Continued from Episode I: What to eat in Varanasi? where I touched upon a range of desi delicacies. In this part I will cover a bit of what I learned about what Varanasi learnt, from its foreign visitors. And yes, the title does remind me of the Stanley Kubrick classic, but I can safely assume that a city like Varanasi and its food will surely survive a doomsday scenario too.
Varanasi houses a number of European eateries, not only as a direct response to the influx of foreign tourists, but also due to blending of foreign nationals with the local population. A blending which has been facilitated through common interests, strong friendships, and in many cases, marriage with a Varanasi Local.
Amongst all western cuisines, Italian seems to be the most popular one. One can find a number of joints offering wood-oven fired pizza, or Spaghetti Bolognese, or Home Made Pesto. I was quite intrigued by this Italian invasion of Varanasi and had a series of conversations with locals around this. I will share the one I found most convincing, narrated over a cup of Hot Chocolate and crumbly Apple Pie by Mr. Anil Singh, caretaker of the Vaatika Cafe (at Assi Ghat).
Vaatika sits neatly at one corner of the string of ghats, beneath a shade at the entry of Assi, with a green refreshing interior and peaceful surroundings. This place was started by Mr. Gopal Shukla, around 20 years back. Back then while Mr. Shukla was learning tabla, he met Gerrad, an Italian who was in Varanasi for learning Indian Classical Music. The two struck a friendship which continues strongly till date. Gerrad belonged to a family of Pizzamakers in Italy. The two thought that given the number of Italians (and Europeans) visiting Varanasi, a Pizza place could be a profitable proposition. And in 1992 Vaatika started serving its delicious pizzas, at Assi Ghaat.
Anil Singh Ji recalls the early days of the place, where the seating capacity was limited, but it didn’t deter Pizza fans to visit the place. Most of the customers were foreign tourists, dough was rolled in a limited quantity, toppings were few to choose from, and options were limited on the menu. Along with the secrets of Pizza Making, what Gerrard also shared were the procedures of producing Mozzarella from Buffalo milk, and the importance of growing fresh herbs and veggies. Slowly and steadily the menu evolved, and other favorites like Pasta and their famous Apple Pie were added to the menu. Also the place learned from the incoming tourists, and incorporated items, dishes like Raviolli were taught to the owners by an Italian visitor.
The place also started drawing interest of locals, who had never tasted Pizzas in the pre-Pizza Hut/Dominos era. Amit Singh Ji fondly recalls the days when Pizzas started becoming mainstream in in India when few of their Indian customers, who were so used to Vaatika’s crispy thin crusts and sumptuous toppings, that they totally rejected the thick chewy doughs at Dominos.
I got a chance to sample some Pesto infused Spaghetti, Apple Pie, and some good Coffee. I missed out on eating the Pizza as I was already quite stuffed. I also avoided the temptation of ordering a Huma Qureshi Pasta (Gangs of Wasseypur unit spent a considerable time at this cafe while shooting). But I could totally imagine the tastes of this place, oozing with taste and freshness, of ingredients, and of friendship.
Other prominent cafes and bakeries include the Brown Bread Bakery (run by a German baker James, some amazing stuff), Bread of Life and Open Hand Cafe.
Open Hand Cafe* offers another inspiring story. It was established in 1999 by a traveler Christian, who after marrying a local Varanasi lady, started a non profit helping local artisans. He established Open Hand as a shop to sell their goods, and the cafe followed. They have branches across Leh, Delhi, Goa and Kochi now and their sales have benefited a large number of artisans. The place serves some great variety on the menu, and is surely a place filled with inspirational stories and some good coffee.
To end the post on Varanasi, I felt I have missed out on one critical piece of the Varanasi culinary journey, the Paan. Paan and its colorful outcomes are present throughout the city, and I ended up tasting about 6-7 different varieties. I think with so much of it around, there was nothing great to like about them, but I liked this one at Dashashwamedh, after a tiring walk across the ghaats on a hot afternoon.
Drop me a line in case you are travelling to Varanasi sometime soon, will be happy to throw some interesting ideas especially those related to food.
*Open hand story was narrated to me not by the owners but by their staff, and other cafe owners, might not be factually correct in all aspects.