Before I got there, courtesy a kind friend who is from the fabled city, I had imagined the centre of the street food world to be centered around the ghats. Once we got there, I realized that nothing could be further from the truth. In the three days that my friend and I were in Banaras, it was a whirl of clambering aboard a series of slightly too high cycle rickshaws, and being transported from one ramshackle shed to another. The wonder of it all was that the more grotty the surroundings, the better the food they served.
I soon figured out that all the back-tracking we did was an essential part of stuffing our faces 24×7 because of the timings of breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner foods, none of which were near each other. Malaiyyo, for instance, is best enjoyed very early in the mornings and is only made during winter. Somewhat like Delhi’s daulat ki chaat or Lucknow’s nimish, the magical cloud made of milk that has been whipped early in the morning. Made with enough saffron to tint the malaiyyo golden and a hint of sugar, the Banaras version probably is the finest testimony to plain old boring milk. The most famous malaiyyo sellers are arranged along the winding bylane called Thatheri Galli which leads to Gopal Mandir. It is no coincidence that the temple devoted to Lord Krishna should feature malaiyyo stalls!
Afterwards, we had to hurry to a kachori-sabzi breakfast at a roadside stall in an area called Lanka that looked seriously ramshackle. From about 10 am for a couple of hours, they make kachoris with sabzi and jalebis. Other good kachori sellers are located at Bhairon Mandir. Kachoris in Banaras are quite unlike the crisp, flaky snacks that are made in Rajasthan and Delhi. Instead, they are more like puris with urad dal in the filling or mixed in the dough.
What I had gone to Banaras to taste was the chaat. Timatari chaat is the quintessential preparation, every bit as iconic as say, Delhi’s bhalla papdi. There are two ‘standard’ places to be taken to: Dina Chat in Luxa and Kashi Chat Bhandar in Godaulia, but there is a strictly neighbourhood cart just by the Hanuman Mandir that only insiders know about. Paan, tea and mithai are ubiquitous all over the city. But what had me in thrall is the creamy curd at Pahalwan (yes!) and a terra cotta cup of the most divine cream at a stall with no name. But then, that’s Banaras for you.