch decorated with antique tiled furniture including a bronze swing, overlooking a sunny garden full of flowering shrubs and trees. The living and dining space is huge, again very tastefully decorated with vintage furniture and lanterns, overhung by a library stacked with books and vinyls and DVDs, accessed via a winding wrought iron staircase. The living space opens onto a large verandah lined with the most gorgeous lilies I've seen, and here there is an outdoor dining space and reclining armchairs. You step down from here into more lawns and gardens; there are more benches here, and even a swimming pool. There is also a spa with a masseuse trained in Ayurvedic massage. When you turn back and look at this beautiful home, you notice that it's covered by ivy and lit up by lamps. There are 4 rooms including a suite in this old wing. There is a new wing with four more rooms. The rooms are a delight - gigantic four-poster beds of solid dark wood, vintage writing desks, antique divans and rugs. It is all very very lovely. And makes us hungry. But, of course.
So we congregate on the verandah for our first lunch at Shaheen Bagh. And boy, do we love it! My mum and aunt have created a menu in advance, and before us arrive enormous bowls of Punjabi kadhi (spiced gram flour dumplings cooked in a yogurt based sauce), banaresi aloo (potatoes cooked in a style that originates from the town of Banares in India), kurkuri bhindi(crispy fried okra), chicken masala, rice, chapattis, papad, and yogurt. We tuck in, audible sighs of happiness all around, and much catching up with each other's lives commences. For dessert there are bowls of piping hot gulab jamuns (dumplings made of sweetened evaporated milk and flour, fragrant with saffron and cardamon, cooked in a sugar syrup). Polished off in a flash. My aunt, husband and I appear to be even worse than the others - we've polished all the chashni (sweet sugar syrup the jamuns come dunked in) too. Now we're all too full to move, but drag ourselves off to various parts of the huge property to lounge on whatever takes our fancy. We meet again late in the evening, after a stupendous thunder and hail storm, for hot cups of masala tea, more conversation, and then to gather around Nani for the cake cutting, singing, and champagne. By this time, the homemade garlic mathris and besan ladoos have also found their way out of the snack carton. We get cracking on laying out the bar. The drinking and laughter commence, I'm so happy to be home with this crazy family of mine that I love so much!
Very soon it's time for dinner. Groaning about how impossible we're going to find it to eat anything and how full we are and how we have no control at all, and how we must all do something about our diets when we return home, we gather around the BBQ in the front porch, where paneer and chicken tikka, tandoori aloo and sheesh kebab are being grilled on charcoal. The night is chilly, the smells are intoxicating, we're slowing getting nice and high and the food is delicious. The kebabs and tikka are followed by aloo parathas and dal makhani. I can't even remember what dessert was. Dinner done, the cigars and Cuban rum come out and everyone including my 80 year old grand mum has a go. What joy!
We retire to bed with a plan to drive up to Mussoorie to buy poker chips the following day after lunch.
Breakfast on the sunny verandah is masala omelettes and toasts, cereal, and poha. All very well made. We spend the morning by the pool in the shade of the giant trees, talking, snoozing, or doing our thing. Man, I tell you, you could get used to that lazy life far too easily! When lunch time comes around, we were actually hungry!
Lunch is chola bhatura and jeera aloo, and mutton do piaza with steamed rice. And papad and salad and yogurt. Finger-licking good. But no place at all for the sewai kheer dessert. My family, of course, couldn’t be kept away...
Post-lunch we pile into an SUV and head to Mussoorie. Mussoorie today is overrun by tourists and Mall Road is bursting with little restaurants and hawkers grilling corn on the cob and little shops selling souvenirs and knit wear and coats. Also, lots of monkeys! However, you do get some wonderful views of the mountains from the odd quiet corner. We pick up bulls-eye mints for old time's sake and make our way back to Shaheen Bagh, looking forward to the bonfire planned for that night, which is a very cold night indeed. A giant pit in the verandah houses the largest bonfire I've sat around to date. We drink and smoke more cigars and listen to old Hindi film songs and new Indian fusion musicians. My favourite night of all. Despite the errant burning log that snaps off and pounces on me!
Dinner that night is Indo - Chinese. Now Indo - Chinese is a very unique fusion of Indian and Chinese flavours and something that's become a very integral part of our cuisine. And so we feast on vegetable hakka noodles, spicy egg fried rice, vegetable manchurian, stir fried vegetables and chilli chicken, under the light of the almost-full moon, with bonfire sparks flying all around us. Very memorable, very spicy, very yummy. Again, no recollection of what dessert was though!
We retire with happy hearts and full tummies.
The following day is beautifully bright and sunny, and we have breakfast in the front garden. Egg bhurjiand toast, and mixed vegetable pakoras. The paneer pakoras are exceptionally delicious. By this stage in our holiday, I've stopped thinking about my personal trainer's anguished face and have mentally prepared myself for some tough times in the gym when I return to London. But boy am I glad that lunch is a lighter affair - lovely gobhi parathas and a vegetable pulao. The tummy has some much needed respite. And then the gajar ka halwa (carrot halwa) makes an appearance. Ah well, I suppose the tummy needs to accept this is food paradise! The halwa is fantastic. However, the juice at breakfast appears to have disagreed with my grandfather, so unfortunately that afternoon and evening are a tad stressful for all of us and the festivities have an undercurrent of worry. The giant full moon rising from behind the mountains that night is a magnificent sight though, and for a while we're all distracted.
Grandpa is back to normal the following day, thankfully, and this being our last breakfast at Shaheen Bagh, our relief that he is better coupled with the fact that it is his birthday, and that we have a very delicious poori-aloo breakfast waiting for us, puts us all back in good spirits! And we pull out of Shaheen Bagh, sad to be saying goodbye to a very memorable weekend, but looking forward to returning to some normalcy and home food too!
I can't recommend Shaheen Bagh highly enough. If you're looking for a pampering getaway in the mountains for a special occasion, the owners and crew at this boutique resort will make this exactly that, for you.