Arriving in Delhi for the first time is no small thing. India smacked me in the face. It’s everything at once. Chaos, a mixture of classes and faces with eyes eep as the ocean. In my younger years, I always thought I would end up in India as a backpacker, but au contraire. Instead, I was ushered by private attendant to private driver to one of India’s most elegant hotels: the Imperial.

My room was stately. I had my own personal butler, to my surprise. I thought it was invisible maid service, until I realized each room was assigned a private attendant. He hung my clothes, turned down the bed and generally looked after the room with care. I gave him what I thought was a generous tip, which delighted him, and me, until I noticed afterwards that I had given him the equivalent of a small fortune.

He seemed overly grateful for us “rich” Americans. If he only knew that some of us are just slow on the exchange after a fresh arrival. I quickly consoled myself in the courtyard with a Mango Mimosa. Yes the Indians drink Champagne.

I spent the next day foraging through the spice markets of old Delhi by rickshaw. An unbelievable array of colorful choices way beyond my normal repertoire, even after all these years of traveling to Morocco.

It was indeed like being in a foreign land of ingredients. I especially appreciated the bags of salt. They looked like huge sacks of crystal, pink, cloudy white, black. Yet, when I took a tool to it, the crystals broke easily in my hand. Rajasthan is famous for its black salt.

Eighty-six spices are grown in India and she controls 30% of the spice market. India exports $500,000,000 all over the world, “to provide tang and flavor to insipid foods.” These spices often have antioxidant as well as medicinal properties. For example, have you ever heard of basil reducing the effects of radiation?

The history of the actual spice route and how it evolved is one of my favorite subjects. So this day at the market was a perfect introduction to my first day in India. As for my interest in cooking, this country was one of the last frontiers to be explored, with one of the oldest culinary traditions.

Read more about our 12-day culinary program in India.