10 must try dishes in Varanasi

image of Ganga ghats at Varanasi
Ghats of varanasi


Varanasi, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, is not only a spiritual hub but also a gastronomic delight. Nestled on the banks of the sacred Ganges River in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi is steeped in rich history and culture. Its cuisine reflects this cultural diversity and offers a plethora of flavors to tantalize your taste buds. In this culinary journey through the city, we will delve into the top 10 must-try dishes that define the gastronomy of Varanasi.

1. Banarasi Paan: A Cultural Tradition

Let’s begin our culinary exploration with a cultural icon – Banarasi Paan. For centuries, paan has been an integral part of Indian culture, and in Varanasi, it takes on a special significance. Paan is not merely a mouth freshener; it’s an art form, an experience, and a social ritual. A typical Banarasi paan consists of a betel leaf, known as ‘paan patta,’ smeared with slaked lime (calcium hydroxide paste) and sprinkled with various ingredients. These ingredients often include areca nut, cardamom seeds, fennel seeds, and a choice of fillings, which can be sweet or savory. Some people prefer gulkand (a sweet rose petal preserve) as a filling, while others opt for a blend of grated coconut, sugar, and spices. The betel leaf is then meticulously folded into a triangular pouch and secured with a clove or a toothpick. Partaking in a Banarasi paan is a cultural experience in itself. It’s a leisurely activity where people gather at paan stalls, engage in conversation, and savor the delightful flavors of the paan. The taste is a combination of sweetness, spiciness, and a hint of bitterness from the betel leaf. It’s believed to aid in digestion and leave a refreshing aftertaste, making it a perfect conclusion to a meal or a ritual offering in religious ceremonies.

2. Kachori Sabzi: A Hearty Breakfast

If you’re looking for a hearty breakfast in Varanasi, look no further than Kachori Sabzi. This dish encapsulates the essence of a traditional North Indian breakfast and is a favorite among locals and visitors alike. Kachori, a deep-fried pastry, is the star of this dish. The kachori is made by stuffing a wheat flour dough with a spicy mixture of lentils and aromatic spices. The result is a crispy, golden-brown pastry with a flavorful, savory interior. It’s commonly served with a potato curry, known as sabzi, which complements the kachori beautifully. The sabzi is mildly spiced and provides a satisfying contrast to the crunchy kachori. When you break open a kachori, you’re greeted with a burst of flavors and textures. The crispy exterior gives way to the spicy and tangy filling, making every bite a delightful experience. Kachori Sabzi is often enjoyed at breakfast joints, street food stalls, and local eateries across Varanasi.

3. Aloo Tikki: A Street Food Classic

Varanasi’s bustling streets are a treasure trove of street food delights, and Aloo Tikki is a street food classic that you must not miss. This snack is a favorite among locals and visitors alike, and it’s easy to understand why. Aloo Tikki consists of spiced potato patties that are shallow-fried until they acquire a golden crust. The preparation is deceptively simple, but the result is a flavor explosion. The key to a perfect Aloo Tikki lies in the seasoning – a blend of spices that includes cumin, coriander, and red chili powder, which infuse the potatoes with a delicious kick. These potato patties are typically served with a medley of accompaniments. Tamarind chutney adds a tangy sweetness, while yogurt offers a cooling contrast to the spiciness. A sprinkle of chaat masala, a zesty spice mix, ties all the flavors together. The combination of crispy Aloo Tikki and the medley of chutneys and spices makes this street food snack a delightful experience for your taste buds. Whether you’re exploring Varanasi’s vibrant markets or simply strolling along the Ghats, you’ll find street vendors serving up these delectable treats.

