Last week I was in Varanasi for about 36 hours. With Varanasi, two things naturally come in mind: paying your obeisance at the religious places and good food. So, food meant 1 Breakfast, 2 Lunches and 1 Dinner with lots of places to go to taste. Uff ! A huge task. So focus in food was local delights and not other cuisines available in the city. I bring here my detailed account of the two-day trip and should you visit the city, it may also serve as an itinerary guide for you. Here we go.
Landed at the Lal Bhadur Shastri Airport at around 10 in the morning and drove down straight to the historic Sarnath, the sacred place for Buddhists for Lord Budhha gave his first teaching there after attaining enlightenment. At a short distance from this is an old Shiva Temple, Sarangnath. After a visit to both the places, it was time to drive back to the city. By the time we reached back, it was lunch time.
Lunch on the street
In the back lanes of Telliya Bagh, there is a bike showroom of Enflied and bang opposite that there are a few carts selling Baati Chokha (they call this Baati there and is also known as Litti Chokha). The first one amongst the lot had the largest fan following. Obviously, he was our go to man. A heap of Aloo Chokha, made out of boiled and mashed potatoes, mixed with chopped onions, tomatoes, seasoned with basic spices and dressed with pungent mustard oil, was placed on a dry leaf with a large baked Dough Ball, dipped in Ghee, placed atop was served to us with sliced onions and a green chilly. The dough ball, Baati, was broken on the bed of Aloo Chokha and it spilled the Sattu filling all over the Chokha. Now this blend of spicy potatoe mash, with a baked crusty Baati pieces with a mildly spiced and a bit sweet (due to raisins in it) filling gave you a bouquet of flavours on the palate and an after taste of sharp mustard. It is an experience for the palate.
Close by to this, there is another cart which sells Aloo Tikki. As we passed by, the aroma attracted us. We were a bit hesitant to order but the young man behind the cart was confident that we shall like it. In a leaf bowl he placed a shallow fried Aloo Tikki, poured some curd over it, followed by a special mashed tomato chutney, some chopped onions, a dash of green chutney and a bit spoon of boiled chickpeas and before handing over, he crushed one dry pani puri over it. That concoction was a delight to watch and amazingly flavourful to savour.
Lunch done, we checked into our hotel and took rest for a couple of hours.
Around 4 in the evening we left our hotel and drove towards the Dashaswmedh Ghat for participating in the pious Ganga Aarti. Driving from Luxa Road, as you near Mazda Parking (this is the only parking place if you want to go to the Dashaswmedh Ghat).
Now, for understanding the names and locations in the ensuing paragraphs, please remember the following landmarks and the names. It will make your life easier.
While coming from Luxa Road, after parking, you have to walk straight. The first crossing is about 150 meters and is known as Girijaghar or Church which is situated on the right side. If you take a left turn from there, after about 300 meters you have some lassi shops and beyond that, the lane leading to the legendary Ustad Bismillah Khan’s house. Come back to the church and move ahead straight and after about 150 metres you would come to Godowlia Crossing. Take a left turn from here, and you would reach Chowk area. This place is hub of many a eateries. Come back to the crossing and go straight, there is a police barricade. Cross that and you head straight to the Ghat.
Now let’s come back to the Mazda Parking. Just few meters before the parking, while you are driving, on your right would be the famous Deena Chat Bhandar. You may get down there and enjoy the local savouries. We didn’t, so after the parking, we went straight and immediately after the Church crossing, on our left was the famous Kashi Chat Bhandar. A modest eatery where, if you get to sit, you have to share table with others.
We ordered the famous Tamatar Chaat, Palak Patta Chaat and Dahi Bhalle. The service was super fast and looks of each of the item was invitingly beautiful. Tangy Tamatar Chaat, served in an earthen pot (Kullhad) was made with mashed tomatoes and potatoes, chutneys, onion, coriander and spices. Palak Patta Chaat is made with leaves of spinach dipped in the bater of gramflour (besan) and deep fried. This fritter is then dressed with Chutneys and garnished with onions, coriander and spices. Again a great savoury. Dahi Bhalle, served on an earthen pot, were of Moong Dal with curd, chutneys and spices. Having teased our tastebuds, it was time to move ahead.
We walked straight, crossed Godowliacrossing and just before the ghat on our left was Madhur Milan. An aroma of fried savouries invited us in. A plate of Khasta Kachori served with Chickpeas Curry arrived soon. The Kachori was crisp and had a flavourful filling. Although, a bit high on the greasy quotient. The Chickpea Curry was good to look at and a delight to have. The Chanas were melt in mouth with mild spices and had a tangy after taste. Encouraged, we also ordered a plate of crispy Samosas. Again, served with the same curry. So, after getting high on the oily stuff of Chaats, Kachori and Samosa, it was time to grab the local Lassi.
