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Banaras 2016“Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together!”
Mark Twain

You might have heard a buzz online as a bunch of us decided to visit Banaras, or Varanasi as now called, for a food trip. It was Ruchira’s brainchild, a dream she had held for long. We were a strange mix of folk, different age groups, varied backgrounds yet with a common link – the spirit of adventure and love for food. We were game for anything, and under the well oiled machinery of Ruchira’s efficiency, we managed more of Banaras than we could ever dream of. Of course none of this would have been possible had Sangeeta not chalked out a day by day, or rather hourly plan for us.

Ghats, Banaras 2016

Banaras 2016

Ghats, Banaras 2016She couldn’t join us but was our virtual guide. And therein runs the common thread between our Banaras trip and ‘Rivaayat’, both of which had Sangeeta involved! Virtually in Banaras with us, yet here hands on at 361°, The Oberoi Gurgaon for a tasting menu curated by Chef Ravitej Nath and her.Banaras @ 361°, The Oberoi, GurgaonFirst our iconic trip to Banaras, memorable, action packed and absolute fun all the way {warning long post}. I was going to do a smallish post, but a load of folk on FB asked me for a more informative one, so here goes. In any case,  Banaras can never be a small post. I can see myself going there again soon. The city grows on you!Banaras 2016I saw a lot of the city when I was young. As a kid and teenager, virtually ever summer was spent in Banaras. I saw it very differently this time around. Clearly a lot had changed. My sensibilities too! Our food trail in the city was action packed with the chaos, culture, colour and magic. Banaras @ 361°, The Oberoi, Gurgaon is at the end of this post, a very calming ‘fine dining’ experience. Do feel free to jump directly to that if you like, though I hope the post will get you feeling like you’ve stopped by the holy city before the meal!

Banaras 2016That it was a first trip together for the four of us could have meant some hiccups, BUT, surprise surprise, we hit it off from word go. The minute the train pulled out of the station at Delhi, we {Preeti, Nivriti, Ruchira and me} lay out our table with all the yummies we had carried, and talked non stop until we reached Banaras. Not Ruchira though, who stole 40 winks while we had a midnight feast under her very nose, giggling and whispering incessantly; she DIDN’T stir. Yet she still denies she ever got sleep.

Ghats, Banaras 2016

Ghats, Banaras 2016That Banaras was going to be fun was certain. That it turned out to be a million times that was the icing on the cake. We talked non stop, ate non stop, covered every place on the itinerary that Sangeeta charted out for us. Then discovered more that perhaps was waiting to be discovered, shared an auto across the city until the locals recognised ‘those four mad women‘, two of whom were perched on either side of the auto driver. Then we ate some more! Oh yes, and we bought some beautiful saris too. Can’t go to Banaras and not buy saris.

Ghats, Banaras 2016The first thing we did was to dump our bags at a very sweet home stay, Granny’s Inn, and head out to the ghats within an hour of reaching Banaras. It was important to get a feel of the city, to breathe in. Off to eat kachoris, sabzi and jalebi, Banaras 2016That done, cameras in tow, we hit the food trail. Boy was it a good beginning to the day, what with fermented batter expertly meeting hot oil! A few minutes later, dunked into sugar syrup, that meant fresh jalebis! Sweet start to an exciting day!Jalebis being made, Banaras 2016We were going to make it a habit of dessert first, but who cared!! Next on the menu was kachoris, or lentil stuffed puris. Hot out of oil kachoris served with the most deliciously spiced sabzi, it was good to be in Banaras. Street food is best there, probably what the city is famous for as we were to discover bite by bite.

Kachori with Sabzi, Banaras 2016The kachoris with the sabzi on the side is the best ever street food you can dig into. Deep fried kachoris with spicy delicious vegetables to dip into, words can’t describe the pleasure. We soon discovered kachoris in every form, on every street, around every corner, quintessential Banaras. That’s what Banaras is known for! Also for something else which is creamy and delicious!Pahalwaan Lassi Wala, Banaras 2016

