Not many will risk exploring the famous winter street food of Varanasi during these times of the pandemic, but I am glad I took the chance. Varanasi, like the many names it proudly owns, has many aspects to its personality. Also known as Banaras, Benares or Kashi, it is the holiest and the most ancient of the seven sacred cities (Sapta Puri) of India. The aura of this holy city by the Ganges is mystical—be it the morning vibe of the ghats or the evening Ganga arati.
Spirituality might be the soul of this city but the other slices of life typical of Varanasi are equally fascinating. Think of Varanasi and one visualizes narrow lanes with very old crumbling houses or masions on each side of the lane and the daily humdrum of shopkeepers, sadhus and pilgrims etc. All in all, it’s a visual delight.
Famous for its spiritual radiance, Varanasi is also a hub of delicious and unique street food and milk products, some of them absolutely exclusive for winter. And I just got lucky to experience it all.
This was my second visit to Varanasi. I can confidently say that I fell in love with the city as soon as I saw it during my first visit. This will be one such destination which might see many repeat visits from my end I am sure. This time my halt in Varanasi was only for a day-and-a-half and I decided to live the city as much as I could in this short span.
I was sipping my hot delicious coffee on a cold misty morning and admiring the Varanasi morning, with a spectacular view of the Ganges for company; the ghats coming to life, the silently sailing boats and not to miss the cute migratory birds flying around or just soaking in some sun, floating on the Ganges. At that point, my partner and I decided to skip lunch for the day and instead walk around and relish the local street food. We did a quick study and decided on our start point, leaving the rest to intuitive, impulsive and on-the-spot decisions.
Walking through the crowded, narrow alleys of Varanasi, I reached the most famous shop, The Blue Lassi. I have never seen a lassi shop like this. A tiny space, with the walls covered almost entirely with passport-size photographs of people from all over the world almost. It wasn’t difficult to understand they all were his customers who might have visited his shop sometime and gone back having been thoroughly delighted with his lassi!
Meet the owner, Mr. Anchal Yadav. This shop of his is 90 years old! Around four decades ago, a South Korean tourist came visiting and she gave it the name Blue Lassi Shop, the reason being the shop was painted all in blue. She was so happy with what she got that she went back and spread the word.
It was through this kind of word-of-mouth publicity from international tourists from different parts of the world, this little shop acquired renown. Tourists from all over the world now know that they have to visit Blue Lassi Shop whenever they are in Varanasi. It was opened by his grandfather, Panna Lal Yadav and he has even acted in old movies, we got to know. Anchal is the third generation who is taking care of the shop now.
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The history of Blue Lassi shop was quite interesting. We wondered how the lassi would be. He took 30 minutes to prepare it and we waited patiently. I asked Anchal, “You take so much time to prepare one lassi, how do you manage during peak tourist season?" (notwithstanding the fact that thanks to the COVID-19 situation, we at least got space to sit comfortably).
Pat came his reply, “My two brothers help me and we still take this much time to prepare our special lassi. My customers always wait patiently.” All the while he was preparing our lassi, I kept observing him. It felt like he was working on a piece of art—all poised; and the care he took gave a feel of an aesthetically done work of art. No wonder his love and care was visible in the lassi that he handed over to us. Don’t ask about the taste—it just felt heavenly, our dry fruit-and-pomegranate lassi. His passion for his labour of love was evident in what we got. We were convinced, he must be world-famous!
We bid him goodbye with a promise to come back again and try some other flavours (he had a long list of lassi flavours). We had no fixed plans for our next stop, but we knew we wanted to try malaiyo, a winter-special dessert. This is all we knew at that moment. We kept walking and bumped into Dwarikapuri Milk Bahar.
Malaiyo is a well-kept secret of Varanasi. It’s made of milk, has a kesar pista flavour, and is completely light and fluffy. A person can gobble up many such cups of malaiyo. And it’s just as delicious as it looks. The actual recipe is still a secret but I got to know from my hotel staff that dew drops are needed to get the required foamy texture of malaiyo. Well, that may be hearsay, but what I understood was that it’s the foam that is separated from milk and that’s what makes the malaiyo so unique.
Having said that, one cannot ignore malaiyo’s more popular cousin, rabri, when in Varanasi. Rabri, kesar milk, and shrikhand are the three other milk products which are appetite-rousing delicious in this pilgrim town and people better not miss these.
After having a double blast of sweet, it was definitely time for something savoury. As we asked about the whereabouts of kachori, we were directed to Deena Nath Keshari Chaat Bhandar. There is even a street named after this famous street food item, Kachori Gali, and we were more than happy exploring this street and relishing on the delicacies in place of a regular lunch. This street will be a delight for any street food lover, we guarantee.
The shop, a hole-the-wall, again, 'ended as soon as it started', but its street food delicacies showed no signs of ending. It made me think about how here in Varanasi, people preferred to stick to their roots. However many riches they may have earned in life, they carry on with their little shops, not really trying to expand them, change them or make them look more fashionable to appeal to the cosmopolitan or international tourists. I found this simplicity quite heart-touching and admirable.
A sweet and friendly staff member at Deena Nath Keshari took a lot of care to get us seated. He was more than happy to serve us, bringing dishes one after another. The rounds included tamatar chaat, palak papdi chaat, chura matar and hot gulab jamun.
Now let me go back to the tamatar chaat. ‘What a creation!’ is the thought that came to my mind. I heard it for the first time and whoever is the creator, let them have my salutes. Of course, the shop was more than 50 years old and the owner’s father was the creator of these dishes. Chura matar (puffed rice and peas) is also a winter delicacy, so delicious and different. Palak papdi chaat had a palak patta (spinach leaf) placed with care inside each papdi! All these three dishes were unique in themselves, and delicious to the core.
Every country has its special touch in its cuisine but in India we see this exclusive touch in almost every state and sometimes even cities and towns. The best thing about travel is exploring the nuances of the place we visit. Unless we experience the local flavours, the journey doesn’t feel complete. Walking around, talking to locals, eating what they eat every day and savouring their cuisine is what creates a heart-to-heart connection between a traveler and the destination. I have been to almost every state in India and have always been touched by the warmth and hospitality of locals wherever I have been.
My heart wanted more but my head implored me to stop it there. We ended our Varanasi street food trail with the famous ‘Banaras ka paan’, without which it is often said that a trip to Banaras is incomplete. We returned to our hotel with a joyful heart and bagful of memories.
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