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When we first came to India, we were amused by the selection we came across in hotel restaurants and tourist cafes. It differs marginally from eatery to eatery, but most of the differences are not in the types of food offered, the quality of the ingredients, or the ability of the cooks, but in the spelling of the offerings on the menus. We’ve come across Maxican food, Isreeli cuisine, Chinees and Chainess, Jarman and Swiz bakeries, and (of course) a smattering of Indian food. And amazingly, all of these options seem to comprise of the same ingredients.

It’s all quite good and quite cheap: don’t get me wrong. We are not disappointed by our food options so much as we are confused by them. And it speaks of the somewhat disappointing mush of tastes and cultures that can ultimately evolve from . For a while we thought perhaps it was a Paharganj thing, but when we came to Rishikesh, we found only permutations of the exact same menu options. The only difference is that meat is more expensive and harder to find. (Since Rishikesh is a holy city, it is technically outlawed.)

So we ventured out, looking for something different, something (hopefully) a little more authentic.

The Ayurpak Ayurvedic Restaurant offered what we were looking for, and more. While it was no less a tourist joint than any of the other restaurants we have visited, it attracted tourists by marketing to the desire for authenticity, rather than catering to a broad palate of tourist tongues.

As a restaurant, Ayurpak’s offerings closely resemble the traditional diet of a rural vegetarian Hindu, in a more or less traditional manner. It is not a sophisticated eatery: it only has a few tables inside and a few outside, and they do all of their cooking in an open kitchen over four gas burners. For their foreign clientele, all of the lore behind the food’s health benefits is carefully explained beneath the selections.

But Ayurpak is more than a restaurant. They sell herbs, perfumes, and essential oils. They offer cooking classes. They rent guest rooms above the restaurant. The owners, a family of three, live there. And they grow all their own herbs and spices, and many of their own vegetables. To eat at Ayurpak, then, is to be invited into their life, it is to participate in the vision of a family life that combines traditional Indian values and modern education.

I took a cooking lesson at Ayurpak, and it was fascinating. I learned that butter chicken isn’t “really” Indian food, that the monkeys will swarm and steal any food if it is at all visible, and that you can make even the humblest dishes taste amazing with two tablespoons of clarified butter and six spices.

Ayurpak is a fascinating model for doing business and offering hospitality, and deeply appeals to me as a way of sharing life and transmitting lifestyle values to a broad range of people. I can only wish that we were “authentic” enough to run that kind of shop in America!

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