Inhabited since at least 1800 BC. C., it is known that Benares or Varanasi is among the oldest cities on the planet and is one of the most sacred for the 1,200 million Hindus estimated to be in the world.
Every day, as the sound of the temple bells resounds from above, tens of thousands of devotees descend the 88 steps of the city and plunge into the Ganges River to wash away their sins.
Mourners flock to the two cremation areas of Benares, where the funeral pyres burn day and night, believing that Shiva himself whispers the mantra. tarak (song of liberation) in the ears of all those cremated here, granting them the moksha or instant salvation.
But my reasons for traveling to Benares were quite different.
I did not come to face death or to cleanse my soul. I came to try the unique vegetarian food in town.
Wandering the busy streets, Rakesh Giri, the quintessential driver and storyteller, gave me a lesson on how Shiva, the destroyer of the universe, founded the city, according to Hindu belief.
Like most Benares residents, Giri is a fiery shaivite (devotee of Shiva).
And since Shiva’s followers believe that he is a vegetarian god, Giri and most Benares adhere to a strict sattvic (“pure vegetarian”) diet.
“My family and I have been pure vegetarians for generations. We refuse even to drink water in a house where eggs are consumed,” Giri says as she carries me away.
Benares may be the spiritual capital of India, but it isn’t exactly known for attracting culinary pilgrims.
Most foodie tourists will likely head to the country’s famous epicurean centers, New Delhi, Calcutta, or Chennai, before heading to Benares.
Nevertheless, chefs around the world are beginning to draw inspiration from their culinary heritage, recreating its flavors in its restaurants.
Chef Vikas Khanna, who received a Michelin star every year from 2011 to 2016 when he ran Junoon restaurant in Manhattan, New York, said he was surprised by the vrat ke kuttu, buckwheat flour pancakes, served in a single temple in Benares.
“I did my best to recreate them in my kitchen in Manhattan. They taste heavenly,” Khanna told Lonely planet in 2020.
Chef Atul Kochhar, twice awarded a Michelin star, called Benarands to his trendy London Indian restaurant.
In his cookbook of the same name, the chef features vegetarian fusion recipes, such as chickpea pancakes and traditional tomato salad, that highlight the bittersweet flavor combinations commonly found in the city.
Even famous Indian chef Sanjeev Kapoor wrote about his appreciation for Benares food, highlighting its excellent vegetarian offerings.
Of course, since this is a country 80% Hindu and 20% vegetarian, meatless options are ubiquitous in India.
But what makes Varanasi 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 follows the strictest standards of vegetarianism prescribed by the Sanatana dharma, an absolute form of Hinduism.
Thus, prohibit the use of onion and garlic in the kitchen, which is believed to increase anger, aggression and anxiety, among other things.
“Almost all Hindu families in Benares have an altar dedicated to Shiva at home. Eating meat at home is unthinkable,” explains Abhishek Shukla, a shastri (priest) at the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple in Benares.
“Staying sattvic is a priority for those who wish to attain salvation because we believe that our souls would suffer like those we kill for food. Meat, onion, and garlic exacerbate tamasic tendencies (the opposite of sattvic), making it difficult for us to people focus and exercise common sense, “he says.
Traditionally, many restaurants in Benares served meat to cater to Western tourists and non-vegetarian Hindu pilgrims, and local Sattvic cuisine was mainly consumed at home.
But In 2019, the government of the Hindu nationalist party BJP banned the sale and consumption of meat 250 meters from all temples and historic sites of Benares.
This has encouraged restaurants to start offering local sattvic and vegetarian recipes that have been passed down through generations in Benares homes, but previously unavailable to visitors.
Inside the luxurious 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 traditional Benares 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.
“They are humble dishes that our guests would never have had the opportunity to taste otherwise,” he added.
Verma showed how to prepare nimona cooking a pea puree in a skillet, adding boiled potatoes and pouring in a mixture of aromatic spices such as cumin seeds, asafoetida and green pepper flavored in hot oil.
