Even before getting to Varanasi, I had been told that the food was special here. But (and there’s no exaggeration on my part here), little did I know how special special actually was. I came away very happy indeed. Here are the highlights.
I ate street food all over the city. The pictures of chaat below, however, were taken at two places: Deena Chat Bhandaar (DCB) and Kashi Chaat Bhandaar (KCB), both recommended by one travel blog or another. If you’re in Varanasi, you owe it to yourself to go to at least one of these places. If it’s especially hot, choose KCB because the top floor has air conditioning. Both are on the road up from Dashashwamedh Ghat. KCB is about a 10-15 minute walk from the Ghat, and DCB is 5-10 minutes further.
First on my list of things to eat, recommended by a friend, was the Palak Patta (Spinach Leaf) Chaat. I’m guessing that this is made of spinach leaves dipped in a delicate batter and then fried. The result is then combined with the usual suspects of Indian street food: yogurt, coriander-mint chutney, tamarind chutney, and an assortment of garnishes. What finally ends up on your table is a crisp, fresh, cool, spicy, sweet, sour, and perfect dish on a round, steel plate.
The Palak Patta Chaat at KCB was the best I have ever had in my life. At DCB, the batter didn’t feel as fresh, but the taste was certainly there. Maybe they thought I wouldn’t know any better and had served me old leaves.
Next on the menu was a dish new to me: Tamaatar (Tomato) Chaat. In Bangalore, tomato chaat means slices of tomatoes topped with tasty-street-food-stuff. But in Varanasi, Tamaatar Chat meant much more: fried tomatoes folded into an smooth, oily, tamarind-y, hot, delicious mess, topped with crisp bhujia and sev, and served in a clay Khullad. DCB won this contest hands down with its version. It was spicier, less oily, and more delicious overall than the one at KCB.
When I was a kid, I used to visit my cousin in Delhi during the Summers and we would go eat Aloo Tikki Chaat often. All my life, I had assumed that Delhi had the best Aloo Tikki (known fondly as tikia), but that was only because I hadn’t visited Varanasi. The tikki chat here is marvellous. The outside is a crisp, thin layer of what seems to be semolina. The soft mashed potato interior absorbs the flavour of the sweet tamarind and spicy green sauces as you cut into it. The plate is sprinkled with a garnish of carrot, radish, and coriander. They are like the background dancers in Swan Lake. You might wonder whether they are necessary, but you also know that without them it just wouldn’t be the same.
I had the tikia at DCB. About 2/3rds of the way through, I saw a small — I would like to say cute — grey insect making its way slowly up my spoon. I called the server over and showed it to him. “It’s still alive, so it must have just fallen in,” he told me confidently.
In Bangalore, we get the real Dahi Vada, which refers to fried vadas dipped in yogurt and decorated with other delicious things. I was recently made aware that the same dish in North India uses steamed vadas instead of fried. Call me naive, but I don’t think that this is a good idea. The fried version offers some resistance and character rather than just surrendering and disappearing inside your mouth. Notwithstanding that mistake, the Dahi Bhalla — which is evidently what they are called — in KCB was still very good.
While in Varanasi, my father and I spent every evening walking along the ghats, and I spent five minutes of most of those evenings eating Jhal Muri. The puri (puffed rice) was crisp and fresh and was mixed with onions, tomatoes, cilantro, and other things that go crunch in the day. Raw, finely cut green chillies were present to give it the kick and elevation we all always look for. A dash of mustard oil was added (after asking me) for the flavour that stays in your mouth after the other tastes start fading away. Not the least important in the enjoyment of this dish was the fact that I was sitting by a river, watching boats and buffaloes and kids and priests do their things and wash away their sins.
Somewhere along the streets, I had samosas, which were very good, certainly much better than the average Bangalore samosa, and Puri Sabji with which I was not impressed. I tried to go to the so-called Kachori Gali (street of Kachoris) to have Kachoris but was told that the street is now Kachori Gali only in name and that the Kachori vendors are mostly long gone and the ones that are there aren’t good anymore.
