Pilgrim’s progress on a food trail in Varanasi
Chaas, chai, kachori, samosa, chaat, tikki, lassi…. in Varanasi every gali has a speciality. Vegetables get transformed into rich sweets and fruits get a makeover with yoghurt — a veritable treasure trove of vegetarian eats. I ate my way through the city to bring you this tried-and-tested guide to the best street food Varanasi has to offer.
1. Nimbu chai at Assi Ghat
On a misty morning, I wait for a cup of nimbu chai at Assi Ghat. With a smile, Radhey Shyam Maurya adds spoonfuls of powder from different bottles to paper cups. Sugar comes next. An aluminium kettle filled with tea is gently heated on a coal fire and then the steaming liquid was poured into paper cups. A squeeze of lime and he hands me the dark concoction. One sip and I can hear birds sing, my vision clears and the potent tea kicks me awake with a punch. Made with black salt, dry ginger, a bit of salt and a dash of powdered mint, this is tea with a difference. Wah Nimbu chai!
North India is justifiably proud of its lassi — creamy, thick sweet lassi that leaves a milk moustache on your upper lip as you slurp it up from tall steel tumblers or glasses. But this is lassi in Varanasi. The thick cream (malai) is garnished with slivers of nuts and sweetened with a hint of sugar. It is meant to be sipped, not downed in a hurry. Fruit-flavoured lassis are a speciality here. Though it is heavy and calorie-rich, you cannot stop at one.
Made of thickened milk, thandai is an instant pick-me-up that is found at every street corner. Milk is boiled with a paste of almonds and cashew, flavoured with saffron, and garnished with slivers of nuts and dried rose petals. Served chilled, it is cool and soothing. Keep an eye on your thandai though, in some parts of Varanasi, it comes spiked with bhang! An edible preparation made from leaves of the cannabis plant, bhang is added to thandai or lassi, especially during festivals such as Holi.
4. Tamatar chaat
Every resident in the pilgrim city insists you try tamatar chaat. Unlike most food here, this is a spicy chaat that can catch the uninitiated unawares with its pungency. It is cocooned in a fiery red gravy made of pureed tomatoes. Mashed potatoes and a pinch of asafoetida along with other spices are added and it is served with sweet chutney and mint chutney. Garnished with dollops of desi ghee, the hot chaat provides all the warmth one needs on a winter morning. Our local guide tells me the best place to try the chaat is Deena Nath Chaat Bhandar, near the Hanuman Mandir .
5. Chenna dahi vada
Made of cottage cheese, this is a spicy version of the rasmalai. Shaped like the sweet, this is served in sweetened thick curd and garnished with sweet and sour chutney, green chutney, black salt and a hint of jeera. Soothing and nourishing, it is a pleasing jugalbandhi of sweet, spicy and tangy flavours that come in a kulhad (disposable clay cup).
6. Choora matar
Poha or choora (beaten rice) with green peas, also known as Banarasi choora muttar, is a spicy affair that is loaded with masala, cream, milk and ghee. Eaten hot, it is akin to a warm hug on cold days as the ghee, the spicy choora with a hint of sweetness and mushy green peas warm your insides. This is also a winter treat and is a richer version of the Maharashtrian kanda pohe.
7. Palak patta chaat
Fresh palak (spinach) leaves are dipped in a batter of spiced besan flour and deep fried. Crunchy, golden palak-leaf fritters are put on a plate. Cold, fresh curd, sweet-and-sour tamarind chutney and mint chutney are drizzled on it. Then it is garnished with sev. Finely chopped onions and tomatoes are added on request. Each bite of the fritter-chaat is a treat.
8. Aloo tikki
The aroma of aloo (potato) tikki frying on big, almost flat kadais filled with ghee is guaranteed to make your mouth water. The shallow fried potato tikkis, nicely crisped but soft inside, are mashed with sweetened yoghurt, mint chutney, sweet and tangy chutney and garnished with fresh coriander leaves. The potato absorbs the flavours of the chutneys while the curd balances the different spices.
This delicate winter dessert will make you bid adieu to your diet and savour every morsel of the fluffy Malaiyo. Made with the foam formed when the milk and cream mix boils, malaiyo (also called nimish) is served in kulhads. Apparently, the low winter temperatures help make the milk foam form this delectable cloud. The milk is boiled and left overnight for the dew to work its magic. The foam thus collected is then churned, and presto! malaiyo is done. The delicate heap of pale yellow cream that melts on your tongue has hints of sugar, a dash of cardamon, saffron and slivers of almonds and pistachio garnishing it.
10. Benarasi sweet paan
Remember Big B singing ‘Khaike Paan Banaraswala’ in Don? I had to try the sweet Benarasi paan. With trepidation, I popped into my mouth a silver-foil-covered green paan filled with sweet mukhwas (candied seeds), dried fruits etc. Without any tobacco or lime in it, this is a version of a prude paan. Suffice to say, I quite enjoyed it.
Disclaimer: As with all street food, there is a risk of ending up with a tummy ache or worse. Caution is advised while eating food on the kerb.