Like tea, one can find Lassi in every nook and corner of the city. We walked back to the Church and then took a right turn. Walked for another about 200 meters and on our right were Lassi shops. We went to the last one. Most of the Lassi shops still use that hand churner. We got our stuff, once again to our delight, in earthen pots. The milky white concoction was sprinkled with crushed pistachios and some brownish drops. We were given a spoon each with the Lassi. We assumed that it was to scoop out the Malai which the shopkeeper laid on the top. We were partially right. To our amazement, beneath the Malai, on the bed of the Lassi was a generous amount of Rabri which explained the presence of those brownish drops. This was Rabri-Malai Lassi !!
We walked back to the Church, took left turn and headed straight. At the Ghat, negotiated hard with a boatman and struck a deal of a boat round of one hour in the sacred Ganges and then positioning the boat right in front of the Ganga Aarti platform to witness the pious ceremony. Post the Aarti, we again walked back towards the parking. Now, it was around eight and time for dinner.
We hopped in our car and asked the driver to take us to Taj Gateway Hotel. In the bar there, a quick Chilled Beer was very refreshing and relaxing. Having tanked up we walked out of the hotel gate and bang opposite the Taj Hotel, there is Kalika, a non-vegetarian (yes, you heard it right) restaurant. The joint is damn famous with the locals for the amazing Mutton it serves.
At ten in the night, there was a huge waiting. With some influence, we could get to share a table with two off-duty police constables. In no time, we got on our table, Mutton Curry in an earthen bowl, 2 Tawa Chapattis, sliced onion and a lemon wedge in a disposable plate. We also ordered half plate of Rice with Mutton Keema.
Mutton Curry was dark in colour which gave an aroma of spices infused with Desi Ghee. A spoonful of the gravy on the palate told you it was amazingly flavourful, not very spicy, had a hint of sweetness(perhaps due to lavish use of onions) and a bit of tangy aftertaste. The meat was on the bone yet very soft and succulent. It has to be experienced as no words can do justice to its heavenly taste. Went very well with the chapatis. Similarly, the long grained rice used was aromatic and the Mutton Keema was equally flavourful like the Mutton Curry.
A non veg meal in Varanasi is normally unthinkable and yet this amazing Mutton Curry is unbelievable. I would want to go there on my every visit, for sure. Now it was time to go back to the hotel and crash.
We had plans to visit temples, places and, more importantly, eat. So the day started early for us. We left at around 730 in the morning and went straight to Kaal Bhairav Temple. Since, it was early hours, we didn’t take much time. On our way back, the car driver dropped us at Chowk Area (remember taking left from Godowlia). Now this area is the hub for savouring traditional Varanasi morning delights.
On the main road, there is a signboard announcing Lakshmi Chai Wale – Safed Makhan Toast. As the name suggests, they serve local bread slices (thick and relatively small sized), toasted over coal fired large angeethi and then loaded with White Butter. A plate consists two of such slices. The aroma of that charcoal smoked locally baked bread and the butter takes you to your childhood memories. The toasts are served with a pinch of Chaat Masala sort of seasoning on the side. Sprinkle it over the toast and one can enjoy a different flavour. This of course is ordered with that boiled Cutting Chai in an earthen cup. A great way to kick start your day.
Having had our morning shot of tea, it was time for scouting for breakfast. When in Varanasi, eat what locals have for breakfast – Khasta Kachori Chhole, Bedmi or Badi Kachori Subzi, Jalebi and Lassi.
So first thing first. We went to the narrow street just opposite to the entrance of this tea shop. This is known as Thatheri Bazar. We were headed to the famous The Ram Bhandar. Unlike, bylanes of Chandni Chowk or Vrindavan, these lanes were quieter, even at around 9, and the shops, smaller in size, without any hype, sometimes without a signboard, with a minimal decor or furniture, and are at little gaps. Once there, we were amongst the first fewer, were greeted warmly by the owner and got our Ghugni and Gol Kachori immediately. It was a combo of black chana-mashed potatoes thick curry with spices and garnished with chopped radish, carrot and fresh coriander. One ball shaped Kachori, fried in Desi Ghee, known as Gol Kachori sat smashed in it. It had a tangy and spicy taste. Black Chana with Kachori was a pleasant surprise. Then came our order of Badi Kachori, a Masala filled Poori served with Aloo Subzi. One plate had two big sized Pooris fried in Desi Ghee and a bowl of subzi. The Subzi had Chickpeas, Black Chana and Aloo. Had a runny consistency and a flavour of hing. This one also had the same garnishing and a different flavour and aroma. Very satisfying and tasty.
We asked the owner where could we get good Lassi. He said that we may try anywhere but his recommendation would be a little shop at two minutes walking distance ahead of his shop. The name he told was Raja Ram Lassi.
