Breakfast in Varanasi

01 January 2016 | E-Paper

A hallucinatory breakfast in Varanasi

Is there a more beautiful sound in the world than the sizzle of frying jalebis early in the morning?


Forget about cholesterol if you happen to be in Varanasi. Photo: Alamy

Forget about cholesterol if you happen to be in Varanasi. Photo: Alamy

South Indians, or should I say Tamilians, can be cantankerous purists. No mixing tastes. No adding sugar to dal like the Gujaratis do; or adding jaggery to rasam like the Kannadigas do. Only one vegetable per sambhar; be it okra, brinjal or small onions. If you mix multiple vegetables, you are a caterer who is trying to palm off all the cheap vegetables available into one pot. These Tamilians ought to taste the pleasures of breakfast in Varanasi. It might change their minds.

I am standing at Vishwanath Mishthan Bhandar in Vishweshwar Ganj. It is 8am and I have just done yoga and pranayamwith a hundred strangers on the banks of the Ganga, led by a female teacher who shouted, scolded and coaxed us into stretches, bends and submission. Just show up at Assi ghat at 6am if you would like to join in. Suitably lubricated, my body is ready for its next round of lubrication.

At the Vishwanath Bhandar, four men sit outside, frying stuff. Have you heard the sizzle of a jalebi early in the morning? It is the most beautiful sound in the world. Chopin’s Nocturnes have nothing on the twin sounds of jalebi and kachorisizzling in oil right next to each other. I stand with the milling crowd. It is my turn. I hold out Rs.10 and get two leaf bowls. An impassive man ladles aloo sabzi into one leaf bowl; and the kachori in another. Now comes the dilemma. How to stand, balance these two bowls in one hand and eat with the other? The others around me are doing just fine; they’ve had years of practice, darn them. If I could be born again, I would come back as a Kashi vasi (Kashi resident), not necessarily for the good karma but for the terrific kachoris. I have had kachoris in Jaipur, Haridwar, Delhi and Bengaluru. So far, the ones in Kashi are the best. They are fluffy, not brittle. They hold their round shape and have a respectable amount of dal. They collapse like a bubble when you tear them open. The best part is the aloo sabzi: a trite tangy, just enough spicy, and piping hot.

The only way to make a kachori better is to mix it with jalebi. It is like adding a pinch of salt to hot chocolate. The shot of pure sugar makes the shot of pure cholesterol better. Best if you don’t think in those terms and use the term that teenagers these days use to explain everything: YOLO (You Only Live Once). Ergo, eat kachori-jalebi for breakfast; if possible, every day.

Once breakfast is done, I go temple hopping. At the Sankat Mochan Hanuman temple, hot laal pedas (red pedas) are brought out. Devotees buy boxes of them to take to the Hindu god Hanuman and then distribute to those gathered. I stand in line, awaiting my share. A lady in a purple sari hands me one; then, seeing my face, she gives me another with a smile. “Jai Hanuman,” I say and pop one into my mouth. She looks pleased.

“My daughter conceived after eating 10 of these pedas,” she says. “They are a fertility tonic.”

I stop half-bite. Is this why India is overpopulated? Too late. The peda is “too good”, as my nephew, Harsha, says. The trick to a good peda, and I speak as someone who has never made a peda in her life, is the consistency. It has to melt in the mouth but you should be able to chew the last bits. You should make those popping sounds that babies make when they relish food. In Tamil, we call this naaka chappi kotti, which is like saying, “making clicking and clapping sounds with your tongue”. A good peda should make your tongue clap.

At the Annapurna temple across town, someone is serving sesame rice, perhaps because it is Saturday. Karnataka, where I live, is home to several “rice varieties”, or “chithra-anna”, as we call it: coconut rice, lemon rice, tamarind rice, curd rice, and, best of all, bise bele bhaath, which literally means hot lentil-rice mixture. Sesame rice is not often made or served. It is a delicacy and an acquired taste. I acquired it in Kashi. The recipe is simple: roasted and ground black sesame seeds, red chillies, curry leaves, some urad dal, and a good helping of asafoetida. Grind it all up and mix with hot rice. Here too, the leaf bowls make their appearance. If you like the depth and girth of good sesame oil, you will love sesame rice. It is great for vegans because it contains a ton of calcium.

At the Kashi Vishalakshi Temple, this wide-eyed goddess is served some ghee-dripping sheera as prasadam. The sponsor of this prasadam ladles out a spoon to a line of devotees, including me.

