My first visit to Benares, the eternal city, was almost 5 years ago to celebrate a milestone birthday with a very dear friend. It was one of those trips you remember and cherish when you are “old and grey and full of sleep”. Apart from a zany memory of a rain-soaked walk after a kullad of somewhat “questionable” thandai from a street shop with a mysterious blue door and a very loquacious but well-meaning storeowner, my other recollections are of temples, alleys, waterfronts, some very giggly sari-shopping and of sharp, snappy, seductive roadside food. Kachoris stuffed with potatoes, dipped in a tangy aloo ki sabzi, the spicy kind which makes the eyes water, but the soul satisfied and the heart sing, followed by steaming jalebis, bought enroute to the airport and eaten straight from an oily brown paper packet as we waited for security check.
I have followed up that mesmeric first trip with two more “supposed work” trips as “crew” for two editions of the spectacular Mahindra Kabira Festival which my office produces. My real initiation into Benares’s vast array of street food began at this festival. Lavish breakfasts on the banks of a misty Ganga with a weak winter sun peeping through cotton-candy clouds comprised the perfectly lazy backdrop to my first meeting with the Benarasi nimish – a fluffy, frothy, saffron-flavoured rabdi-like dessert (yes! I can have dessert at breakfast too!) – with a taste which remains long on your tongue even after the incandescent treat has all but disappeared from your mouth.
The food of Benares is the legacy of its diverse people - Marwari traders and shopkeepers from near-by Bihar and West Bengal who came to the city hundreds of years ago and made it their own. Foods from these states have since enmeshed in Benares’s cauldron-like identity. Vegetarian delicacies are cooked in rich desi ghee and the very East Indian mustard oil which engender a burst of flavours - spicy, sweet, sour and sharp. Even Benarasi sweets, largely made with a base of milk and ghee, have names which sound lyrical -the magdal, Sankat Mochan ke laddoo, parval mithai, the kheer mohan and the launglata.
The Benarasi dahi vada is special – it is made of soft, plump balls of chena (fresh cottage cheese), a distinctly Bengali staple when making sweets, dipped in sweetened yogurt with a hint of masala – namely, cumin and black salt –a perfect mix of sweet and sour - with coriander garnishing. On the narrow alleys of Benares, everything is transformed, even the modest puffed rice poha – the flattened rice, soaked in desi ghee, gets tempered with spices and green peas to which fresh cream is added with raisins and saffron! And lo and behold, you have the legendary Benarasi choora matar savoured best with a cup of masala chai.
I cannot end my food memories of Benares without mentioning its version of chaat made with tomatoes! The Benarasi tamatar ki chaat is a spicy preparation in which tomatoes are mixed with the pungent asafoetida, pounded ginger, green chillies, an array of spices and boiled potatoes. Served in bowls made of palash leaves, sprinkled with chaat masala and topped with crispy namak pare (a deep fried strip of wheat flour dough flavoured with ajwain), this chaat will change the contour your chaat repertoire forever.
Baati chokha, one of Bihar’s most popular comfort foods, makes for a sought-after street snack in Benares too, famously available at Puran Das Road. Baati, a wheat ball stuffed with chickpea flour (sattu) and chokha, a mash of brinjal and potatoes mixed with various spices, are eaten together with luxuriant dollops of ghee.
Benarasiya paan conjures up memories of a lanky, bandana-ed Amitabh Bachchan choreographed on a quirky song and even quirkier dance steps on the streets of Benares thronging with cheering crowds and the effortlessly chic Zeenat Aman. When in Benares, chew on a sweet paan, the quintessential betel leaf, filled with sweetened rose petals, fennel seeds and soft supari and wait as the juices fill your mouth to break into song and dance! Make sure to visit Rajendra Chaurasia Paan, Chowk Thana and Deepak Tambul Bhandar at Dashashwamedh Ghat.
The must-visit food haunts for melt-in-the-mouth kachoris, chaats, nimish and jalebis are Ram Bhandar, Thatheri Bazar, the winding Kachori Gali, and the famous Deena Chaat Bhandar at Godaulia. I am certainly not leaving any street food corner uncharted when I get there on November 22, 2019 for the 4th Mahindra Kabira Festival. Make sure you don’t either!