4. Chaat: A Symphony of Flavors

When it comes to street food in Varanasi, Chaat reigns supreme. Chaat is a broad category of savory snacks that are famous for their burst of flavors and textures. In Varanasi, you’ll find various types of chaat, each with its unique twist.

a. Tamatar Chaat: – Tamatar Chaat, as the name suggests, centers around tomatoes. It features diced tomatoes mixed with spices, chutneys, and sometimes boiled potatoes. The dish is a perfect balance of tangy, spicy, and sweet flavors.

b. Aloo Tikki Chaat: – Aloo Tikki Chaat takes the beloved Aloo Tikki to the next level. The crispy potato patties are topped with a generous drizzle of tamarind chutney, yogurt, and chaat masala. It’s an explosion of flavors in every bite.

c. Palak Chaat: – Palak Chaat is a unique creation where spinach leaves are coated in a spiced gram flour batter and deep-fried until they turn crispy. These crunchy spinach leaves are then garnished with yogurt and chutneys, offering a delightful mix of textures. What makes Varanasi’s chaat stand out is the use of locally sourced ingredients and a generous dose of regional spices. Whether you’re a fan of sweet and tangy, spicy and savory, or all of the above, you’re sure to find a chaat that suits your palate in Varanasi.

5. Malaiyyo: A Winter Delight

As the winter chill descends upon Varanasi, the city offers a unique dessert to warm your heart and palate – Malaiyyo. This seasonal delight is a testament to the ingenuity of Indian sweets makers. Malaiyyo, also spelled Malaiyo or Malai Makkhan, is a frothy, airy, and sweet dessert made from milk. It’s a specialty that’s typically available during the winter months, especially around the festival of Makar Sankranti. The preparation of Malaiyyo is an art in itself. To create Malaiyyo, milk is simmered and reduced until it thickens into a creamy consistency. It’s then whipped vigorously, often using a traditional hand-operated churner, to incorporate air into the mixture. This whipping process results in a frothy texture, akin to whipped cream but lighter and airier. The dessert is flavored with aromatic ingredients like cardamom and saffron, which lend it a delightful fragrance. Malaiyyo is traditionally served in earthen pots, adding to its rustic charm. The dessert is not overly sweet, allowing the natural flavors of milk to shine through. It’s a comforting and indulgent treat that warms both the body and the soul during the chilly Varanasi winters.

6. Baati Chokha: A Taste of Bihar in Varanasi

Varanasi’s culinary scene is not limited to its local cuisine; it also embraces dishes from neighboring regions. One such dish that has made its way into Varanasi’s heart and kitchens is Baati Chokha, a traditional Bihari favorite. Baati Chokha is a rustic and wholesome dish that’s as satisfying as it is flavorful. It’s essentially a two-part meal: baati, the roasted wheat flour balls, and chokha, the spicy mashed vegetable side.

a. Baati: – Baatis are round balls made from coarsely ground wheat flour. They are mixed with ghee (clarified butter) and then baked or roasted until they become crisp and golden brown. The result is a crunchy exterior that gives way to a soft, flaky interior.

b. Chokha: – Chokha is the perfect accompaniment to baati. It’s a mixture of mashed vegetables, typically roasted eggplant (baingan) and tomatoes. The vegetables are roasted until they are charred, giving them a smoky flavor. They are then mashed and mixed with spices like garlic, green chilies, mustard oil, and fresh coriander leaves. The beauty of Baati Chokha lies in its simplicity and robust flavors. The baatis are the perfect vehicle for soaking up the spiciness of the chokha. The combination is hearty, flavorful, and a true representation of the diverse culinary influences that converge in Varanasi.

7. Thandai: A Holi Special

If you happen to visit Varanasi during the festival of Holi, you’re in for a special treat – Thandai. Holi is a vibrant and colorful festival that marks the arrival of spring in India, and Thandai is an integral part of the celebrations. Thandai is a cooling and refreshing beverage that provides respite from the playful chaos of Holi. It’s made from a mixture of milk, nuts (usually almonds and pistachios), and aromatic spices like cardamom, saffron, and black pepper. The ingredients are blended together to create a rich and creamy concoction. What sets Thandai apart is the infusion of bhang, a derivative of the cannabis plant, which is legal and culturally significant during Holi in some parts of India, including Varanasi. Bhang adds a unique dimension to Thandai, offering a mild psychoactive effect to those who consume it. However, it’s important to note that bhang should be consumed responsibly and in moderation. Thandai is traditionally served chilled and garnished with slivered almonds and pistachios. The combination of creamy milk and aromatic spices provides a soothing contrast to the vibrant and energetic festivities of Holi.

