Takeaway

Eat, pray, love Banaras

Prachi Raturi Misra | Updated on February 07, 2020 Published on February 06, 2020

Being Banarasi: The city’s legendary malaiyo — a frothy and mildly sweet concoction   -  IMAGES: PRACHI RATURI MISRA

A soul sojourn in the city of lights embraces food, adventure and spirituality

We met on the first day of college and have been going steady ever since, my best friend and I. We’ve spent several nights (which inevitably turned into mornings) sharing childhood secrets, cribbing about boyfriends (or the lack of them), and then office politics, our husbands and our daughters. Twenty years later, we still know from the tone of the other’s ‘hello’ over the phone how things are.

Geography hasn’t been on our side ever since we each got married, so the nights out are sorely missed. And that is why we decided to take a soul trip to ring in our 40th. It had to be a place neither of us had visited. We zeroed in on Banaras, or Kashi, or Varanasi — call it what you will.

This was a soul trip of a different kind. It was laced with scrumptious tamatar ki chaat — a tangy tomato concoction — served in a clay vessel on a nippy evening; it was swooning over the shades of Banarasi dupattas and the intricate work on saris; and it was taking in the views of the evening aarti and watching the sun rise a stunning orange over the Ganges. And, yes, it was also gossiping into the night.

Drape and tell: A shop assistant shows off the intricate handiwork on a Banarasi sari

 

What strikes you most about Banaras is its fluidity. It lets you slip into its many by-lanes, only to discover a vintage water drinking bowl in a gali, and befriend a cab driver who personally ensures you taste all the street food the city boasts. And it lets you watch in awe as a sadhu — stark naked, a huge bun of matted hair balanced perfectly on his head — gets ready for the day by rubbing ash on his body, finishing with his face and hair. Whatever you are seeking, the city will offer it to you.

We approached Assi Ghat, one of the main ghats, where we were to be picked up by our hotel’s boat. Soon we were walking up the imposing steps of Suryauday Haveli, built by the royals of Nepal. Most properties on the ghats were built by the maharajas of different kingdoms for travellers from their state or community. The majority of those visiting Kashi then were the aged who wanted to spend their last days in the holy town. For legend has it that those who are cremated at Manikarnika Ghat — the fire of which is said to have been blazing on for centuries — attain moksha.

But earthly beings that we still are, we had other plans. The Punjabi, married to a Telugu-speaking man and living in Chennai, longed for chhole bhature and the mountain girl married to a Bengali and having worked in Delhi for most part of her career, couldn’t think beyond chaat.

And that’s how the encounter with the tamatar ki chaat took place. This famed Banarasi dish is spicy and tangy in the right measure, and on top of the must-have list — but the golgappe and tikki are not far behind either.

The next morning began with a stunning sunrise and masala chai, sipped while we sat on the steps of Shivala Ghat. Several cups followed with the not-to-be-missed kachori and sabzi, which must be followed by crispy jalebis, thin, yet juicy to the core. You will find a vendor at every street corner selling kachoris. These are stuffed puris, different from the dry masala/dal-stuffed ones served in Delhi. The sabzi with it changes from place to place, but is always flavourful with a spicy edge.

Wash these down with lassi or sweet buttermilk — plain or flavoured with mangoes or bananas. And don’t forget the fabled ‘malaiyo’, a frothy and mildly sweet concoction.

Bursting at the seams, we decided to stop our food fest and instead opt for some sightseeing. Our first stop was Sarnath, the place where Gautam Buddha delivered his first sermon, and then the Bharat Mata Mandir, which was inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi in 1936. The unique temple, sans statues, has a relief map of undivided India, carved in marble and made to scale.

There is something deeply moving about the city. For it is here that, while funeral pyres never stop burning at the Manikarnika Ghat, not too far away, at the Dasaswamedh Ghat, newly wedded couples seek blessings for conjugal bliss. In the gullies here you will find studios that shoot a “family picture” of the living with the dead, and hundreds of places for trousseau shopping. Walking along the ghats is therapeutic, for the city is a symbol of separation and union.

Since we’d done our bit of walking and soul-searching, we were now ready for the legendary baati chokha — a vegetable mash served with roasted tomato chutney and spicy coriander and garlic chutney.

Our sojourn was coming to an end, but we made one more stop — for the lip-smacking kachori sabzi (with potatoes and horse gram) to be found at a popular shop called Ram Bhandar. We had the last bite of a warm and crisp jalebi and headed for the airport.

Teary goodbyes later, we were back home, buoyed by promises of meeting again, in a new place, with new food adventures. And a new soul sojourn.

Prachi Raturi Misra is a Delhi-based journalist and author

Published on February 06, 2020
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