Pahalwaan Lassi, Banaras 2016Kachori and jalebis later, we descended on the famed Pahelwaan Lassi Centre at Guru Ravidas Gate. It serves the best lassi Banaras has to offer, both sweet and savoury. Creamy, rich, bursting with flavour and just too addictive. Boy,we were hooked on lassi for the rest of the trip. Another great lassi joint was Dugdh Sagar near where we stayed. When we had a free moment, we slurped lassi like there was no tomorrow! You will not find lassi like this anywhere else. BHU Banaras 2016You’d think we’d have called it  a day, but wait, we weren’t quite done! Quick stops happened that morning. Banaras Hindu University. We barely stopped by the outside of the temple, then headed straight for some jhalmuri. Yum Yum Yum. The man tossing it together has been doing this for as long as he can remember, 1960’s onward, under the very same tree.Jhalmuri, BHU Banaras 2016

Jhalmuri, BHU Banaras 2016With deft fingers, he pinched this masala and that, onions, sprouts, green chilies and a squeeze of lime. Finger licking good as we licked our grubby fingers and leapt back into the auto. The good thing about auto drivers in the city – they are honest, always game to talk, and have a deep knowledge about the culture of the city. Some weave spells of 10ft tall ghosts and white witches that shriek into the night etc, but that’s up to you to believe it or not!Sunrise over the Ganga, BanarasWhen in Banaras the early morning arti at Assi Ghat is a MUST see, MUST! They say the colours of Banarsi sarees are inspired by the sunrise. You have to see it to believe it. A trip to Banaras just to see the sunrise over the Ganges is worth a trip.Sunrise over the Ganga, Banaras

sunrise 5

Sunrise over the Ganga, BanarasThe sky changes colours every few seconds, and we just couldn’t get enough of it. You must get to the ghats before sunrise, an uphill task for our sleep deprived exhausted group, but we got there once! If you can get there every single day, nothing like it. It’s an experience of a lifetime, and in many ways time with nature. Ghats of Banaras

Ghats of BanarasAssi Ghat is possibly the best of the 87 ghats the river front has, most used for bathing and pujas, a dhobi ghat, and a couple of cremation ghats. We didn’t have time enough to explore all 87 of course! Banaras is a city built along the ghats, so it’s fascinating to just hang out there. Practically every narrow lane of the old city leads to a ghat one way or another, and each ghat is abuzz with activity.

Mallaiyo in Banaras 2016Banaras in winter means a dive into a seasonal sweet foaming delicacy called Malaiyyo. It’s a must try, a traditional winter dessert of Banaras, something like the Daulat ki Chaat of Old Delhi, though richer and more flavourful. You can find it only in the winter months though, and we were lucky to spot quite a few vendors.Malayyio in Banaras 2016 We went to Gopal Mandir waali gali and started walking through the streets. 7.30 in the morning is a beautiful peaceful time to be there, the mallaiyo walas, chai walas and kachori walas all ready and setting up for brisk business. The grinding stone for saffron, the earthenware pots, huge woks, wooden spoons, brass servers all lent local flavour to our food trail.Malayyio in Banaras 2016 We tried several Mallaiyo walas, also met the old man who runs one of the of best there. Yet the very best came from this man sitting high up at a window in the street, almost a hole in the wall as Sangeeta suggested. Thick, rich, saffron high, sweet enough and absolutely delicious. As we slurped through our many servings, locals frequently stopped by buying potfuls of this delicacy from him. He served the most memorable mallaiyo ever! It was like an upside down meal. Banaras 2016 With dessert done, we tripped along giddily and dived into more kachoris and jalebis, chai too, and this was pretty much the norm in Banaras. Walking through the street was a great experience. I stayed trigger happy throughout. The odd sadhu, flower sellers, food stalls, chai waalas, locals, colourful doors. Little vegetable sellers would randomly pop out of tiny holes in the wall, the colours and old world charm amazing!Streets of BanarasThen we ate some more. It was a foodtrail after all! How can we do Banaras and not devour chaat, so we caught a 30 minute nap at the home stay and then descended hungrily on the Kashi Chaat Bhandaar. Banarasi cusine is often synonymous with chaat, the very best, and the most different. Kashi Chaat Bhandar, Banaras 2016The first thing was Tamatar ki chaat – spicy, flavourful, addictive, colourful and truly yum! Thereafter we didn’t stop. Palak ke patte ki chaat, papdi chaat, pani puri, dahi bada, everything. The guys there were so happy, they made sure we tried every single thing on the menu, desserts included. Was the best chaat in a long long time, especially the famed Tamatar ki chaat! We couldn’t stop talking about it.

