My maiden trip to Benaras or Varanasi in July 2015, was to attend the wedding of a close college friend. Excited about finally walking the ghats and gallis of this ancient city, I took in the sights and smells of this temple town with its stories of yogis on the ghats, of tourists and the devout both flocking to see the evening aarthi on the banks of India’s most holy river, the Ganga, its Benarasi sari heritage, and its warm and hospitable residents.
The next morning, as I took an autorickshaw to travel to its famous ghats and the holy Kashi Vishwanath temple, what was striking was the similarity that the local architecture and old city have to the Chandni Chowk area in Old Delhi. The same narrow lanes and by-lanes, flanked on both sides by two to three storey buildings, housing small eateries that spill out onto the pathway. Many of these buildings open into a large central courtyard with rooms on all sides. Even culturally, the similarities were striking – constant friendly banter between the locals who have known each other for years, adda sessions in progress, children playing around. It was déjà vu – my memories of Chandni Chowk go back many decades, when as a 5-6 year old I would visit my dadi’s (maternal grandmother’s) ancestral house for festivals. Being in Benaras brought all those buried memories back.
Some of the ghats, especially Assi Ghat, are quite clean, thanks to a recent cleanliness initiative (though the rest of the city could do with some love and attention on the hygiene front). Sitting on the steps, watching the sun as it rises over the river is a calming experience especially if you get there before the hustle bustle of the day begins. The ghats provide quite a few photo-ops with children playing in the water, boats setting out for a tour and other activities such as barbers at work.
Food was clearly on my mind, as we finished our round of visiting the glats, the Kashi Vishwanath temple and the Shani temple. With a list of eateries to visit, we knew where to head and what to eat. Here’s a quick list of the must-have food while enjoying Varanasi.
Puri Subzi is the typical Benarasi breakfast to have though the subzi can be had with puris or kachoris. A kachori is a puri with a stuffing of daal. Usually fried right before your eyes, these hot and crisp delicacies are to be had with a flavourful gravy called aloo rassa. Sometimes, the desire to have more of this gravy has kept me eating way past the should-not-eat-more stage. Though this can be had at any small joint, Ram Bhandar in Chowk or Madhur Milan near Dashwamedha ghat are particularly famous.
Most of the breakfast joints also serve crispy, syrupy, hot jalebis that are perfect to end the I’m-already-stuffed breakfast adventure. Do ensure that the jalebi has had time to soak in the sugar syrup, else it might be a tad bland, as was the case with the bunch we had.
The other way to end a typical Benarasi breakfast is to have a kullhad (earthen glass) of thick, cardamom flavoured lassi topped with a generous helping of malai or cream and a few drops of rose-water. I had it at a small joint close to Ram Bhandar but Lassiwala near Assi Ghat or Blue Lassi in Vishwanath Gali are sought after for the variety of lassis on offer. Another must-try item at these lassi joints is their Thandai – milk flavoured with a variety of spices. Enroute to anywhere you’re likely to cross one of Varanasi’s many misthan bhandaars that serve delicious sweets all day round. Do try the malpuas, gulab jamuns and lal pedhas.
Chaat is among the other foods that Varanasi is known for. Right from aloo tikki – potato patties served with chickpea curry and topped with chutneys, to pani puri and papdi chaat, there’s a huge variety of chaats to try. Kashi Chaat Bhandaar is a popular destination near Dashwamedha ghat for all these and the must-try Tamatar Chaat (Tomato Chaat).
Also unique to Benaras is this butter toast called safed makhhan toast. Thick, local bread toasted over live coal, and then slathered with a supremely-generous helping of white butter or regular butter, depending on your taste preferences. Ask for a little salt and pepper with the white butter. Laxmi Chai Waale is the place to visit for this. This popular joint also serves tea – deeply boiled, strong and sweet tea made over a coal stove and served in an earthen kullhad, which the locals love to have as they discuss the affairs of the city.
Other images of food from the streets of Varanasi.