The city, for some reason, was also full of street vendors selling idlis and vadas. They didn’t look appetising to me in the least. I was giving all the idlis dirty looks when it suddenly struck me that maybe that’s how the Benarasis look at the amateur chaat in Bangalore. Maybe they just don’t know any better about the idlis, like I didn’t know any better about how good street food can be.
Maybe it’s overkill, but I decided to give the lassi its own section in this post because I was blown away by it. The first day, after a very exhausting and unrewarding ordeal in the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, we were walking in a gully out to the main road when we stopped at a lassi stall, and had our first lassi in Benares. It was so good: creamy and as thick as halfway-melted ice cream, sweet but not so sweet that you forget that the base is a lightly sour yogurt, a thin dash of cream on top that felt like it just belonged there like it had found its purpose in life. I think “like malai on lassi” can rightfully become a writing cliche in the coming decades.
Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor and every article about places to eat in Varanasi told me that I had to try the lassi at Blue Lassi, famous for offering more than a hundred (!) flavours. So that’s what we did. In fact, I had two lassis there. Who needs dinner, eh? The first was lassi with Rabdi. The second one was a Coconut Lassi. The Rabdi Lassi was good, while the Coconut Lassi seemed like a combination added to a menu just because it sounded, and admittedly looked, cool.
Apparently, Blue Lassi used to be called Panna Lal Lassi (or something like that), but foreigners kept calling it Blue Lassi because of the deep blue interiors of the shop, almost every inch of which is strangely covered with passport photos of the customers. The name stuck, and now the original Panna Lal is just small print on a big board (and a big photograph of the actual Panna Lal surrounded by passport size photographs). They clearly cater to tourists, what with a hundred unnecessary flavours and twice the price of everywhere else, but their standouts are very good and worth a visit. The guy who makes the lassi is friendly too.
We had been told by the guy at our hostel to go to a lassi shop called Yadav Lassi when we visited the nearby Ramnagar. In Ramnagar, we couldn’t find Yadav Lassi, so as we were walking around, sweating and looking for the shop, we asked a tailor where it was. He told us that all the locals go to Dwarika these days. Yadav’s is only surviving off tourists and former glory these days. It was thus that I ended up having the best lassi I have had in my life. It was creamy and rich, had exactly the right amount of sweet, and was topped with malai and a brownish sweet thing that reminded me of basundi (a Kannada dessert made of condensed milk).
All of the guides also told me to visit a restaurant called “Baati Chokha”, so I dragged my dad along to it. After a traffic jam, a VIP-caused-U-turn, and an hour in hot traffic, we reached a fancy air-conditioned restaurant with artistic sculptures on the wall and water served in old-fashioned mugs even though they could obviously afford better choices.
First impressions aside, the meal was very flavourful and hearty. There were two chutneys (cilantro-garlic and a tomato-ginger-almost-salsa), chokha (potatoes and stuff stewed together into something like a medium-thickness gravy), a thin dal and the baatis. Baatis are hard baked balls of dough, with a filling of…anything. In this meal, there were two kinds: paneer and sattu. The sattu one was good, but the paneer baati was a disappointment. I don’t see the point of putting paneer into these baati balls. They’re just not a good match.
What is a good match, however, is ghee and baati and chokha and dal and chutney and the great green chilly pickle — all in one handful. A festival in my mouth. Overall a good place to eat, but certainly not the street.
I’m not picky about food; I usually like the food everywhere I go, and I really enjoy well-made food of all kinds. In India, I have a soft spot for Bangalore because it’s home, and Delhi because it’s so… cool.
But leaving those two cities aside because I won’t include them in competitions, I think Varanasi has the best food ever. The lassi and the street food were a revelation. The city is nothing less than a Michelin-two-star restaurant (with a guest appearance by insects). If you’re in the country, you just have to go there and eat the food. If the Ganges river doesn’t work, the food will wash away your sins. A dessert particular to Varanasi, the Maleyyu (made with a process involving dew drops, how cool is that!) wasn’t available because Winter is still coming and not yet here.
The real conclusion, of course, is that you should go to Varanasi and try all the food. Travel details, and more stories are coming up in a separate post, because crazy as it may seem, Varanasi was not all about the food for me!