All this eating has made me thirsty. The great thing is that you can get thandai with bhang in Varanasi on an average day. You don’t have to wait for Holi to indulge. Lord Shiva, the ascetic, loved his bhang, made from the leaves of the cannabis plant. At a government bhang shop, I nervously watch the vendor pour a respectable amount of this green concoction, before adding chilled milk laced with crushed nuts, sugar and saffron. The resulting drink is slightly bitter. It is supposed to be hallucinatory. It makes people giggle and wake up with what seems like a hangover.

The other dish that is a signature of the city is not as potent. Banarasi paan is a digestive. I grow betel leaves in my garden. How different can this be, I think, as I stand in front of a tiny shop and ask for a paan.

“With zarda or without?” asks the vendor.

Zarda comes from tobacco. It is addictive; gives a high. How bad can it be? With lightning fingers, the vendor smooths open a bright green betel leaf. He throws in several items: betel nuts, lime paste, fennel seeds, a pinch of zarda, rose petal jam or gulkand, and what looks like tutti-frutti. He folds it into a triangle, sticks a clove to hold it together, and hands it over to me. I have eaten paan before, but this one has oomph. As I chew, I can feel myself becoming light-headed. The juices flow down my throat, inducing a pleasant sensation of relaxation. I smile beatifically and thank the vendor.

“Careful,” he says as I stumble out. “Sambhaalke.”

I wave my hand and keep walking. It is a beautiful day.

I don’t remember very much of what happened after that; except that I, much like a Hindi film heroine, woke up in bed.

Shoba Narayan loves a good Bengaluru bisi bele bhaath followed by a Banarasi paan. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

How could I forget Ramassery idli?

The outrage over Manchurian ‘idli’

There are a hundred wonderful variations of this ancient, flawless dish. Why spoil it?

It was on board a Vistara Airlines flight that I first tasted the ghastly concoction called idli manchurian.

It was my first time on the airline. I was happy. The distinct airline smell was absent. You know the one I mean? The explosive combination of closed lavatories, chemical air freshener, deodorant, all overlaid by the scent of hot food stuffed into trolleys and crammed into a small space—like a gassy burp waiting to happen.

Then the food came. I should have paid more attention to the flight attendants as they listed out the menu. But I was stunned that we were actually getting something to eat rather than fancy-packed nuts at four times the normal cost a la Indigo.

Vistara’s cardboard containers looked smart with pencil art like the ones Chumbak and the Elephant Company have popularized. I took a bite and spat it out. Why, oh, why, were they messing with a recipe that reflected the scent of South India?

According to the late Kannada scholar, D. L. Narasimhachar, who has edited ancient treatises such as Kumaravyasa Bharata—a medical work; and Vaddaradhane, which talks about the life of a Jain muni called Bhadrabahu, the word “idli” has been in vogue– in Karnataka certainly– for over 1000 years. I learnt this from Shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh, a Sanskrit and Kannada scholar in Bangalore.

South Indians like me wake up to the scent of idlis. I may not be able to identify the scent of a Merlot but I can smell the “idli-vasanai” or “idli-smell” from across a playground. In Bangalore, scores of darshinis—open cafes where you stand and eat– serve jasmine-soft idlis to patrons before dawn. We scarf down three or four idlis with chutney and sambhar before walking briskly around lakes and gardens to sweat it off.

If you don’t like plain idlis, there are Kanchipuram idlis, steamed in baskets with carrots grated on top; thatte idlis, about the size of a plate; button idlis, also called bullet idlis that hit you with tiny dollops of round, white, goodness; sannas which are the Goan version of this bland, fermented base that accepts all flavours like a mother (except Manchurian); leaf-idlis or Mudde idlis, the Mangalore version, in which the batter is poured into a cone made with aromatic kewda or screw pine leaves; kotte idlis, also Mangalorean, where you use jackfruit leaves as cones; kuzhi paniyaaram of Tamilnadu, where you fry the idli batter that is spiced with the vagar or thalichu-kottal of black mustard seeds, urad dal, diced ginger, green chilies and curry leaves in tiny containers— savory muffins if you will. If all else fails, you can have rava idlis; podi idlis where the idli is cut up and mixed with a powder of milagai-podi or idli-chili-powder and sesame oil; or even the currently popular ragi idlis. With such a dizzying array of choices, why stray so far away from the dish that goes back to the 10th century if Shivakoti Acharya’s kannada treatise, Vaddaradhane, is to be believed? Food historian K.T. Achaya believes that the idli in its current form with Ponni broken rice mixed with the urad dal in a 4:1 proportion came from Indonesia. That may be, but it took us South Indians to perfect this painstakingly ground, flawlessly proportioned, fermented batter of urad dal and rice. Why add Chinese infusions to a dish that is already an Indonesian-Indian fusion dish in the first place?

