Anything. Simply, anything.
Amidst all the chaos and confusion of Varanasi, food is one thing which instills some sense of order, with its simple yet mouthwatering flavors dominating a lot of other experiences one has in the city. Varanasi’s food is defined by its place in Hindu culture and tradition, its regional influences (Eastern Uttar Pradesh and proximity to Bihar), the influx of foreign visitors and their will to explore its cultural nuances, and above all its relationship with the river Ganga.
I got an opportunity to taste some incredible food on my visit to Varanasi in July, and have some insightful conversations on the cuisine, preparations, and its fusion with external influences. Hope some of my experiences help you make a decision on What and Where to eat in Varanasi.
Given there is a lot to talk about, I will put a follow-up post. In the second part I will share insights about the evolution of Italian food in Varanasi, Cafes, and much more.
A couple of key points before I start:
- When it comes to cleanliness, Varanasi is quite sad. Look around for clean surroundings, check if the stuff is being freshly prepared in front of you, and as a rule avoid drinking water at any place. You can’t run away from flies at any place but ensure that stuff you eat was well covered.
- I am not liable for any stomach upsets
- Simple puris served with aloo rassa (potato gravy) usually only served during breakfast;
- The regular kachoris stuffed with moong-daal served with aloo rassa or chutney;
- The mini-kachoris you will find on the ghaats served with aloo-rassa.
There is no place in particular which you can choose and pinpoint on for having the best kachori in Varanasi, but MadhurMilan near Dashashwamedh is particularly famous. I ended up having it at a local sweet-vendor and was served 6 puris and subzi for 15 Rs. The small kachoris are mildly spiced and one can gobble up half a dozen easily without much hustle. Although all of them tend to be a bit greasy depending on the amount of oil which has been mixed with the crust. The aloo rassa has a strong presence of Hing (Asafoetida), but it tastes quite like the one at home. And yes do combine it with a plate of sweet-syrupy Jalebis.
Kachori-subzi is the best consumed in morning after the famous Varanasi sunrise and a Holy Dip in Ganges (if you muster the courage to do it with the filth around).
When it comes to chaat you will get all the usual variations ranging from Tikkis (potato patty served with chick-pea gravy), paani-puris and dahi-vadas. Again there are a million places to choose from but when it comes to chaats, Kashi Chaat Bhandaar is an institution in itself. Located close to Dashashwamedh, this small shop run by KeshriJi and the family serves all the popular chaat items. I got a chance to taste the Tikki (mildly flavored made in Ghee), Dahi-Puri and Pani Puri here.
But the clear winner is the Tamatar Chaat (Tomato Chaat). A cross between Maharashtrian Pav-Bhaji and a Kathiawadi Sev-Tamatar, this seamlessly fuses the spicy with sweet and sour, complete with a helpful dashing of crunchy Boondi Sev.
Your body might attain salvation through a dip in Ganga, but your stomach won’t attain the same unless you have the Tamatar Chaat at Kashi Chaat Bhandaar.
Interacting with Rajesh KeshariJi was quite an interesting experience, his family has served chaats for three generations now, and as he gleefully boasted about famous people visiting the shop he couldn’t stop smiling through his Paan-stained teeth.
He claims Tamatar Chaat to be the family’s original (and proudest) invention and he will ensure that you don’t leave without tasting his bomb-sized Gulabjaamuns (Fried Mawa balls soaked in sugar syrup) or the Malaidaar (super creamy) Kulfi-Falooda.
Ok and apart from Kachoris and Chaats there are tonnes of things you will find walking on the ghaats, like these awesome pakodis we had near Assi.
Litti-Chokha. A popular dish from the Eastern U.P. / Bihar region, Litti Chokha represents how simple and delightful Indian food can be. Littis are charcoal-baked wheat balls, stuffed with a Bhojpuri staple ingredient Sattu. Sattu is gram flour prepared by roasting gram in hot sand.
So what is so unique about the Sattu in Varanasi which makes its Littis so flavorful? If one has to believe the locals, the sand comes from the beds of River Ganga, and adds a unique taste to the Sattu. Maybe this was too far fetched a connect for me, but if you ta
ste the simple Lahi-Chana (Puffed Rice and Grams) cracked in hot sand and sold on the shores of Ganga, you will somewhat agree with theory.
Chokha is a mix of mashed Roasted Brinjal (Baingan Bhartain India, and similar to Baba Ghanoush minus the Tahini), mashed potatoes, lightly spiced with a dash of freshly chopped tomatoes, onions and cucumber for crunchiness.
You can have this dish at multiple locations in the city, but I recommend the restaurant Baati Chokha (close to the Railway Station at Teliabagh). You can enjoy this delicacy at a neat and clean place and they have fancier variations like the Paneer stuffed Litti, and a variety of other Indian dishes to choose from.
Dairy products- Sweets, Lassi and Thandai.When it comes to high-quality dairy products Mathura leads the popularity charts, but I don’t think Varanasi will be anywhere behind.
I got addicted to this LassiWaala’s Lassi near Assi Ghaat (well that rhymes!). Lassi is served in Kulhad (small earthen cups), with a heavy helping of cream on top, and a few drops of rose-water on top. I can’t articulate the goodness of Lassi in Varanasi, for me it is better than the one I have had in Amritsar, or in Indore. It is much more creamier in consistency, and I think is blessed by the River Ganga herself.
Again there is no particular place to have a Lassi or Thandai in the city but you can trust Raju KeshariJi sitting right at the Dashashwamedh Square for an amazingly refreshing Thandai.
When Raju Keshariji (not related to Rajesh Keshariji from Kashi Chaat) started talking about the mix of Thandai and the spices which go into the making of it, he was hardly comprehensible through his paan-stuffed mouth. Then he popped in a pouch of Gutkha and still managed to gulp in half of glass of Thandai at the same time!!! (One of the most shocking image I carried back from my trip). When I offered him advice on how eating so much Paan can lead to health issues, he replied:
BhaiSahab, Saccha Banarasikhaana chodd sakta hai, Paan nahi. (A true Banarasi can leave food, but can’t leave Paan)
By the way for a Bhang infused Thandai, move to the Government Approved Bhangshops near the temple. You never know what you will end up drinking at other places!
You will see a lot of shops selling milk-based mithais(sweets) in Varanasi, although please be aware of the fact that given the number of tourists entering the place, and the quantities they are producing it might not always be safe! Milk and milk-based products do tend to have a number of adulterants. Shops like Madhurmilan are bigger and one can assume them to be safe.
Banarasi Kalakand is the most popular sweet here, although I found it a bit too sweet for my taste.
To be continued…