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

Survival of the Tastiest for Mint

Headline writing is a fascinating exercise.  When I write a column, I try to come up with headlines.  Mint’s team always do better (naturally).  What is the skill that one needs to be a good headline writer, I wonder.  I mean, you have to take the essence of an article and combine it to make a catch few words.  And you’d think that since I am the writer of the piece, I’d be good at making up a headline, right? Wrong.  So I’ll keep trying and the day I come up with a better headline that Mint’s for my pieces, I am going to forward it to them.  Here is my latest column

Survival of the tastiest?

If a Tamilian can eat a ‘samosa’, why don’t Punjabis demand ‘vathal kuzhambu’?

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

You don’t realize this as you tuck into that breakfast, but India is in the throes of a grand culinary experiment. What are you eating, by the way? Is it a dosaparatha,samosabrun maska or luchi? Your answer could determine the future of your favourite dish.

Why do some dishes travel so far from their origins and why do other dishes stay locked within a region? Take the pizza, for example. It originated as a Mediterranean flatbread. The term was probably first used in 10th century Italy. After World War II, American troops brought it back home; the franchises took over, and the dish has taken over the world. We have Brazilian sweet pizza with fruit toppings, Israeli kosher versions, and toppings reflecting the nation, such as bulgogi, tandoori chicken and sambal paste.


Essentially Tamil: (clockwise from left) Idli, easy to cook and pronounce, has travelled well, but not vathal kuzhambu (below); and Naren Thimmaiah, executive chef, Gateway Hotel, Bangalore, shows us how to make vathal kuzhambu. Photographs by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint.

Essentially Tamil: (clockwise from left) Idli, easy to cook and pronounce, has travelled well, but not vathal kuzhambu (below); and Naren Thimmaiah, executive chef, Gateway Hotel, Bangalore, shows us how to make vathal kuzhambu. Photographs by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint.


Pizza has the three factors that allow a dish to travel: It is dry, allowing for easy packing; its ingredients allow for local adaptations; it is not complicated to cook; and can be made using a simple chulha (coal stove) or a brick oven. In India, the samosa fits these criteria, which is probably why it has travelled so well across our land, not to mention lent its name to the hilarious website Samosapedia. 

Consider, in contrast, the humble vathal kuzhambu, from the Tam-Brahm heartland of Thanjavur district. It uses primarily two ingredients: dried vegetables, called vathal; and lots of tamarind water. The vathalsare simmered in tamarind water till the gravy becomes thick. Spices such as asafoetida, salt and chilli powder give it flavour. I am simplifying the recipe, but you get the picture. My question is this: Why did a recipe that originated in Iran take over the Indian subcontinent while a far easier recipe with far fewer ingredients failed to travel beyond its borders? In other words, if a Tamilian can eat a samosa, why don’t Punjabis demand vathal kuzhambu?

Also Read | Shoba Narayan’s previous Lounge columns

It is a dilemma that would do Darwin proud. The evolution of dishes; survival of the tastiest; cross-border migration; deep-fried or else you are out.

Common wisdom holds that the reason Punjabi dishes have spread all over India is because they travelled the road with Punjabi truckers. Then why hasn’t the supposedly ubiquitous Malayali tea-shop owner cooked and sold his appam and stew wherever he set up shop? If demand drives markets, why isn’t there a market for kori gassi,sabudana vadasarapatelor yakhni?




Sociologist Arjun Appadurai has suggested that some of this has to do with regional character. Subtle cuisines and softer people are often overtaken by more assertive cuisines and aggressive people: Telugu by Tamil; Oriya by Bengali; Kannada by Marathi; Rajasthani by Gujarati; and Kashmiri by Punjabi. You could argue the specifics but it is true that some regional dishes are not as popular as they should be. With canned coconut milk available all over India, you could argue that solkadhi should be more popular than it is. With today’s emphasis on healthy food, shouldn’t sprouted Maharashtrian usal have taken over Indian kitchens? And please, don’t tell me that a samosa is easier to make than an idli, which fits all the parameters of a travelling dish: It is dry, easy to cook, and open to regional adaptation—witness the idli Manchurian. Then why don’t people in Binsar or Raichur eat idlis, choosing instead to painstakingly fry asamosa

Some of it has to do with marketing. While the dosa and sambhar that I eat four mornings a week (if I can) is known to all my Punjabi and Gujarati friends, who modify it with pinches of garam masala and sugar, respectively, no Tamilian has marketed the vathal kuzhambu. The name itself is pretty difficult.

Here I come to my core theory of culinary supremacy. It’s all in the name. Any dish with more than three syllables is doomed. Dharwad people sing the praises of badane ennegai (stuffed brinjal—seven syllables) but do you think it stands a chance next to the four-syllablebaingan bharta? Do you think a Dilliwala can even pronounce amezhukku varati, let alone desire to order it? Do you think a south Indian like me can memorize kobi bataka nu shaak as compared with a short and simple dhokla? You Mumbai folk might be able to say patra ni macchi with elan, but I tried ordering it for a friend and didn’t get beyond the patra, which is a leafy “ghaas-phoos” (vegetarian) dish made with Colocasia leaves.

Want to predict the future of Indian dishes? It’s all in the name.

Shoba Narayan loves her biryanis (four syllables but still famous) and her samosas (three syllables), but cannot live without her dosa (two syllables). Write to her at