“You see, Madame, North Indians don’t want to go for Southie dishes,” the flight attendant said. “If we mix some Chinese flavour with these idlis, then it will be palatable for North Indians as well.”

That riled me up. To call an idli unpalatable is like telling a Punjabi that his maa ki dal is wanting in taste; or telling a Bengali that her fish is flavourless; or telling a Hyderabadi that his biriyani is insipid.

“What about North Indian dishes that aren’t palatable to South Indians?” I asked silkily. My sarcasm was lost on the young woman who stared blankly at me. There is nothing worse that being sarcastic and not being understood. I decided to take the direct tack—or in my case, the direct attack.

“Do you make an undhiyo-manchurian as well?” I asked.

“Undhiyo isn’t North Indian,” she replied. “It is Gujarati.”

That wasn’t the point. The point was why the airline was tampering with only South Indian recipes.

“Manchurian is the flavor of the moment,” explained the flight attendant. “In Maharashtra, we have Manchurian chips, Manchurian chops and even chakli manchurian.”

“Oh you poor thing,” I murmured. “They’ve messed with your chaklis also.”

The Gujarati man sitting beside me shook his head. “What next?” he said. “They will make Manchuri dhokla.”

We all tittered politely.

“We should get together and protest like that Hardik Patel is doing,” someone said.

“Or they should use these foreign flavours to improve on dishes like undhiyo,” I said virtuously, with visions of an improved undhiyo in my mind. Wrong statement, I realized a moment later.

“Why? You don’t like undhiyo?” My Gujarati neighbour, who had until now, been an ally glared at me. No longer could I count on him to be a idli-supporter, I realized. He wouldn’t mobilize Hardik for the cause of idlis.

I tried to back-pedal. “I’ve never eaten an undhiyo I like,” I said.

“It is certainly better than your aviyal,” he replied.

“What’s wrong with an aviyal?” I asked. “Do you know that my friend who has brain cancer only eats aviyal because of its coconut oil content? Do you know that Gwyneth Paltrow drinks two spoons of virgin coconut oil every morning? Aviyal is a perfectly balanced dish.”

“Like our undhiyo,” he replied. We were at stalemate.

As dishes go idlis are like Mother Earth. You can throw any garbage on top of them and they will accept. Undhiyo and Aviyal on the other hand, are perfect in their own way but not crowd-pleasers. As for me, I don’t like undhiyo; then again, I don’t like aviyal either. Even to eat with adai, which is the way Tamilians eat it.

Shoba Narayan filled out the complaint form against the invasion of Manchurian in the idli department.

Memories are made of buttermilk

It is hot now in Bangalore, which, I guess, is what prompted this piece.

Memories are made of buttermilk

 buttermilk-kvaH--621x414@LiveMint

My first memory of buttermilk is warmth and darkness.  I must have been five or six years old.  Still confused by the mists of sleep, I walked into my grandmother’s kitchen, drawn by a comforting swishing sound.  My grandmother was sitting on the floor, her legs spread-eagled and resting on the wall.  Soft light filtered through the window in front of her.  In between her legs was a heavy mud pot that was held firmly in place by a coiled towel.  A tall wooden “mathu” or butter churner was inserted inside this pot.  Although I didn’t know it then, it was the older version of a blender. 

I stumbled inside the cool kitchen.  My grandmother turned.  Her diamond nostrils glinted in the shaft of light.  Her beautiful face crinkled into a smile but she didn’t say anything—she was engrossed in her task.  Her hands held the two ends of a rope that was coiled around the butter churner.  They moved back and forth rhythmically.  My grandmother sat like a yogi, alert but relaxed.  I had seen her in this position many times.

Unbidden, I slipped under her hands that were level with her shoulder.  I rested against the C-shaped curve of her body, my back against her soft, squishy belly; my legs spread-eagled like hers; my hands flush against hers.  Together, we pulled the rope, back and forth, coaxing the milk into giving up its butter.  It wasn’t milk really.  It was the thick yogurt that she had collected for a couple of days.

