An Insider's Guide To Eating In Varanasi
Street food such as chaats and kachoris are hot-selling items in Varanasi. Photo: Sangeeta Khanna
Banaras or Varanasi is the oldest surviving city that has had a metropolitan appeal since ancient times. The city has been a centre of trade and tourism since time immemorial. The common Hindu belief that one can wash away all sins by taking a dip in the Ganges continue to attract tourists from all over the country as well as across the world. Even in the past, several kings travelled to the city to build their palaces and ghats to ensure they can come and live here whenever they wished to.
The influx of such tourists from diverse places led to the discovery of trade opportunities, and silk, brocade and other textiles became established apart from other artistic crafts such as wood and stone carving and sculpting. The strong presence and culture of street food in Banaras is a result of high demand from tourists of all economic strata. Even the kings from other parts of the country brought their own cooks with them who stayed back adding to the culinary canvas of the city.
The result of all this varied influence is a fantastic array of food available in the city, both being served on the streets and being cooked in homes of people belonging to different communities. The food of Banaras in this day and age is also influenced by the influx of the working class coming to the city for better opportunities. Banaras also boasts of three universities, several colleges and boarding schools contributing to the influx of younger crowd from all over the country.
Today you can see litti chokha being sold on the streets, which is a new phenomenon and was not seen even two decades ago. But I am glad to see nourishing and freshly-cooked food being sold around office complexes and colleges instead of fast food joints. The latter is a little slow phenomenon here; there are several vendors whipping up real traditional foods thankfully.
You can find Awadhi fare on the streets of Madanpura, Bengali delicacies in Bangali tola, original south Indian food in Ramapura, Sindhi and Punjabi food around Lajpat Nagar, and Maharashtrian and Gujrati food in some of the gullies where these communities have settled down since centuries. There are newer restaurants serving Japanese and Lebanese foods too, run by foreigners who settled here. There is an English bakery and a pizzeria serving the kind of food that can surprise you in these places.
A golgappa vendor in Varanasi. Photo: Sangeeta Khanna
Among the old traditional street foods, you will find a variety of kachoris served with an array of subzis, apart from jalebis, lavanglata, pakodas, tikkis and chaats. Lavanglata has to be singular as Banaras has its own version, which is huge and very rich, for some reason it is always found at the lassi and chaat shops. You won’t find it at an elite mithai shop ever!
Among the traditional elite mithais, the Laal peda and Magdal is indigenous to Banaras, and the famous Ram Bhandar is known to have invented the Tiranga barfi during 1942 Quit India Movement. They also make a great variety of seasonal mithais suited for the innumerable festivals the city celebrates throughout the year. Malai paan or Malai gilori, Raswanti, Kheer kadamb, Chamcham among others are other members of this club.
Interestingly, Rajbhog and Rasgulla are both Banarasi mithais for a local as Bengal and Odisha don’t exist for them at all. I wouldn’t fire the controversy, but it is quite possible that both reached here as soon as it was invented in their birthplace. The city has been attracting artisans and connoisseurs both in equal measures. Nonetheless both Rasgulla and Rajbhog of Banaras is the best I have eaten, but you have to go to specific shops to get the best.
Lassi and thandai are almost synonymous to Banaras, but be aware of the spurious shops that have mushroomed to cash on to the popularity of these drinks. You would find rabdi, creamy dahi (cultured yogurt), hot reduced milk and khoya in some very old lassi shops around the city, and each one of them serves pure indulgence that one can’t resist.
Home cooking in Banaras is considered kosher and most traditional families wouldn’t allow any non-vegetarian food in the kitchens. Non-vegetarian food was always considered to be an outdoor activity probably because it was enjoyed only after ‘shikar’ in older days. There are strict rituals about allowing only seasonal foods in the kitchen and cooking to be done in a specific manner, some festival specific foods are cooked always in the traditional manner. These traditions have lived on because everyone was always free to hop into the streets to eat whatever they wanted as there was a plethora of choices waiting for them. Not that people are not experimenting fusion cuisines in their kitchens, but most of them don’t mess with the traditional recipes.
One thing is very strongly observed that the street food has always influenced the home cooking here. You find a continuum of flavours and textures from the streets to the home kitchens, though some boundaries will always remain intact and the signature homely daal-chawal of each family will remain their own.
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