It’s 6 in the morning and the sun’s rays seem to have cast a diaphanous orange veil on the Ganga. I am at Varanasi’s famous Assi Ghat, embarking on a boat ride, to see the city from a vantage point on the river. This one boat journey across the river allows you to take in the circle of life, playing out on the ghats. There is a slight nip in the air and there is a song on everyone’s lips. The ghats are a great place to sit and soak in the surreal vibe that is Varanasi—and it becomes an even more enjoyable experience if you have a kulhad of chai and malaiyyo in your hand.
All through the day, the stairs on the ghats lead up to street food stalls and shops of all sorts, with people scurrying up to get chai and a breakfast of jalebi, chooda matar in the morning, followed by kachori sabzi and lassi in the afternoon, and rabri, poori sabzi, and more in the evening. The hours in between are also dedicated to food with tamatar ki chaat, baati chokha, and gol kachori being consumed in large quantities. The city never sleeps—rather it stays awake to eat. If you simply embark on a food trail along the ghats—from Assi to Guleria—walking through the narrow alleyways that they melt into, you will be spoilt for choice.
I would strongly recommend starting this delicious journey with a nimbu chai, or hajmola chai as the locals call it. After navigating the traffic near Assi Ghat, populated by honking e-rickshaws, bikes—I even see a girl in a lehenga whizzing by on a scooty—I reach Radhey Shyam Maurya’s tea stall. He has been running this shop for the past 30 years. “Usse pehle hamaari mataji sambhalti thi,” says Radhey bhaiyya, as he is endearingly called, while his genial mother, in a purple sari and with a toothy smile, makes her way to the river. He deftly puts a kettle on a chulha, and places a portable fan underneath to fan the coals. As the tea brews, he adds a dash of lemon and a special masala made with kala namak, sonth (dried ginger) and a whole lot of other ingredients. You take one sip and understand why it’s called hajmola chai. It is so refreshing that you can’t stop at a single cup.
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The street food of Varanasi has, over the years, taken on the hues of the various communities from different parts of the country that inhabit it. So, you will see an endless number of dosa corners on every street. There are baati chokha stalls as well. “There has been a huge settlement of people from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Bihar and Bengal in the city since the 14th century. So, you will find their influence on the food here. They also set up shops to sell their region’s food. There is the Aiyer’s Cafe in Godaulia Market (on Dashashwamedh Ghat road), which has a reputation for good dosas,” says Dehradun-based author-nutritionist Sangeeta Khanna, who hails from Varanasi. She used to run a popular blog dedicated to the city’s food, Banaras ka Khana, for a long time. In Godaulia, you will also find hearty Punjabi-style chaats sold by those who came to the city as refugees after Partition. Khanna rates Moga Chaat Bhandar very highly among those.
Then there are street foods such as chooda matar, which have become such an integral part of the city’s breakfast routine, and carry distinctive influences of settlers from Maharashtra and Gujarat. Made with chiwda, or flattened rice, this dish is cooked with peas, and served piping hot in the morning. “It has a tinge of sweetness, which is unlike any of the chiwda preparation made in Uttar Pradesh. A lot of ghee goes into it—as much as you would put into a halwa,” explains Khanna, who used to find the chooda matar at Nariyal Bazaar quite good. So, what is the sign if the dish has been made by an old-time resident? If you squeeze it, a lot of ghee will come out. “It is meant to be eaten in small portions and is never ladled out in big plates,” she adds.
Varanasi is as much known for its mystics as for the milkmen, who used to be quite wealthy at one point of time in history. It’s no wonder then that there are special alleys named after milk products such as Doodh Gali, Khoya Gali, so on and so forth. One of the classic winter delicacies is the malaiyyo, made with creamy milk. If made right, it tastes like a fluffy cloud. According to Khanna, in the last decade many versions of this sweet dish have come up—flavoured with strawberry, pineapple, and more. “However, the original continues to be the same. The secret lies in very good quality saffron and milk,” she says.
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The older places such as Neelkanth and those in Thateri Bazaar are located barely 200 metres from the ghats. “The early morning mist from the river is very important to a good malaiyyo. You get versions of this in Kanpur and Lakhimpur, but it is the Varanasi mist, when made close to the river, that impacts the dish. The Lucknow makkhan malai, which is similar, is also good but is heavier,” elaborates Khanna. In my view—and it might be a controversial one—the daulat ki chaat, in Delhi, made on the same lines, doesn’t hold a candle to the malaiyyo. Perhaps, the quality of milk has deteriorated over time in the capital city, impacting the taste.
The milk-heavy street food and its makers find a mention in the Penguin Food Guide To India by Charmaine O’ Brien. She lists Shree Rajbandhu on the corner of Kachori Gali, near Vishwanath Temple, as one of the best stores for khoya-based sweets in the city. “Over the course of an afternoon and into the early evening, I watched an elderly man, in a small booth in Kachori Gali, painstakingly make a batch of rabri. He served it in small portions sprinkled with crushed pistachio nuts in earthenware dishes; at ₹20 a serve, it was expensive compared to the cost of other food items in Varanasi but it sold out quickly. All this man makes is rabri; he is an artisan, and if he were working in a small city in France or Italy, he would be considered a national treasure,” she writes.
If you were to spend a couple of days in each of the alleys near the ghats, you would find many such artisans at work. In fact, according to Khanna, some of the old chaats can be found only in such alleyways, where thela wallas, or hawkers, put them together. She recommends the kachalu, which was earlier made only with one kind of colocasia but has now come to include grilled and fried potato as well. “There is an older type of gol gappa, which is made with harad (Terminalia chebula), a herb that goes into the triphala (an Ayurvedic remedy). Earlier, after you had eaten all the chaats, the seller used to give one medicinal black gol gappa made with harad to aid digestion,” she explains.
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At the recently-concluded Mahindra Kabira Festival, one got to savour an assortment of traditional street food, whipped up by some of the iconic eateries in the city. There was kachori sabzi from Ram Bhandar, baati chokha from Puran Das Road, rabri jalebi from Om Shree Ram Bhandar, but the one dish that has stayed with me since is the tamatar chaat, served at the festival by Deena Nath Chaat Bhandar, which is located near Hanuman Mandir. A broth of tomato and nuts is poured on top of a mixture of tomatoes and potatoes, topped with some crunchy namkeen and doused with ghee. “The tamatar ki chaat is a more recent phenomenon. I literally saw it come up 30 years ago. The thela walas started to create a mish mash by sliding in a raw tomato in the potatoes meant for a tikki. They would add ghee, nuts and make it very rich. Soon, all the other chaat walas started copying it, and the tamatar ki chaat became very trendy in the 1990s,” says Khanna. Another unique one that I tried was the chhena dahi bada—think of a savoury ras malai, topped with yogurt and chutneys.
My food trail brings me back to Assi Ghat, where I had started from in the early hours of the day. A surprise is in store at the Pizzeria Vatika, which serves one of the best apple pies and the cheesiest of pizzas. It comes highly recommended from both locals and regular visitors to the city. Find a seat in the evening and watch the boat traffic on the river go by. “This (wood-fired) pizza oven was set up by a group of enthusiastic Italian students of music who used to sit on the ghats of Ganges for their musical jams.The restaurant was run by a Gopal Krishna Shukla….The owner learnt it from them and started baking pizzas on his own too. The pizza fever caught on since then,” wrote Khanna in her blog.
It might be a cliche, but there is no better way to get to know Varanasi than getting lost in its alleys—especially since there is good food to be found in every corner.
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