This was a small place with no signboard. The only landmark is that the gate next to this hole-in-the-wall opening displays Post Office – Chaukhamba. One young man sitting at the so called counter was setting up his shop. When asked if that was Raja Ram’s shop, he simply nodded. We asked him for a portion of Dahi. He ladled few scoops out of the open tray into a Kullhad and topped it with a thick layer of creamy Malai. The first spoon in the mouth told us it was pure, thick and had the aroma of that wood fired stove on which perhaps the milk would have been boiled. Once again, he put few large spoons of Dahi into a large vessel, churned it with hand, added sugar syrup and Kewra Drops. Churned it again and poured it in an earthen pot, topped it with a layer of thick Malai and handed over to us. Wow !! What a delight to enjoy after a fried breakfast.
We walked further in the street which brings you a sweet shop every few meters. At small shops we enjoyed Jalebis and browned Khoya Burfi which had a crunch of sugar and a hint of cardamom. Rustic flavours with earthy aromas.
Wait, our breakfast was still not over !!
It was time to visit the pious Kashi Vishwanath Temple. So we walked back to the Chowk, took left turn and about 200 meters ahead on the left was the gate to the temple. After paying our obeisance, we came out and again took left turn and started walking towards the Kachori Gali.
A few meters of walk and we were hit by a strong whiff of Hing. The aroma was coming out of a rush of people who had gathered on the right side of the road. Behind that crowd was a small shop dishing out breakfast to the locals. Again, no sign board. A small A4 size computer printout stuck on the wall said Babu Lal Ki Kachori Ki Dukan. We got our share of two Kachoris (Bedmi) with Aloo Subzi and two pieces of two Jalebis. Kachori was soft and fluffy, filled with masala. The Aloo Subzi also had some peas and was amazingly flavourful with a pinch of spices and a hint of hing. One of the best we had eaten so far. The Jalebi was crisp, had that fermentation of paneer in its bater with a hint of Kewra.
Breakfast is yet not over !!
We continued our walk to Kachori Gali to enjoy the famous Blue Lassi. In a narrow lane, again a hole-in-the-wall small shop, all painted blue in colour, was full with Indian and Foreign customers. Similar to other shops, one man sitting on the floor with Lassi making vessels and hand churn in front of him with some cut fruits and other ingredients. When you ask what all kinds of Lassi they have, a folder with many leaves is handed over to you. They have over 100 varieties with different fruits. And may be that’s the reason for its popularity, particularly with tourists from abroad. You ask and they churn fruits with the Dahi, and then different ingredient as per choice like chocolate powder, Coconut Powder, Cashew nuts, Raisins etc are added. Once poured in the Kullhad, it is garnished with the same cut fruits of whose flavour you had asked for and also decorated with a saffron water. Naturally, it is a good thick concoction, good to look at and very refreshing to have.
Now we were done with our breakfast. It was time to visit Assi Ghat (about 2 kms away), then a round of BHU and the Birla Temple inside the campus and then to the Sankat Mochan Temple. After all this roaming around, it was lunch time but the variety of breakfast we have had, we were in no mood yet. So came back to the hotel and had a nap. Around 3 it was time to pack up and leave.
For lunch, we went to the famous Baati Chokha, an ethnic restaurant in Telliya Bagh crossing. This is quite popular with the locals The interiors resembled a village setting and so was the furniture. We were served in leaf plates (pattals) with water in earthen glasses. Our order was Baati Chokha, Dal Chawal and Khichri with Dahi. Baati Chokha, as yesterday’s roadside cart, was great to savour. Was served with two chutneys, pickle and sliced onion. Arhar Dal was flavourful and quite close to homely version. Khichri, sitting pretty in a white bowl, had a Dal like consistency and was garnished with burnt onions, garlic and ghee in abundance. The onions and garlic gave a flavourful crunch to the melt-in-mouth and very flavourful Khichri which went quite well with the thick cold Dahi.
We were done by around 4 and had some time at hand. So, again the Dashaswmedh Ghat called us. Spent some time test rolling and on our way back, on the left of Godowlia crossing there is Mishrambu Thandai. So, a customary glass of Thandai had to be enjoyed. Thereafter, we walked down to the Church crossing and at a shop bang opposite to it, had our share of hot Rabri which was amazing, a piece of Burfi and a Khoya Peda. Everything was to die for. There are many shops around which are selling similar sweets and Lassi and are equally good in their offerings. Again a cup of tea in that earthen Kullhad.
We hopped into our car and headed back towards the airport to catch our flight back to Delhi. A local acquaintance advised us that it is customary to have a Paan before leaving Benaras as it is believed that it makes your Yatra Shubh. So, we had to have a Paan before saying good bye to this great city with a thought in the mind to come back.
Bon Appetite !!