When TV cook and food writer Annabel Langbein landed back in New Zealand after a recent trip to India, she returned with more than the usual snaps and souvenirs.
Along with memories that will last a lifetime, she came back with a new perspective on what really matters in life. She was moved by how contented people seemed, even though they lived in poverty.
“It was very different to the way we are in the West, always wanting more,” she says. “It was a very humbling experience.”
The trip also strengthened the already close bond between Annabel and her daughter Rose (18), who was volunteering at the Sheela Bal Bhavan orphanage in Jaipur for two months during her gap year.
“I am so very proud of her – the way she coped with being in such a different environment was incredible,” says Annabel.
The mum of two – son Sean (20), a student, also joined them – forged new friendships with people she met, as well as picking up lots of recipes and cooking techniques, which are sure to feature in future books.
While it may sound all a bit Eat, Pray, Love, the experience had a profound effect on her. “I still think about it every day,” she says. “It really made me realise less is more.”
Annabel had mixed feelings about making her first trip to India, even though she’s well-travelled and fairly adventurous. She wasn’t sure how she would cope with the poverty, but was keen to see how Rose was.
“The orphanage is home to 22 girls and I knew it would be very different to anything Rose has ever done before.
“When she first got there, she said it was like being on another planet. Conditions at the orphanage were pretty basic – her shower was a bucket and a cold tap – and hardly anyone spoke English.”
During her trip, Annabel arranged for a custom tour to see how people lived and cooked, rather than sightseeing. Thanks to her guides, she got to watch locals cooking traditional meals everywhere from top restaurants to over open fires in their homes.
“I didn’t do any cooking – apart from making bread. I just watched and I ate. I ate a lot!” says Annabel.
“While India is very poor, the people we met had rich lives. They are happy, healthy and proud, and although they have so little, they value so much.
“It made me realise we think life in the Western world is much better, yet how often do we feel miserable over things we don’t need to be upset about?”
This is not a recent turnaround in Annabel’s thinking, but further progression along a path she has been heading down for years.
In her teens and early twenties, she embarked on an alternative lifestyle, living off the land alongside Whanganui River. As well as growing her own veges, hunting and fishing, she cooked over an open fire.
Today, her lifestyle is different – working hard has afforded her a beautiful Auckland home, a holiday house in Wanaka and overseas trips – but Annabel still embraces the idea of being resourceful and self-sufficient.
That’s what drove her to write her hugely successful book The Free Range Cook – to share her passion for eating homegrown, home-cooked food that is fresh, seasonal and nutritious.
While Annabel got to meet people who are happy with their lives, she also heard from those who have been touched by terrible tragedy. She was horrified to hear one young boy was sold into slavery by his father at the age of 10 and an 11-year-old girl was raped at school.
Both Annabel and Rose want to maintain their links with the orphanage – Rose is sponsoring one of the girls, Kushboo (6), despite the fact she’s just starting a degree in Melbourne and will be a struggling student. “I couldn’t have left the orphanage without doing something to help,” Rose says.
“We will be going back,” promises Annabel. “This was much more than just a trip to a foreign country. Both Rose and I feel connected to India.”