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On a jalebi, kachori and bhang trail in Varanasi

Writer Shoba Narayan's book, Food & Faith, is an engaging first-person account of how sacred rituals shape Indian food

Representational image from iStockphoto.
Representational image from iStockphoto.

I am standing at Vishwanath Misthan Bhandar in Visheshwar Ganj. It is 8 a.m. and I have just done yoga and pranayama with a hundred strangers on the banks of the Ganga—led by a female teacher who shouted, scolded and coaxed us into stretches, bends and submission. Just show up at Assi Ghat at 6 a.m. if you would like to partake. Suitably lubricated, my body is ready for its next round of lubrication.

At Vishwanath Misthan Bhandar, four men sit outside, frying stuff. Have you heard the sizzle of a jalebi early in the morning? It is the most beautiful sound in the world. Chopin’s ‘Nocturnes’ have nothing on the twin sounds of a jalebi and a kachori sizzling in oil right next to each other. I stand with the milling crowd outside, waiting and licking my salivating mouth. It is my turn. I hold out 10 and get two leaf bowls. An impassive man ladles aloo sabzi into one leaf bowl, and the kachori in another. Now comes the dilemma. How to stand, balance these two bowls in one hand and eat with the other? The others around me are doing just fine having years of practice. If I could be born again, I would come back as a Kashi-vasi (Kashi resident), not necessarily for the good karma but for the terrific kachoris. I have had kachoris in Jaipur, Haridwar, Delhi and Bengaluru. So far, the ones in Kashi are the best. They are fluffy, not brittle. They hold their round shape and have a respectable amount of dal. They collapse like a bubble when you tear them open. The best part is the aloo sabzi: a trite tangy, just enough spicy, and piping hot.

Behind me, milkmen on mopeds are readying for the day, with milk cans topped with kusha grass (Desmostachya bipinnata), also called darbha, to keep the milk ritually pure. A man is inspecting the milk in one to see if it has been watered down. He dips the green grass into the milk to check if it drips with good consistency. Once the inspection is done, the milkmen drive away to sell the milk to homes or the government booth.

The only way to make a kachori better is to mix it with jalebi. Best of all however is to eat kachori—jalebi for breakfast, if possible, every day.

Once breakfast is done, I go temple-hopping. At the Sankat Mochan Hanuman temple, hot laal pedas or red pedas are brought out. Devotees buy boxes of them to take to Lord Hanuman and then distribute to those gathered. I stand in line, awaiting my share. A lady in a purple sari hands me one, then seeing my face, she gives me another with a smile. ‘Jai Hanuman,’ I say and pop one into my mouth. She looks pleased.

‘My daughter conceived after eating ten of these pedas,’ she says. ‘They are a fertility tonic.’

I stop half-bite. Is this why India is overpopulated? Too late. The peda is delicious. The trick to a good peda, and I speak as someone who has never made a peda in her life, is the consistency. It has to melt in the mouth, but you should be able to chew the last bits, like a cookie. You should make those popping sounds that babies make when they relish food. In Tamil we call this naaka chappi kotti, which is like saying ‘making clicking and clapping sounds with your tongue’. A good peda should make your tongue clap.

At the Annapurna temple across town, someone is serving sesame rice, perhaps because it is Saturday. Karnataka, where I live, is home to several ‘rice varieties’, or ‘chitra-anna’ as we call it: coconut rice, lemon rice, tamarind rice, curd rice and, best of all, bise bele bhaath, which literally means a hot lentil–rice mixture. Sesame rice is not often made or served. It is a delicacy and an acquired taste. I acquired it in Kashi. The recipe is simple: roasted and ground black sesame seeds, red chillies, curry leaves, some urad dal and a good helping of asafoetida. Grind it all up and mix with hot rice. Here too, the leaf bowls make their appearance. If you like the thick viscosity of good sesame oil, you will love sesame rice. It is great for vegans because it contains a ton of calcium.

At the Kashi Vishalakshi temple, this wide-eyed goddess is served some ghee-dripping besan ka sheera as prasadam. The sponsor of this prasadam ladles out a spoon to a line of devotees, including myself. My mother is a devout Devi worshipper. She has often said that the goddess has a tender neck, almost translucent in its delicacy. Any food given to her ought to go down her throat without any obstruction that would cause her delicate neck to turn red. It is a great image that gives permission to including an eye-popping amount of ghee into temple food.

All this eating has made me thirsty. The great thing is that you can get thandai with bhang in Banaras on an average day. You don’t have to wait for Holi to indulge. Shiva, the ascetic, loved his bhang, made from the leaves of the cannabis plant. At a government bhang shop, I nervously watch the vendor pour a respectable amount of this green concoction into the glass before adding chilled milk laced with crushed nuts, sugar and saffron. The resulting drink tastes like milk, but with a slightly bitter aftertaste. It is supposed to be hallucinatory. I end up giggling a lot, and wake up the next day with what feels like a hangover.

The other dish that is a signature of the city is not as potent. Banarasi paan is a digestive. I grow betel leaves in my garden. How different can this be? I think, as I stand in front of a tiny shop and ask for a paan.

‘With zarda or without?’ asks the vendor.

Zarda comes from tobacco. It is addictive—gives a high. How bad can it be? With lightning fingers, the vendor smooths open a bright green betel leaf. He throws in several items: betelnuts, lime paste, fennel seeds, a pinch of zarda, rose petal jam or gulkandh, and fruit currants. He folds it into a triangle, sticks in a clove to hold it together, and hands it over to me. I have eaten paan before, but this one has oomph. As I chew, I can feel myself getting lightheaded. The juices flow down my throat, inducing a pleasant sensation of relaxation. I smile beatifically and thank the vendor.

‘Careful,’ he says as I stumble out. ‘Sambhaalke.’

I wave my hand and keep walking. It’s a beautiful day. I don’t remember very much of what happened after that, except that I, much like a Hindi film heroine, woke up in bed.

The book will be released in December
The book will be released in December

Excerpted with permission from 'Food & Faith', to be published by Harper Collins Publishers India.

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