Varanasi is a riot of sounds, flavors, colorful characters, vocal shopkeeper, cows lazying about and narrow bustling lanes winding through the old city like a serpent in the city of Shiva. It is a one of a kind place attracts millions of visitors each year.
I have spent a considerable amount of time (months at a time) living and eating my way through the city.
I must admit that much of the time I like to just roam around the city and my neighborhood to explore all the shops, vegetable markets and food stalls serving savory and sweet delights, taking note of all the curious dishes and ingredients that I have never seen or tried before.
Colors in India are so vibrant and that translates into their food presentation and flavors which is what I love most about Indian food.
These food pics are just a few of the dishes and eye candy that made me stop, look, smell, taste….and snap!
I always appreciate how street vendors selling fried savory snacks for just 10 or 20 rupees per plate take the little extra care to present their food in an enticing way. It may be street food but it’s made with pride and love and, typically, fresh ingredients. You can see how fresh the onions, tomatoes and cilantro are that this vendor uses to make the masala for dosa, a savory south Indian pancake. These tasty snacks above called bara (donut looking item) and chanar bara above are one of my favorite when I go to the Bengali Tola area near the main ghat of Varanasi.
The Art of Drinking Chai
What would Varanasi be without chai? It would be a different world, that’s for sure. Varanasi probably has more chai-walas per capita than any where else in India. You can’t go 5 meters without someone offering you chai.
Typically chai is served in small shot size clay bowl-like cups made of red clay. My favorite part about drinking chai (apart from the company) in Varanasi is the little cups. I keep starting a collection of them but they keep breaking so I have to go out and drink more chai.
A popular chai in Varanasi is Masala Chai which adds ginger and coriander to the tea when it’s being prepared which gives it a fresh spicy sweet edge to it.
Since I have spent a lot of time in Varanasi and know a lot of people in the old city who have shops and restaurants, it has become difficult getting from one destination to the other in a timely matter due to all the invitations for chai along the way by friendly aunties and uncles. Saying no is frowned upon and can result in causing insult…..it’s a good thing the cups are small. Two or three cups along the way doesn’t do too much damage.
There isn’t a single local person I know in Varansi which doesn’t engage in at least 10 (tiny cups) a day.
Paan – An intoxicating treat in Varanasi
Paan, a mildly intoxicating mix of betel nut, lime, tobacco and tree resin, and sweet flavors, is chewed with enthusiasm throughout Varanasi – the streets, as well as the teeth of the those chewing it, are stained crimson as a result. Small stalls all over Varanasi can be found with stacks of the local pan leaves on their counters and an assortment of fillers to choose from. Pan chewers are conossieurs and will ask for it exactly how they prefer the combination of flavors. I tried it once and found it to taste like a mouthful of perfume or soap…very perfumy. It did leave kind of a tingly sensation in my mouth which added a bit of interest to the experience.
For the longest time I would walk past these shops with jars of this bizarre looking ingredients. I finally figured out what it is…..achar. It’s jars of pickled mango, lemons, garlic, or potato….. that has quite a sour kick to it. Many local restaurants (and definitely in peoples homes) serve a dollop of achar on the plate of all the dishes they serve or in a jar on the table. Many Indians can’t go even one meal without it.
Specialty sweet in Varanasi
Varanasi offers the best mithai (Indian sweets) in the country. These incredible concoctions – made from boiled milk, palm sugar, spices, nuts and dried fruit – are a genuine art form, and unspeakably delicious. These can be found all over Varanasi at street stalls and sweet shops.
Riot of spices, produce & tasty treats at the local street markets
Going to local fruit and vegetable markets is one of my favorite things to do when I go to a new country, state or neighborhood even. I like it because it’s where the locals shops, I like watching them in action and seeing what they buy. Discovering new produce is exciting, I always try to imagine how I might use the exotic ingredients in my kitchen.
The top photo is of “my” fruit-wala who I go to almost everyday when I am in Varanasi. He gives me “local” prices (not tourist prices) and usually gives me an extra piece or two or fruit that he knows I like. I like this personal connection with the people I am buying food from. It’s mango season here in India and you can see the abundant mound of mouth watering mangos, yummy!
Indian cuisine in Varansi is very exciting, full of new flavors and uses of common ingredients. Every day I discover something new….what I’ve shown you here is just a drop in the bucket….there’s more to come!