Inhabited since at least 1800 BC, Varanasi is known to be among the oldest cities on the planet and one of the holiest to the world’s estimated 1.2 billion Hindus.
Every day, as the sound of temple bells echoes from above, tens of thousands of devotees descend the city’s 88 ghats steps and plunge into the Ganges River to wash away their sins.
Mourning relatives crowd Varanasi’s two cremation areas, where funeral pyres burn day and night, believing that Shiva himself whispers the mantra. Tarak (deliverance song) in the ears of all the cremated here, granting them moksha, or instant salvation.
But my reasons for traveling to Varanasi were quite different.
I didn’t come to face death or cleanse my soul; I came to try the unique vegetarian food in town.
Driving through the busy streets of Varanasi, Rakesh Giri, driver and storyteller par excellence, gave me a lesson on how Shiva, the destroyer of the universe, founded Varanasi, according to Hindu belief.
Like most Varanasi residents, Giri is an ardent Shaivite (devotee of Shiva).
And since Shiva’s followers believe him to be a vegetarian god, Giri and most other Varanasi residents adopt a strict Sattwic (“pure vegetarian”) diet.
“My family and I have been pure vegetarians for generations. We even refuse to drink water in a house where eggs are consumed,” says Giri as she leaves me.
Varanasi may be India’s spiritual capital, but it’s not exactly known for attracting culinary pilgrims.
Most food tourists will likely head to the country’s famous epicurean centers, New Delhi, Calcutta or Chennai, before heading to Varanasi.
However, chefs around the world are starting to take inspiration from their culinary heritage, recreating its flavors in their restaurants.
Chef Vikas Khanna, who received a Michelin star every year from 2011 to 2016, when he was at the head of Junoon in Manhattan (New York), said he was surprised by the vrat ke kuttu, buckwheat flour pancakes served in a single temple in Varanasi.
“I tried my best to recreate it in my kitchen in Manhattan. It tastes heavenly,” Khanna told Lonely Planet in 2020.
Twice Michelin-starred, chef Atul Kochhar christened his modern London Indian restaurant Benares (named for Varanasi during British rule).
In his cookbook of the same name, the chef presents fusion vegetarian recipes, such as chickpea pancakes and traditional tomato salad, which highlight the combinations of sweet and sour flavors commonly found in the city.
Even famous Indian chef Sanjeev Kapoor wrote of his appreciation for Varanasi’s food, highlighting its excellent vegetarian offerings.
Of course, since this is an 80% Hindu and 20% vegetarian country, meatless options are ubiquitous in India.
But what makes Varanasi’s vegetarian cuisine so interesting is how its Sattwic and vegetarian specialties are directly influenced by its strong sense of spirituality.
A Sattwic menu is based on Ayurvedic principles and follows the strictest standards of vegetarianism prescribed by Sanatana dharma, an absolute form of Hinduism.
In this way, it prohibits the use of onions and garlic in cooking, which is believed to increase anger, aggression and anxiety, among other things.
“Almost every Hindu family in Varanasi has an altar dedicated to Shiva at home. Eating meat at home is unthinkable,” explains Abhishek Shukla, a shastri (priest) at Varanasi’s famous Kashi Vishwanath temple.
“Staying sattwic is a priority for those who wish to achieve salvation because we believe our souls would suffer like those we kill for food. Meat, onions and garlic exacerbate tamasic tendencies (the opposite of sattwic), making it difficult for people to concentrate and exercise common sense.”
Traditionally, many restaurants in Varanasi served meat to cater to Western tourists and non-vegetarian Hindu pilgrims, and local Sattwic cuisine was mostly consumed at home.
But in 2019, the government of the Hindu nationalist party BJP banned the sale and consumption of meat within 250 meters of all temples and historic sites in Varanasi.
This has encouraged restaurants to start offering local vegetarian and Sattwic recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation in Varanasi households, but which were previously unavailable to visitors.
Inside the luxury BrijRama Palace hotel, an imposing sandstone structure on the Munshi Ghat on the banks of the Ganges, executive chef Manoj Verma applies his encyclopedic knowledge of Varanasi’s traditional vegetarian cuisine.
“When I took over the kitchen, I immediately included dishes like khatta meetha kaddu (sweet and sour pumpkin) and nimona (spiced pea puree) on our menu,” said Verma.
“These are humble dishes that our guests would never have had the opportunity to taste otherwise,” he added.
