Piquant Varanasi

Varanasi’s eclectic food scene, dotted with local fare, piques Lakshmi Sharath’s interest in street food and leaves her craving for more

FOOD JAUNT Along the ghats of Varanasi. PHOTOS BY AUTHOR

Standing at Assi Ghat in Varanasi, I am mesmerised by the golden hues of dawn that has just painted the waters of the Ganges. The morning Ganga aarati has just got over even as gentle strains of music are carried by the breeze. Petite petals of flowers float on the river as little symbols of faith while the boats slowly drift in the placid waters ferrying tourists. Ash-smeared sadhus with matted hair make their appearance. The ghats come alive even as the pyres burn, snuffing out life. Ironically though death is a way of life here.

Ganga aarti
Ganga aarti

But Varanasi has several layers tucked away within its fold and as each layer peels off, it reveals a different side to the city. It is to many, the city of salvation with an eternal timelessness about it. There is something divine about Varanasi and I am not just referring to the spiritual aura around one of the most ancient and sacred cities of the world. I am however referring to the lanes of Varanasi that burst into myriad flavours and a tizzy of sights, sounds and eateries. Varanasi is a haven for soulful food that is served in the labyrinthine network of lanes that are around the ghats. From deep-fried kachoris to spicy chaats, from delectable malaiyyos to mouth-watering jalebis, from intoxicating thandais to creamy lassis, a food trail of Varanasi is a high calorific but sumptuous journey.

To begin with, a typical breakfast in Varanasi starts with a plate of kachori sabzi. Head to Sri Ram Bhandaar where deep-fried kachoris in desi ghee are served with hot jalebis. Two cups are thrust in your hand — one of them has fluffy kachoris stuffed with lentils, while the other is brimming with a hot and spicy gravy of chickpeas and potatoes. The jalebis literally melt in your mouth as you crave for another one. Sitting in the open you can see the men frying the kachoris in massive frying pans even as orders fly in the air and plates are emptied in seconds. It is one of the popular eateries of Varanasi thronged by both locals and tourists located at Thatheri Bazaar. There is another branch at The Mint House at Cantonment as well.

You do not visit Varanasi and not try their famous thandai and lassi. Blue Lassi near Kachori Galli is a tiny little tourist favourite where the blue walls are filled with postcard size photos and graffiti from every traveller around the world who has visited it. Seasonal fruits are the flavour of the season and the menu is filled with eclectic options — a blueberry coconut lassi anyone? Served in small matka cups, these rich creamy lassis are served in several small shops like Lassi Corner or Lassiwala. The thandai is another Varanasi special tipple. While you may be able to sample the cold delicious concoction of milk, sugar, dry fruits, seeds and spices in most eateries, you must head to the Badal Thandai Shop or Kashi Vishwanath Thandai Ghar where you can also try the drink with bhaang or cannabis.

Tamatar chaat
Tamatar chaat

Spicy & tangy

However, it is the chaats of Varanasi that add a unique flavour to the holy city. The iconic Deena Chaat Bhandaar located at Dashaswmedha Ghat is a landmark in itself as these chaats are sheer signature dishes. The tamatar chaat is spicy and tangy with its unique blend of spices, chickpeas and tomatoes while the palak chaat is another favourite. You must also try the dahi bhalla and aloo tikki besides the usual gol gappa. Deena’s is so popular that they have another branch in the city and they are patronised by Bollywood celebrities besides politicians and corporate honchos. Another place known for chaats and kachoris is Kashi Chaat Bhandaar at Godowlia Chowk.

Gol gappa
Gol gappa

Sweets of Varanasi are the ultimate dessert. While there are several milk-based sweets , the lawanglata is one of the popular desserts filled with rich khoya. You must also try the maalpua or the creamy rabri. Varanasi is filled with sweet shops but the Shree Rajbandhu Sweets, Vishwanath Mishtaan Bhandaar and Ksheer Sagar are institutions in themselves. Winters are special for the delicious malaiyyos, which is nothing but frothy whipped milk topped with dry fruits like pistachios and almonds, and garnished with saffron and cardamom.

Chew on this

And no meal is ever complete without a bite into the traditional Benarasi paan. Walk into any lane behind the ghats and you will find the hole in the wall shops thronged with locals. As you chew the paan and allow the flavours to melt in your mouth, you will, for a moment forget the speeding bikes and rickshaws, the dogs barking in the lanes, the jostling of crowds, the chants of a funeral procession, the tolling of the bells, the clanking of utensils, and lose yourself only in the moment. Try the meetha paan at Deepak Tambul Bhandaar which has a touch of gulkhand added to the spices, or if you prefer a strong mint flavour, you will not be disappointed. Another popular haunt is Keshav Paan Bhandaar at Lanka Road near BHU, which is highly recommended for the Benarasi paan.

Gulab jamuns
Gulab jamuns

While the food trail is the ultimate Benaras experience, you must also head to some of the quaint cafes and bakeries that make Varanasi a unique blend of the East and the West. This is where you will get gourmet cuisine, continental dishes, a mishmash of sandwiches and burgers, pancakes and muffins, and a variety of fresh breads. The Bread of Life Bakery at Shivalla , Brown Bread Bakery, Pizzeria Vatika Cafe, Open Hand’s Cafe, Mark’s Place, Aum Cafe and Iba Cafe are among several others where you will get an eclectic cuisine from Japanese to Italian. As you eat your heart out at Varanasi, this is one ethereal indulgence that you will not forget.

 

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