MARK TWAIN ONCE SAID - "BENARAS IS OLDER THAN HISTORY, OLDER THAN TRADITION, OLDER EVEN THAN LEGEND AND LOOKS TWICE AS OLD AS ALL OF THEM PUT TOGETHER"
WORDS: RANVEER BRAR
To me, this is a perfect summary of the magical and ethereal city that is more talked about for its ghats and chaats! I am often asked why I love travelling so much and my reply to that is that it helps me bring a cultural dimension to my cooking and understanding of food. Of the many cities I have visited, there are some that invariably find their way to my dishes even now. Benaras is one of them. If there is one place where culture is so deeply embedded in its food, it's this one.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THAT BASE
Being the city of moksha gives it an omnipresent carefree air that defines the city for me. Sometimes, perhaps being close to death helps define your perspective towards life. Here it has defined a whole city.
Several archaeological remains and Vedic references establish Varanasi as the oldest inhabited city, since as far back as 1800 BC. Varanasi gets its name from Varuna and Assi, the 2 rivers flanking the Northern and Southern sides of the city respectively. The name Kashi itself derives from the Sanskrit word meaning "To Shine". And shine it did, given its fine list of spiritual, cultural, culinary and economic abundance.
The steady influx of pilgrims helped trade flourish. Silk weaving was and is a dominant industry, with the art of brocade weaving setting apart the weaving style. These weavers are called Kinkhabs and some of the looms are so intricate in their structure that their pattern would be difficult to replicate.
Benaras was also home to several literary greats, from Kabirdas, Ravidas, Tulsidas to my personal favourite, Munshi Premchand and Vidya Niwas Mishra. Art appreciation was well established too as numerous geniuses like Ustad Bismillah Khan, Shri Ravi Shankar, Sitara Devi and Pandit Vikash Maharaj made the city synonymous with everything that spelled culture. Till date the museums in the city speak countless tales of its priceless heritage.
Science and medicine wasn't far behind as Sushruta, the greatest physician of ancient India also made Varanasi his home, paving the way for Ayurvedic and Panchkarma streams of therapy that are present even today.
In my travels for food, Benaras holds a very special place for its 24 hour naashta culture and for the reverence for paan. The chaat culture of the city is as famous as its spiritual dimension the world over and has inspired many a culinary story.
The cuisine and especially the chaats of Benaras find inspiration and influence from both immigrants and the surrounding regions, especially Bengal and Bihar. As more pilgrims and traders continued to settle in the city, the culinary repertoire kept expanding. For me, the food trail in Benaras is as revered as exploring the ghats and temples!
One thing that the city never runs out of is chai. Of the numerous tea stalls across the city, the one run by Laxmi Prasad Chaurasiaji caught my attention. An octagenarian, Chaurasiaji, after serving paan for a good 25 years, started selling tea on a whim. He never added any spices or flavouring to his tea and yet, as he served cup after cup, along with roasted toast (toasted using a Shikanja-like wire frame toaster), his business thrived, making local authorities move his shop inside a gully as it started causing traffic jams in its older spot!
The tamatar ki chaat is another iconic dish. One can recreate it in any part of the world, but perhaps it's the water of Benaras and the aroma of its soil that make the chaat extra spectacular when eaten here. And it isn't just one particular vendor, each chaat vendor adds his own rasa or magical touch to the tamatar ki chaat. After all, that's what food is; emotions and feelings transferred on to the plate!
And how can I forget the kachori? A small and simple 50 square feet corner shop in chowk run by Bharat Lal Sharma sells only two things - kachori, which had the thinnest crust that I have seen and a mind blowing mawa jalebi. The beauty of kachori was that you needed no chutney for sweetness. The sweetness came from the fresh and seasonal winter green peas.
The mawa jalebi was an unforgettable dream. It was made of pure mawa pedas dipped in jalebi batter, crisp fried and soaked in rose scented syrup. The mawa was unsweetened, perfectly centered and brought an amazing balance to the sweet outer layer.
A must mention among the street fare, especially in winters, is the malaiyyo. While its rather humble prodigies, the Daulat ki chaat or Nimish, are more well known in Delhi and Lucknow, their precursor malaiyyo, is the pride of Benaras. It's an unimaginably delicate preparation with saffron-flavoured milk, with a texture lighter than that of whipped cream, even. The foam needs low temperatures to sustain, which is why the sweet is predominantly available in winters.
A heart-warming trend that I see in the fine dining space today is of these very rustic flavours from the streets being recreated into the mainstream. The chaats of Benaras undoubtedly top the list of inspirations.
All in all, the beauty of Benaras is in its simplicity which reflects beautifully in myriads of such local corner shops, which have been selling only a couple of simple recipes over generations. For me the phrase - "simpler the better" has found a new meaning in Benaras.