India: Bean there, done that!

Last year the hubby and I took a trip to India with a small adventure travel company, touring mainly around Rajasthan. We ate some meals in local homes, visited artist co-operatives and saw more palaces, forts and temples than you can imagine. In Jaipur we saw elephants being used to transport tourists up the long, steep, winding stone path leading to the Amber Fort. Our group made the journey on foot – and it was hard work – stopping from time to time to get our breath back under the pretense of admiring the view. Someone asked our guide why we were walking when there were elephants available. I really liked his answer. “Elephants are not supposed to walk on stones up to forts. These elephants are not treated well. They are worked hard and hit with a stick if they are too tired and want to stop. Our tour company does not support such cruelty”. Everyone agreed, and on we went, wiping the sweat off our brows with our Indian shawls.

amber (Copy)Two days later we found ourselves in a camp not far from the border with Pakistan. Every now and again fighter jets flew over, shattering the otherwise total stillness of the desert. We rested for a while on our camp beds, sweating in the afternoon heat, then headed out to meet our guides for a camel safari out into the desert. With thoughts of the Jaipur elephants in my head, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The camels, all chewing in what appeared to be a contented manner, were lined up waiting for us. They looked strong and healthy, obviously well cared for and well fed. Our guides ranged from small boys to wizened old men, and they were among the few we met in India who didn’t speak much English. They’d spent their entire lives living in the desert plains, and now made a living catering to tourists. I know that some people will frown deeply and cry “animal exploitation!” at this point, but I climbed on a camel and headed off into the desert to watch the sun set over the dunes. We journeyed for about half an hour before stopping somewhere in the dunes and dismounted. The camels sat down and relaxed while our guides  lounged around and chatted amongst themselves. Our group held an impromptu sand-dune race while waiting for the sun to set, with one representative from each of our countries – India, England, Northern Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. We all expected our local rep to win, but our police lady from Australia beat them all. We then settled on the sand, occasionally moving to get out of the way of dung beetles, and watched the sun sink over the desert landscape. It was a truly magical experience.

camels (Copy)Our evening meal in the desert camp was the usual fare of breads, yellow dhal, and an assortment of meat or dairy dishes which I couldn’t or wouldn’t eat. There was an additional dish of something which looked like twigs in a spicy sauce. I asked our guide if it was something I could eat. “Yes”, he said. “It’s desert beans” so, after getting confirmation that it was dairy-free, I took a sizable helping. I thought it would be a pleasant relief to eat something other than yellow dhal or eggplants, but as I sat there chewing on the twig-like beans in a focused manner I realised how wrong I had been.

Since getting home, I’ve played with green beans of the Canadian variety and served them alongside chick pea or lentil curries, and nobody has asked me if I accidentally cooked some twigs I found buried in the snow. The flavour takes me back to the deserts of India and makes me smile.

Rajasthan Desert Beans

If you don’t use refined oils, cook the spices briefly in 2 tbsp of boiling water instead of the coconut oil, stirring constantly so they don’t stick and burn.

  • 2 tbsp oil (I like to use coconut oil)
  • 2 pinches asafoetida (hing)
  • 2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1/4  tsp mango powder (amchoor)
  • 1/4 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp crushed dried red chillies, or to taste
  • 4 cups green beans, trimmed
  • 1/4 cup fresh coriander
  • 1/4 cup raisins
  • 1 cup water

Heat the oil in a frying pan or wok. Add the hing and stir round then add the cumin seeds, garam masala, salt, coriander, mango powder, turmeric and chillies. Fry briefly then stir in the green beans, fresh coriander and raisins. Mix well. Pour in the water, bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer uncovered for 5 – 10 minutes, depending on how soft you like your beans. Serve hot.

If you want a more authentic experience, scour your local Indian grocery store for dried desert beans. Soak them in water for 8 – 10 hours then drain and rinse well. Boil in plenty of water for 2 minutes then drain before using in the recipe.They will be twig-like.

DesertBeans (Copy)After eating this dish, retreat to your tent under the stars and lie on your camp bed dreaming of your adventures. Get up well before dawn, eat a hearty breakfast of dhal and rotis then head off on the next step of your journey, pausing to watch the sun rise over the desert. And maybe pray that the next place you stop at, unlike all the previous hotels and camps, has both a shower and hot water.

Karen 🙂

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