8. Litti Chokha: A Bihar-Inspired Delight

Varanasi’s culinary landscape is known for its diversity, and one dish that exemplifies this diversity is Litti Chokha. Originating from the neighboring state of Bihar, Litti Chokha has found its way into the hearts and plates of Varanasi’s residents.

a. Litti: – Litti is a round, wheat flour ball that bears a striking resemblance to baati. However, the preparation method and the stuffing differ. Littis are stuffed with roasted gram flour (sattu) mixed with aromatic spices and herbs. After stuffing, they are either baked or roasted until they develop a crisp crust.

b. Chokha: – Chokha, as in Baati Chokha, is the side dish that accompanies littis. It consists of mashed vegetables, typically roasted eggplant and tomatoes, mixed with spices like garlic, green chilies, mustard oil, and fresh coriander leaves. Litti Chokha is a wholesome and satisfying meal that showcases the culinary cross-pollination between regions. The littis, with their earthy sattu filling, provide a delightful contrast to the spiciness of the chokha. It’s a dish that exemplifies the rich tapestry of flavors you can explore in Varanasi.

9. Benarasi Kalakand: A Sweet Sensation

No culinary journey is complete without exploring the sweet offerings of a region, and Varanasi boasts a delectable array of desserts. Among them, Benarasi Kalakand stands out as a sweet sensation that captures the essence of the city’s love for dairy-based sweets. Kalakand is a sweet treat that’s made from condensed milk and garnished with dry fruits. What sets Benarasi Kalakand apart is the use of locally sourced ingredients and the skillful preparation methods that have been passed down through generations. To create Kalakand, milk is simmered and reduced until it thickens into a dense, fudge-like consistency. The process is painstaking and requires constant stirring to prevent scorching. As the milk reduces, it takes on a caramelized flavor and a slightly grainy texture. Once the milk reaches the desired consistency, it’s removed from the heat, and sugar is added to sweeten it. The mixture is then spread out in a tray and allowed to cool. Once set, it’s garnished with slivered almonds, pistachios, and sometimes silver leaf, adding a touch of opulence to the dessert. Benarasi Kalakand is a celebration of milk’s natural sweetness and the skill of the sweet makers who craft it. It’s rich, decadent, and the perfect way to conclude a meal or celebrate a special occasion in Varanasi.

10. Paani Puri/Golgappa: A Street Food Favorite

Our culinary journey through Varanasi wouldn’t be complete without mentioning a beloved Indian street food favorite – Paani Puri, also known as Golgappa. While it’s a popular snack across India, each region puts its own unique twist on this delightful treat, and Varanasi is no exception. Paani Puri is a quintessential street food that consists of hollow, crispy balls made from semolina or wheat flour. These hollow balls are filled with a spicy potato mixture, tangy tamarind chutney, and a flavored water that varies in spiciness. The result is an explosion of flavors and textures in every bite. The experience of eating Paani Puri is as important as the taste itself. Street vendors skillfully assemble each puri by puncturing a hole in the crispy shell, filling it with the spicy potato mixture, and then dunking it into the flavored water. The puri is then handed over to you, and you’re expected to consume it quickly to enjoy the combination of crispy, spicy, tangy, and savory flavors before it gets soggy. Varanasi’s take on Paani Puri often leans towards the spicier side, catering to those who enjoy an extra kick of heat. Whether you’re exploring Varanasi’s bustling markets or simply craving a quick and flavorful snack, Paani Puri is a must-try street food.

In Conclusion: Varanasi’s culinary landscape is a testament to the city’s rich history and cultural diversity. From the spiritual significance of Banarasi Paan to the hearty flavors of Baati Chokha, from the comforting warmth of Malaiyyo to the vibrant chaos of Holi with Thandai, each dish tells a story of tradition, innovation, and a deep love for food.

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