Verma demonstrated how to prepare the nimona, cooking a green pea puree in a pan, adding boiled potatoes and pouring over a mixture of aromatic spices such as cumin seeds, asafoetida and green pepper seasoned in hot oil.
Served with a spoonful of ghee over steamed basmati rice, the creamy sweetness of peas and the contrast between the bite of potatoes is essentially Varanasi’s answer to cucina povera Italian, where local “peasant” food is being lauded by innovative chefs.
Verma believes that the 2019 ban on meat spurred creativity among a new generation of Varanasi chefs.
Although he has fed his share of Indian celebrities and international guests, his greatest honor was when Chef Khanna showed up to sample his food.
In what is considered the ultimate proof of respect in Indian culture, the Michelin-starred chef reached down and touched Verma’s feet.
“It was among other customers in my restaurant. I will never forget”, says Verma.
Across town, Shree Shivay is one of the increasingly popular restaurants serving local Sattwic recipes.
Today, locals estimate somewhere between 40 and 200 Sattwic restaurants in Varanasi, a huge leap since the 2019 meat ban.
The establishment’s menu, which changes twice a day according to what is available at the local market that morning, features thalis, something like a tasting menu, with at least 12 different dishes.
After months of careful experimentation, the restaurant’s three chefs have created a formula in which they can mimic the taste of any sauce or broth using five main ingredients: cashew nuts, poppy seeds, melon seeds, tomatoes and chironji (a nut seed endemic to northern India )
Mine thali had dishes like kadhi pakora (fried chickpea flour dumplings with yogurt sauce), rajma (red beans with tomato sauce) and paneer (Indian cottage cheese).
The flavor of roasted chickpea flour in the kadhi, the viscosity of the sauce of the rajma and the freshness of paneer they were unlike anything I had experienced in North India.
Aside from its restaurants, Varanasi’s street food is as vibrant and electric a scene as Bangkok or Istanbul, but it doesn’t enjoy any media hype.
While many of the sattwic foods sold are unique or creative variations on snacks found in other parts of India, they don’t benefit from the hype of the chaat from Delhi (salty snack that combines various textures and flavors) or the vada pav from Mumbai (potato burger).
An example is the chaat of tomato, 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,” says Yash Khetri, a third-generation owner.
Made with a spicy tomato puree base bathed in a caraway-flavored sugar syrup topped with crispy sev (fried chickpea flour noodle), the original recipe was created in 1968 by Khetri’s grandfather.
Today, you don’t find it anywhere else outside of Varanasi.
Another example is the tea with frothy sweetened milk served at the Lakshmi Chai Wale stand in terracotta cups, accompanied by toast malay.
This delicious accompaniment consists of two slices of bread grilled over the coals, then greased with fresh cream and sprinkled with crystal sugar.
Across town, Varanasi’s flagship Baati Chokha restaurant is the baati, an unleavened (unleavened) bread that is typical of the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh, baked over dry cow dung cakes.
In fact, when customers walk in, they are greeted by the sight of dried cow dung cakes piled to the ceiling in an open-air shed.
The restaurant does everything in-house, from grinding its seasonings in stone mills to grinding the flour for the baati.
The vegetables for the chokha which serves as an accompaniment, made with eggplant, potatoes and tomatoes, are also baked on the same manure cakes, before being baked in a mixture of spices in clay pots.
“I initially thought seeing cow dung cakes might turn people off. Honestly, most people I bring here tell me this is the best food they’ve ever had in India,” says local guide Manjeet Sahani, who often brings tourists to the restaurant.
Most Indians know that Varanasi is the capital of the paan (betel leaf), and I couldn’t leave town without trying it.
O paan it is usually consumed at the end of a meal, as it aids digestion and serves to freshen the breath.
At the Netaji Paan Bhandar tent, the grandson of the original founder and current owner, Pavan Chaurasiya, layered rose petal jelly, areca nut and milk of lime onto the fresh betel leaf before folding it with the precision of an origami and deliver it to me on a silver platter.
On the bench, there was a laminated newspaper clipping showing when the former Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, visited the establishment in 1976.
I could not have asked for a more fitting ending to my vegetarian pilgrimage to Varanasi than the lingering sweetness of this beloved paan.
Millions of tourists visit Varanasi every year (no pandemic), and the Indian government recently announced that it will start issuing visas to international travelers from November.
Although most come in search of spiritual salvation, this culinary pilgrim returned illuminated by this vegetarian paradise.
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