The wooden churner was a marvel of engineering.  It was held in place by two simple pulleys, facing opposite directions.  The first was a U-shaped coil of rope that was tied to the window-grill permanently.  When we began the butter-churning process, we slipped the wooden churner in between this coil.  Then came the second coil of rope that we pulled from the other side.  The churner couldn’t touch the bottom of the pot because that would generate friction when we churned.  Instead, my grandmother placed it expertly so that the churner was a few inches above the bottom of the pot, held aloft by the pressure of her churning.

I loved sitting within my grandmother’s body, matching my arms to hers as we pulled the rope together.  I could smell the buttermilk and feel my grandmother’s breath on my nape.  She didn’t say a word but it was the closest that I came to feeling utterly secure and comfortable.  Some minutes later, we could see the heavy butter lumps begin forming.  My grandmother poured cold water into the mud pot.  We continued churning.  Within minutes, butter lumps floated on top.  Then we stopped.  My grandmother collected all the lumps together in her hands and tossed them together into a round ball.  I sat still and expectant, waiting for the best part.  Once my grandmom put the big round ball into a vessel filled with water, where it floated like those white planets that we drew in our geography book.  Then, she collected the smaller lumps of butter that were still floating inside, made a small ball and glanced at me.  Obediently, I opened my mouth.  In went the freshly churned butter.  It tasted of the saltiness of my grandmother’s hand, the sweetness of cow’s milk and the slight sourness of the yogurt cream that we collected.

Fast forward, a decade and my grandmother still made buttermilk, except with her trusty Braun “mixie,” that my uncle gifted her from the U.S. It made her churning a lot easier. She put thick yogurt into the blender, added ice water from the fridge, and pressed a switch. Five minutes of spirited whirring and the yogurt would foam on top. The bubbles were my grandmom’s cue. She added a little ice water and pressed the switch once again. Soon, lumps of butter would form. After that, it was the same ritual. She would collect the large lumps and toss them expertly with her palm into a large round ball. The dregs of butter went into my mouth. They still tasted like buttery heaven.

Every part of India uses buttermilk. In Kerala, we simply water it down, toss in a few fresh curry leaves and drink it as sambaram. In Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, buttermilk is spiced with ground-up green chilies, ginger, curry leaves, some asafetida and salt, all of which are pounded and added to the buttermilk. We call this majjige or neer-mor. Much of North India uses roasted cumin and mint leaves to spice their buttermilk or chaas, as it is called.  A combination of roasted and ground cumin, some salt, a dash of lemon juice, and pounded pudina or mint leaves, are added to the buttermilk for flavor. This watery, delicious and light drink is excellent for digestion and cooling the body. Punjab, of course, has its famous lassis, made with thick buttermilk blended with fruits like mango. Mango lassi is available all over the world at Indian restaurants.  Bengal, I think, doesn’t have buttermilk.  They prefer their mishti dahi, not the watered down version.  

The beauty of buttermilk is its egalitarian nature. No matter how rich or poor, all of India consumes this drink. Down the road from where I live is a pushcart vendor. All she has on her cart is a red earthen pot filled with buttermilk that she sells to auto drivers, bicycle messengers, and anyone who needs a cool drink on a hot day.

As for me, I prefer buttermilk to yogurt just as I prefer light black coffee to thick cappuccino. If I had a choice, I would drink my grandmother’s buttermilk but she is dead now. I still have her wooden churner though. Every now and then, particularly on hot summer days, I think of bringing it out and setting it up with two coils of ropes, just as it was in my grandmother’s kitchen.

Shoba Narayan likes Amul Masti Dahi. 

Wild jaguar, Mumbai’s crows, feeding strays, cats, and humans

These are some of the great stories in Mint Lounge this week.

Meanwhile, my piece on religion, food, negotiation and identity is up on Mint’s Sunday edition.  Next, I’d like to visit Ajmer or Amritsar for this series.  Read the story here, because it has videos I recorded and many photos.

Sacred Food

Some years ago, Kamini Mahadevan of Penguin approached me to write a book on “Sacred Food.”  At that time, I wasn’t ready to do it.

Some weeks ago, Sukumar, the editor of Mint, told me about this long-form platform they were launching and told me to write for it.  The multimedia digital platform is exciting.  I did my first voice over here.  They sent me a video and I memorized what I wanted to say.  Played the video on silent, recorded on Garageband, emailed the file over, and voila!!!

You can see Mint on Sunday here and my piece here

Bonda Soup

Still bummed that I didn’t go to Ayodhya in Mangalore for typical Mangalorean food.

