When one visits the Indian holy city of Banaras or Varanasi or Kashi, one can rightly term it as the ‘oldest living city in the world’ and the ‘culture capital of India’ because of the grandeur that it exhibits with its rich heritage and ethnicity, in each and every possibly segment of life. Resting on the banks of the Ganges in the state of Uttar Pradesh, the city of Banaras is also said to be located between two confluences: one of the Ganges and Varuna and other of the Ganges and Assi, which has always been a rivulet rather than a river.
One striking fact for gourmets that is hard to believe about the cuisine of Banaras is the fact that the city has no culture of non-vegetarian food. No meat, chicken or fish! But then it is obvious that for a city, which is considered as the holy city and city of Gods and saints, vegetarian will be more prevalent than non-vegetarian.
So, basically it is the vegetarian food or the satvik khana that has a big business in Banaras. Satvik khana is basically pure and fresh vegetarian food that is made with very little spices and no onion and garlic! According to satvik food belief, spices have an effect on the body and mind. To keep your senses under control so that you attain spiritual enlightenment, you have to rule out foods that do not bring about a harmonious balance between the various aspects of your existence. Onion and garlic are two of them!
Besides this, the proximity to Lucknow has forced comparisons of the Banarasi cuisine with the rich and royal Lucknawi cuisine. It is said that ‘if food is the soul of Lucknow, the soul itself is food in Banaras.’
People visit Banaras to achieve salvation, and this philosophy find its way into the Banarasi food. Banaras is laidback, casual and carefree about its food. An attitude you can encounter right outside the tiny, ordinary pappu ki chai ki dukan in Assi Ghat. Tea and milk are on a constant boil here in soot-laden pans. In contrast to the appealing Lucknawi food, there’s nothing elaborate about the cuisine in Banaras. It is simple but extremely flavourful. While on one side, Lucknawi food uses strong flavours, khada masala, cooks dumpukht and uses saffron and dry fruits to garnish, the Banarasi food is straightforward and undemanding, and majorly has no concept of lunch and dinner. It is the ‘breakfast’ which rules the roost over here! Puri or kachori with mixed sabzi and ghughri (white pea curry), followed by hot jalebis and thick lassis with generous cream and rabri servings is what a typical breakfast of this holy city comprises of.
Milk is also an important part of Banarasi cuisine – be it thandai, hot and cold milk, rabri, malai, ghee, chaach, dahi, lassi or malaiyyo. The Banarasi thandai, however, is fruit-based, unlike its milk-based Lucknawi option. It is also said that the famous malai-makkhan of Lucknow has its origin in the Banarasi malaiyyo, which is a unique frothy cream made by whisking milk cooled in the winter dew. In Banaras, jalebis are commonly had in the mornings with lassis or dahi, jalebas are had in the evenings with hot milk and the sweetmeat imarti is always served with rabri.
Not to forget, a special mention to the special Banarasi Paan which forms a part of the cultural upbringing of the people of Banaras, so much so that they even welcome their guests by offering them the famous betel leaves.
The street food is one more facet of the Banarasi cuisine. Shukla Chaat Bhandar is famous for its matar ki chaat and the Royal Café in Cupoor’s Hotel is famous for its basket chaat. Other popular items in the street food list include the very delicious chooda-matar or fried poha garnished with dry fruits and peas, tamatar ki chaat made with tomatoes, boiled potatoes, crisp papri and poppy seeds and halwa or burfi made with ground moong-urad dal and tonnes of ghee. As the city is influenced by people all over the world, the food is also the same. For instance, the Bengali sweet lavang latika is the most popular and trademark sweet of Banaras alongwith bati-chokha that has emerged as a favourite in the recent past, has a Bihari origin. The trendy café at Assi Ghat called ‘Vatika Pizzeria’ is famous for its thin-crust pizzas and apple pies and so on.