Served with a tablespoon of ghee over steamed basmati rice, the creamy sweetness of the peas and the contrast between the bite of the potatoes is essentially Benares’s response to the cucina povera italian, where local “peasant” food is praised by innovative chefs.
Verma believes that the 2019 meat ban stimulated creativity among a new generation of Benares chefs.
Although he has fed a number of Indian celebrities and international guests, his greatest honor came 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 leaned in and touched Verma’s feet.
“That happened in front of other customers at my restaurant. I will never forget it,” says Verma.
Located on the other side of town, Shree Shivay is one of the increasingly popular restaurants serving local Sattwic recipes.
Today, the locals estimate that there are between 40 and 200 sattvic restaurants in Varanasi, a big jump from the 2019 meat ban.
The establishment’s menu, which changes twice a day depending on what is available in the local market that morning, offers 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 flavor of any sauce or broth using five main ingredients: cashews, poppy seeds, melon seeds, tomatoes and chironji (a walnut seed endemic to North India).
Me thali had dishes like kadhi pakora (fried chickpea flour dumplings in yogurt sauce), rajma (red beans in tomato sauce) and paneer (Indian cottage cheese).
The taste of roasted chickpea flour in kadhi, the viscosity of the sauce rajma and the freshness of paneer they were unlike anything I had experienced in northern India.
Aside from its restaurants, Benares’s street food is as vibrant and electric as Bangkok or Istanbul, but does not enjoy any media hype.
While many of the sattwic foods sold are unique or creative variations of the snacks found in other parts of India, they do not benefit from the hype of the chaat (salty snack combining various textures and flavors) from New Delhi or the vada pav (potato burgers) from Bombay.
An example is the tomato chaat, sold at the Kashi Chaat Bhandar stall.
“When the daughter of billionaire industrialist Lakshmi Mittal got married in France, we were chosen as one of the suppliers,” says third-generation owner Yash Khetri.
Made with a spicy tomato puree base dipped in caraway-flavored sugar syrup topped with crunch sev (fried chickpea flour noodles), the original recipe was created in 1968 by Khetri’s grandfather.
Today, you can’t find it anywhere else outside of Benares.
Another example is the tea with sugared sugared milk served at the Lakshmi Chai Wale stall in terracotta cups, accompanied by toast malai.
This delicious side dish consists of two slices of bread roasted over hot coals, then spread with fresh cream and sprinkled with icing sugar.
Across the city, the flagship of Varanasi’s Baati Chokha restaurant is the baati, a typical unleavened bread from the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh, baked on dry cow dung cakes.
In fact, when customers walk in, the first thing they see is dried cow dung cakes stacked on the roof in an open-air shed.
The restaurant does everything in-house, from grinding its spices in stone mills to grinding flour for the baati.
Vegetables for chokha Serving as a side dish, made with eggplant, potatoes and tomatoes, they are also baked on the same manure cakes, before being cooked in a mixture of spices in clay pots.
“At first I thought that seeing cow dung cakes might put people off. Honestly, most of the people I bring here tell me that this is the best food they have had in India,” says local guide Manjeet Sahani, who often brings tourists to the restaurant.
Most Indians know that Benares is the capital of paan (betel leaf) and I couldn’t leave the city without experiencing it.
The paan It is generally consumed at the end of a meal, as it helps digestion and serves to freshen the breath.
At Netaji Paan Bhandar’s shop, 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 a origami and deliver it to me on a silver platter.
At the site, there was a laminated newspaper clipping showing when former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited the establishment in 1976.
I could not have asked for a more fitting ending to my vegetarian pilgrimage to Benares than the lingering sweetness of this paan loved.
Millions of tourists visit Benares every year (without a 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 enlightened by this vegetarian paradise.
* This article is a translation[iculoesunatraduccion of a report published in English on BBC Travel and that you can read here.
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