The bowl matters as much as the soup

food-kmzB--621x414@LiveMint

I grew up in a home where we ate on stainless-steel plates. My grandmother’s idea of a festive dinner was to lay banana leaves on the floor and have a small army of topless dhoti-clad men race down serving spoonfuls of various dishes in a prescribed order: first payasam (kheer), then paruppu (dal), then pappadam , then pachadi (raita). Then came an array of dishes that are pretty much untranslatable— kootu , avial , olan , kaalan , kosumalli —and pretty much inedible according to my husband. If you were lucky, the meal would include an “English vegetable” such as potato or plantain fry. By the time you opened your mouth to ask for a second helping of plantain fry or whatever it was that your heart longed for, the bare-torsoed men had scurried to the end of the banana-leaf line. The men had names, surely, but we didn’t know them.
 The “mama” or “maharaj” in charge had a bulbous stomach shaped like a ghatam. If we dared to ask for seconds, he would glare at us for a second before yelling, “avial vaa”, which was akin to saying “chorizo, vamos” in Spanish. I think this is the reason that restaurant menus got more and more complicated with the description of the dishes—because they don’t have a top-dog “maharaj”, referring to servers by the names of their dishes.
 Can you imagine the maître d’ at Noma or The Fat Duck calling a waiter by the dish he is serving? “Oy! Shaved cod with grilled steak tartare served with toasted areca nuts and passion-fruit purée. Come here and serve this chit of a girl who is eating as if she has escaped a famine.”
When we met as a family, food was served on the dining table with a hearty dose of “feed you till your stomach bursts” type of hospitality. This essentially meant that there was no conversation; only incessant questions: Do you want more potatoes? How do you find the dal? Is there too much salt in the biryani? So you ate like a duck, quacking “yes” or “no” to the questions that were thrown at you from grandmother, mother, and every sundry aunt that was hovering around the table, serving us all. Interspersed with the questions were constant accusations: “What do you mean, you don’t want more sambhar? Are you sick?” was the most frequent, accompanied by a frown and a glare.
My family viewed food in a complex way. Food was utilitarian—you ate for sustenance. Mealtimes had that hurried feeling of “eat quickly so we can get this meal over with and move on to the next”. It was an expression of aggressive love—you ate because the women in your life would be insulted if you didn’t. It was a competitive sport—you ate because there was a finite amount of your favourite dish and you had to eat as much as you could before your 20-odd cousins could.
It was a delicate balancing act that occurred in between the times the bai (maid) would show up to wash utensils. It was a connection—quite literally, since Indian women are prone to rolling rice-balls and sticking them into the mouths of the non-eaters. If you didn’t eat, it wasn’t because you were full. It was because you were sick. And then you were force-fed Horlicks with bread.
Food was a calling card; a brand identity. Savita maasi’s mango pickle versus Dimple aunty’s lemon relish; Kanti bua’s Goda masala mix versus Shetty aunty’s chicken ghee roast mix. Now we just go to Thom’s Bakery and Supermarket and buy Everest garam masala sans provenance or pride. Women identified themselves with certain dishes. They still do. Entire weddings were centred around the arrival of the Sridevi-like character in my family who made divine laddoos. Saralamami wasn’t as pretty as Sridevi but her laddoos looked better than the ones in English Vinglish and led her to deliver love masked as a threat: “What, you don’t like my laddoos? Why are you eating only four of them?” Accusations and badgering till you hung your head in defeat and masticated without a word.
When I lit a candle on the dining table after returning from the US, my entire family thought that I presaged a power cut. “How does she know when Amma (J. Jayalalithaa) will turn off the power?” they murmured and stared at me with wonderstruck eyes. When my extended family and I gathered for annual vacations in Coimbatore (my Mom’s side) or Kottayam (my Dad’s side), their idea of a fancy dinner was to go to Annapoorna or Aryaas, and have masala dosas with flies on the side. As for conversation, you stared dourly at the sour waiter and willed him to serve you more red chutney. I tell you this as background for what I am about to reveal. My aunts were wrong; my parents were wrong; and my grandmother, whom I adored as a child, was more wrong than them all. Accoutrements matter. Utensils matter.
What you eat with is as important as the dish you actually eat in—and I say this after eating food without caring about where it came from. You can eat a bonda-soup from Mangaluru but equally important is the dish from which you eat it. I have no connection to Arttd’inox or Magpie design, but if they priced their stainless-steel dishes more reasonably, I would eat my bonda-soup from their bowls.

Shoba Narayan enjoys the Shetty’s chicken ghee roast powder that she purchased in Mangaluru at Sri Sai Condiments. She coats her paneer with it. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com