Be warned: this is a picture-heavy post.
This trip was all about the food, for me. I had a pre-planned list of things I wanted to taste, and I am happy to have knocked it all off except for the bhaang which although I was keen to try, just looked so dodge when I saw how it was made that I suddenly had cold feet and didn’t feel ready to experiment with.
Right off the bat I have to say we didn’t have a single non vegetarian meal through out this trip. Now, this is very easy for me to do. While I enjoy eating meat, it’s not a crucial component of a good meal for me. I can go days, and in fact I prefer this, with simple, hearty, vegetarian food. But VC is the kind of person who needs meat. So for him to admit he didn’t miss eating meat at all said a lot.
Our very first meal was breakfast on day 1. We dumped our luggage in the hotel and started weaving our way through the narrow lanes looking for a “breakfast place”, realising very soon that there are no “places”, just beautifully characteristic hole-in-the-wall type establishments with giant kadhais set over hot coals, right at the foot of the store, inviting you with an array of smells.
Kachori-aloo-jalebi is the staple Benarasi breakfast and I wanted to try nothing else. We ducked into the first joint we found because a) it smelt so good and b) a cow was blocking the road ahead.
Turns out they call them kachoris, but they’re actually puris mildly stuffed with something (I couldn’t figure out what, exactly.). For a mere Rs 25, we got a stack of kachoris, a dona of aloo curry — this place had a curry mix with aloo, black channas and kabuli channa faacckkkk — and a couple of hot jalebis. Uncleji handed it to us and watched us for a minute as we tried to juggle all the hot stuff in our hands, side stepping piles of you-know-what, looking for a place to settle and eat. Kindly, he invited us in. Behind the stove that was right at the entrance to the store, he had two small tables squashed into a room blackened with years of soot from cooking over charcoals. Warm, smiling and just so hospitable, it was a sharp contrast to what people had psyched us about “watching out for” people before trusting them.
Rubbish, I tell you. Across the board, the people of Benaras were nothing short of lovely, warm and helpful. We didn’t have a single bad experience, and I was happy to have my faith in my innate tendency to trust first, until proven wrong, reaffirmed. Of late I’ve been told I’m too quick to trust, and I find that I had begun to sometimes second guess my instincts. I was happy to be proven wrong.
Breakfast was so sumptuous and filling, and was followed by adrak chai and a morning of roaming around the ghats white VC scouted for spots to shoot over the next few days. I just took in the sights, smells and sounds. Benaras had already begun to gob-smack me, taking me in fully from the get go with its bizarre mix of heavy character and just so much life, along with the inherent paradoxes that are so hard to miss. It’s a city that you sense heavily, feeling it under your skin.
We managed to sneak a boat ride in too, and returned to the hotel in time for check-in. We had landed into a 15 degree post-winter morning, but by noon the sun had come out full force, the heat was searing and dry and we realised it was going to be the kind of trip where we spend a bulk of the day indoors. So we lugged back a couple of beers each into our room, fully expecting to skip lunch thanks to the heavy breakfast and settled in to Netflix and chill.
But that was not to be. In a couple of hours we got hungry, but I suspect it was more a curiosity about what we could taste next. We scoped out the closest chaat bhandaar, one of the highest rated ones in Benaras was 400 mt away from us, so we walked there.
We sampled the gol gappas (good), the papdi chaat (excellent), palak chaat ( beyond excellent!), a samosa chaat (it didn’t do much for me — the masalas in the samosa and the gravy they pour over it was an overkill), aloo tikki chaat (much nicer because the tikki itself was mildly spiced, lending just that required starchy potato-goodness that allows the flavours of the chaat to shine through) and the local specialty: tamaatar chaat, which I thought was no big deal. It was essentially a cooked curry of tomatoes, tangy and spicy, covered in a medley of chaat-y toppings like imli ki chutney, green chutney, spice powders and dahi, showered in crunchy sev-like thing (which in Benaras is chunky and shaped like pellets).
Dinner on day 1 was late, and because we didn’t feel up to venturing out a third time in the day to look for food, we slipped into one of the many local “shuddh shakahaari bhojanalays” and packed rotis cooked over hot coals, with sabzi and dal. So satiating and hearty, consumed in bed while binge watching Made In Heaven.
The next morning we set off to catch the sunrise over the ghats, which was a good two hour affair, of which one hour was spent on another boat ride along the entire length of about 25 ghats. This had us occupied and quite frankly just so engrossed, I didn’t realise it was breakfast time. On our way out, we discovered a stall that served what is easily the best tapri chai I’ve ever had in my life. Non-boiled, but just so kadak and good. It was so good that VC, the desi-style chai lover of the two of us, admitted to it being the best tea he’d had and came home and tried to replicate what he’d seen of the chaiwalas method.
But the star of that stop was the bun-maska. OMG. 100 gms of Amul butter spread over 4 buns that were toasted over a smoky charcoal fire, that we dipped in hot tea and gobbled before it fell into soggy blobs into the glass. JUST SO EFFING GOOD.
We made two pitstops at this tapri over the next two days and the bun-maska-wallah had figured I was a fan. I don’t know, maybe the incessant picture taking gave it away?
That bun-maska was just a appetiser, and the real breakfast that followed was this kachori-puri-jalebi, which at another joint was a medley of vegetables — potatoes, carrots, peas and cauliflower. Equally delicious, but so heavy we’d started to share a single portion between the two of us.
I saved the best for last. This right here is the crowning glory of the food we ate in Benaras and since it is only made and enjoyed in the winter, Im so glad we managed to catch it.
This here, is malaiyo, a fluffy airy, cloud-like form of cream and full-fat milk. I’m told it is traditionally churned a day in advance and left out in the open over a cold winter’s night so the dew that settles on it, over the course of the night, helps hold up its airiness.
It looks like rabri, but has the texture and mouth feel of something that beats the best tiramisu pants down. It is quite literally like eating a cloud of rich, saffron and pista rich rabri. There’s no biting it, because it just disappears in a pool of air in your mouth. It is only available before 11-o clock because the heat causes it to collapse so even if you step out as early as 6 am, you’ll find street vendors with giant vats of malaiyo along the way to the ghats.
Our breakfast was fixed, 90% meals comprised entirely chaat, and the remaining 10% was a roti-sabzi affair. VC sampled the famed Benarasi paan on three occasions, but claims none of them really appealed. I am not a paan-eater. I have in fact never tasted the thing and I refuse to even try it, so I could not vet his opinion.
And here’s some pictures of the people who made the food, people who fascinated me as much as the food did.
One year ago: We form our own boundaries