Food, Festivity and History- Varanasi
My decision to travel to Benares was made when I saw an image of Dev Deepawali, a festival celebrated on the ghats on Varanasi on full moon night after Diwali. Diwali would never be bright enough once you take the boat ride down the 7 kms stretch of Ganga along which run 85–90 Ghats, all lit up on Dev Deepawali day. Having said that, I must admit that I also happened to know that Varansi was the birth place of Chaat- staple street food all across New Delhi, so the trip was inevitable.
Not particularly religious, I cannot deny the magnetic spiritual pull that engulfed me the second I stepped on the Ghat. The first ghat is called Assi , assi being hindi for the number eighty to denote the number of ghats there were. Placing diyas all over in a symmetry that one would appreciate from afar, vendors selling diya set over flowers to float in the holy river to wish upon, toys and masks to keep the young ones interested, girls making beautiful flower decorations, every person was making their contribution in creating a vibe that I would remember forever.
True to Indian nature, where there is festivity there is food, a lot of it. From Chana Zor Garam- Popped Spiced Chickpeas, Sev Puri, Fried Papad, Pakodas, Masala Chai in Clay pots, Saffron Milk to Idli Vendors, there was a lot to get one through the busy evening here. It was the first time I saw Idli being sold like that- on the streets, out of buckets. How wonderfully bizarre!
It is a spectacle you must see once in life, but here is what you need to keep in mind if you wish to attend it next year:
Plan and book your tickets way in advance.
It is really really crowded, so if that is not your thing, reconsider.
It is quite dirty, there are parts of the river that look like or might actually be sewage water, heads up!
The best way to enjoy the view is by taking a boat tour on the river besides walking around to one ghat from the other.
The next day on I started my food quest with an early start to go break some desi bread. Like most places in Uttar Pradesh, traditional breakfast here consists of Kachori-Sabzi and Jalebis. While you find this staple every where, I recommend walking to Ram Bhandar at Thatheri Bazar, Chowk. There is spiced poori they call kachori served with Aalo Sabzi seasoned with chutney, mooli shreds and some chole. They also do stuffed Kachoris topped with spicy chole and chutney. When the spice gets too much there is freshly fried hot Jalebis that comes to rescue
Right across Ram Bhandar is a small vendor that does Malaiye, also called Daulat ki Chaat. It is flavoured milk that forms a thick layer of foam upon treatment from dew in the air when left open overnight. The version here was way richer than the ones we find in Old Delhi. Once the clouds of saffron and pistachio (that the vendor mixes with rabri to add body to it) are done playing the vanishing act, they fill your khullar with the milk that is left under the foam that was a burst of cream and flavours. Might I add that we need to give credit to our U.Pwallas for some top class Molecular Gastronomy without the natak! The entire breakfast costed under Rs 90 per person.
You will notice tonnes of Lassi shops all through the city. While locals have their own favourite spots for plain Lassi like Pehalwan, tourists flock lassi shops that fancy it up. Blue is one such spot which boasts of over 90 kinds of lassis. Imagine curd set from fresh full cream milk, hand beaten with blueberries and topped with malai! Crammed in a gali at the main chowk, directions can be easily asked for. Under the thousands of passport size pictures of many of the travels who have come here from all across the globe, the walls are a happy blue. At Rs 90 the Mixed fruit lassi is the most popular. Did I mention they hand blend each and every lassi fresh for every order. Word of caution- skip the chocolate lassi!
As the inventors of chaat, Benares has full rights to flaunt it all over town to make you salivate every time you step out. The locals swear by Dina Chaat Bhandar. The best way to go about it to follow the menu numerically from the first dish on. Benarasi Gol Gappas are stuffed with boiled, mashed, spiced mix of chickpeas and are available with spicy Jal Jeera or with sweetened curd. Samose and Aalo Tikki are topped with chole or curd with green chili chutney and sweet & sour saunth to make it give it a more chaat element. Chuda Matar is a local snack which is their desi ghee laden version of Poha, I liked the one at Dina the best. I ended it on Tamatar- the signature Benarasi chaat. It is cooked and blended bhaaji with heavy tomato notes, spiced generously and topped with fresh coriander and crisps, one can eat tonnes of this and not feel guilty.
We found of Bihar parading around the streets in Varanasi. Litti Chokha is stuffed dough ball, baked and served with a mashed potato gravy cooked in mustard oil. Whats different here is how they cooked the Litti. In a deep dish filled with coal and ash, cow dung cakes are set on fire. Stay with me, its not what it sounds like. The stuffed dough balls are first cooked over this heat through a thick cloth. The litti is then cooked inside a coal fired clay oven to give it a nice dark colour. The kick from mustard was pungent and unique. For Rs 25 this would be one of the best meals I had in the city. To find this, you have to venture out to Sigra a little away from the Ghats and main chowk.
For a final meal, we headed to Pizzeria, Assi Ghat, initially opened by Italians who installed wood fired oven, kneaded their own dough and made their own cheese. While the original owners have left, the tradition of doing everything from scratch remains. All the pizzas are thin crust. I loved the Spinach Aubergine Pizza and their Mixed Sauce Pasta here. The homemade cheese really shines through. Ask for some olive oil and you get a jar of chilli flakes infused extra virgin olive oil that I drizzled generously to give more character to the delicious food. You cannot leave without trying the Apple Pie. A generous slice topped with Ice Cream, it is a common site to see everyone getting extra for later. The restaurant is Al Fresco so the view of the ghat helps get through the wait while all your food is freshly prepared. Though mosquitoes act like party pooper and dampen the spirits a bit. But that is true for the entire city!
Besides the food, which is a never ending list, there is tonnes of history that would keep you busy. A trip to Sarnath, the place of Buddhas first sermon is an hours drive away. The Archaeology Museum in Sarnath holds the Lion Capital, the four headed lion structure that is our national emblem, besides other interesting sculptures and art pieces from as early as 2nd Century A.D. The Bharat Kala Bhawan inside BHU would keep you engaged for over 3 hours with its astonishing collection of artifacts. There are sections of sculptures, textiles and ornaments, paintings and more. In a sense parts of the museum cover the entire history of Benares. The problem with these places were the lack of any kinds of guides. They also don’t allow carrying cameras inside. But its worth the visit. There is also Bharat Mata Mandir which has engraved in stone the entire map of India. Originally water works were part of the deal, that would mark the routes of all the rivers flowing from the Himalayas tracing the entire course till they end in the oceans. Now its just an abandoned cause with a dull person manning the souvenir table. With so many tourists traveling to Benares through out the year, you would think the people in charge would way attention to some of the unique places of tremendous historic importance…
Being the worlds oldest continuous civililization, Benares is a must visit. With its rich and flavourful local food, 100’s of cafes offering all kinds of cuisines and a whole lot of monuments, temples and museums to see, I wonder why more Indians don’t consider traveling to this historic city. Sure the dirty streets, pollution and traffic is a bit of a deterrent, but if you can look past that Benares has a unique character and heartbeat hard to find.
P.S- Originally known as Kashi, Benares was officially named Varanasi some 60 odd years back. Everyone has their own choice of what to call this city but its all the same!