Long known as one of the world’s holiest cities, India’s spiritual capital is now luring culinary pilgrims as it transforms into a vegetarian paradise
By Amrita Sarkar
Varanasi is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities – and the holiest for Hindus. Pic – : Hitesh Makwana/EyeEm/Getty Images
Inhabited since at least 1800 BC, Varanasi is well known for being among the oldest living cities on Earth, and one of the holiest for the world’s estimated 1.2 billion Hindus. Every day, as the sound of ringing temple bells echo overhead, tens of thousands of devotees descend the city’s 88 stone ghat steps and dip themselves into the Ganges river to wash away their sins.
Varanasi may be India’s spiritual capital, but it isn’t exactly known for luring culinary pilgrims. Most food travellers will likely flock to the country’s famous epicurean hubs of Delhi, Kolkata or Chennai before making their way to Varanasi. Yet, chefs from around the world are starting to draw inspiration from its culinary heritage, recreating its flavours in their restaurants.
Chef Vikas Khanna, who received a Michelin star each year from 2011 to 2016 when he ran Junoon in Manhattan, said he was bowled over by the vrat ke kuttu buckwheat-flour pancakes served in a single Varanasi temple. “I’ve tried my best to recreate it in my kitchen at Manhattan. It tastes heavenly,” Khanna told Lonely Planet in 2020.
Two-time Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochhar named his modern Indian restaurant in London Benares (the name of Varanasi during British rule). In his eponymous cookbook, the chef showcases vegetarian fusion recipes, such as chickpea pancakes and heritage tomato salad, that highlight the sweet-and-tart flavour combinations commonly found in the city. Even Indian celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor has written about his fondness for Varanasi food, highlighting its excellent vegetarian offerings.
Of course, in a country that is 80% Hindu and 20% vegetarian, meatless options are ubiquitous in India. But what makes Varanasi’s vegetarian cuisine so interesting is how its sattvic and vegetarian specialties are directly influenced by its strong sense of spirituality. A sattvic menu is based on Ayurvedic principles and adheres to the strictest standards of vegetarianism prescribed by the Sanatana dharma, an absolute form of Hinduism. As such, it forbids the use of onion and garlic in cooking, which are believed to increase anger, aggression and anxiety, among other things.
Traditionally, many Varanasi restaurants have served meat to cater to Western tourists and non-vegetarian Hindu pilgrims, and local sattvic cuisine was primarily eaten at home. But in 2019, the BJP government banned the sale and consumption of meat within a 250m radius of all Varanasi temples and heritage sites. This encouraged restaurants to start featuring local vegetarian and sattvic recipes that have been passed down for generations within Varanasi homes but were previously unavailable to visitors.
Inside the luxury hotel BrijRama Palace, an imposing sandstone structure on the Ganges at Munshi Ghat, executive chef Manoj Verma applies his encyclopaedic knowledge of traditional textbook vegetarian Varanasi cooking. “When I first took over the kitchen, I immediately included dishes like khatta meetha kaddu (sweet and sour pumpkin) and nimona (spiced mashed peas) on our menu,” Verma said. “These are humble dishes that our guests would have never had the opportunity to taste otherwise,” he added.
Shree Shivay is one of a growing number of Varanasi restaurants serving local sattvic dishes.
Across town, Shree Shivay is one of a growing number of restaurants serving local sattvic recipes. Today, locals estimate are anywhere from 40 to 200 sattvic restaurants in Varanasi, a huge jump since the 2019 meat ban. The restaurant’s menu, which changes twice a day based on what is available at the local market that morning, features thalis, or set offerings, with at least 12 different dishes. After months of careful experimentation, the restaurant’s three chefs came up with a formula where they could mimic the taste of any sauce or gravy using five key ingredients: cashews, poppy seeds, melon seeds, tomatoes and chironji (a nutty seed endemic to northern India).
Beyond its restaurants, Varanasi’s street food scene is as vibrant and electric as that of Bangkok or Istanbul but enjoys none of the media hype. Although many of the sattvic foods sold are unique or inventive variations of snacks found elsewhere in India, they do not benefit from the hype of Delhi’s chaat (savoury snack combining several textures and flavours) or Mumbai’s vada pav (potato burger).
One such example is the tomato chaat, sold at the Kashi Chaat Bhandar stall. “When the daughter of billionaire industrialist Lakshmi Mittal got married in France, they chose us as one of the caterers,” said third-generation owner Yash Khetri. Made with a tangy and spicy base of mashed tomatoes bathed in a cumin-spiked sugar syrup and topped with crunchy sev (deep-fried chickpea flour noodles), the original recipe was developed in 1968 by Khetri’s grandfather. Today, you won’t find it anywhere else outside of Varanasi.
Another example is the frothy sweetened milk tea served at the Lakshmi Chai Wale stall in terracotta cups with a side of malai toast. This delectable accompaniment consists of two slices of bread grilled over hot coals, then slathered with fresh cream and sprinkled with granulated sugar.
Across town, the chief attraction at Varanasi’s Baati Chokha restaurant is baati, a hard, unleavened wheat bread and a typical food in the surrounding state of Uttar Pradesh that’s baked on dried cow dung cakes. In fact, as diners enter, they are greeted by the sight of dried cow dung cakes stacked up to the ceiling in an outdoor shed. The restaurant does everything in-house, from pounding their spices in stone mills to grinding the flour for the baati. The vegetables for the accompanying chokha made with eggplant, potatoes and tomatoes, are also roasted on top of the same dung cakes, before simmering in a spice mix in clay pots.
Local guide, Manjeet Sahani, who frequently takes visitors to the restaurant, said, “Initially, I thought that the sight of cow dung cakes might put people off. Honestly, most people I bring here tell me that this is the best food they have ever eaten in India.”
Most Indians know that Varanasi is the capital of paan (betel leaf), and I was not going to leave Varanasi without having tried one. Paan is usually enjoyed at the end of a meal as it aids in digestion and functions as a breath freshener. At the Netaji Paan Bhandar stall, the original founder’s grandson and the current owner, Pavan Chaurasiya, layered rose petal jam, areca nuts and slaked lime on the fresh betel leaf before folding it with origami-like precision and presenting it to me on a silver tray. On the countertop lay a laminated newspaper clipping showing when India’s former prime minister, Indira Gandhi, visited their shop in 1976. I could not have asked for a more fitting end to my vegetarian Varanasi pilgrimage than the lingering sweetness of this long-beloved paan.
* Published in print edition on 9 November 2021
65 years ago Mauritius Times was founded with a resolve to fight for justice and fairness and the advancement of the public good. It has never deviated from this principle no matter how daunting the challenges and how costly the price it has had to pay at different times of our history.
With print journalism struggling to keep afloat due to falling advertising revenues and the wide availability of free sources of information, it is crucially important for the Mauritius Times to survive and prosper. We can only continue doing it with the support of our readers.
The best way you can support our efforts is to take a subscription or by making a recurring donation through a Standing Order to our non-profit Foundation.