Banaras 2016We were ready to burst, but then again, there’s nothing that a meetha paan can’t fix! Delicious meetha paans later, which are really addictive I have to say, we set off in search of recycled glass martabaans or jars. Sadly we didn’t find any, walked through a million narrow alleyways, were hungry again, then headed for the evening arti…Banaras 2016 … the pompous and ostentatious Dashashwamedh Ghat arti at sunset which is quite an experience in itself. Teeming with millions of devotees and tourists, it’s a very different experience from the mornings calming atmosphere. It’s a more social affair, with all the bells and whistles {read sea shells being blown and bells being rung} that an arti can promise. Dashashwamedh Ghat arti, Ghats, Banaras 2016The night air resonates with deep throated vedic chants that transport you to another world if you shut your eyes. Also, a boat ride at night on the Ganges is another experience altogether. It’s a new face of the river, a new look at Banaras, it’s rituals and it’s culture.

Dashashwamedh Ghat arti, Ghats, Banaras 2016Maybe it is just that the morning draws fewer people since 5.30am is not the most convenient time for one and all to reach the river. Yet, it was an experience in itself as we took a boat ride by a few of 87 ghats, including the Harish Chander Ghat, or the cremation ghat considered most auspicious for Hindus for the final journey.Ghats, Banaras 2016

Ghats, Banaras 2016It was an eerie and uncanny ride by that ghat. Even though the pyres burning into the night sky paint for a dramatic picture, the solemnity of the final journey is unnerving. We didn’t stay there for long.

Vishwanath ki gali, Banaras 2016We even bravely ventured to the Kashi Vishwanath temple, where the number of cops probably match the number of devotees given the high security profile of Banaras holiest site. No cameras allowed within, only prasad and money. Banaras had changed beyond belief! A thousand shops and shrines dot the narrow Vishwanath ki gali, a place that was so different from what I remember visiting so often as a kid.  Buy some supari from here, some beads, knick knacks. It was the best pan supari in our opinion.!

Aloo papad with garlic quark dipWhile on that topic, buy some Aloo Papad {potato papad} too. Great gift to carry back, and grab some lal mirch ka chaar/stuffed red chili pickle also if possible. My paternal grandmother used to make a mean red chili pickle, I still remember the taste from childhood, but sadly the recipe has been lost forever. These are things quintessential to the Banaras region that you might not find elsewhere. Preeti recommended the aloo ka papad, and she was spot on. One of the best ways to serve them is to pop the into the microwave for a couple of minutes, allow them to crispen up as they cool, then serve them with dips. Almost like crackers, these are addictive. They popped up at the Oberoi later, fried of course, and just as delicious!

Sarnath, Banaras 2016Surprisingly enough, we managed a sideways trip to Sarnath as well. The first thing we did there was eat of course. Tumbled out of the cab into the waiting cart of a chana jor garam wala, flattened crispy chickpeas tossed together with onions, tomatoes, green chilies, spice with a dash of lime. Best and largest chana jor garam ever, probably the most expensive thing we ate in Banaras! Then again, they say chickpeas have become really expensive, and making chana jor garam is a laborious task.Lal Khan ka Rauza, Rajghat, Banaras 2016Another quick trip we managed was one to Rajghat to see Ruchira’s mothers school. Also stopped by the bridge across Varuna river, and found a fascinating monument overlooking the river, one of the best preserved and well looked after mausoleums. Built in 1773, it houses 11 graves. Lal Khan Tomb is one of the many tombs & mausoleum built during Medieval Period in Varanasi city. Lal Khan ka Rauza, Rajghat, Banaras 2016The tomb was constructed in 1773 to commemorate the memory of Lal Khan- a Mughal Noble. It is one of the finest representations of grand Mughal architecture. The building is protected by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). This was quite a find!

Pizzeria Vaatika Cafe , Banaras 2016We spent more time eating in Banaras than we did anything else. Ticking off things from the list Sangeeta put together, we had fabulous wood fired thin crust pizzas late into the night by Assi Ghat. The Pizzeria Vaatika Cafe is also very famous for Apple Pie. Strange as it might sound, turns out that this was the best apple pie we had ever eaten, ever! The pastry was crisp, light as air, had great taste, the ingredients shone. We carried a pie back each as well because it was sacrilege not to carry some back for the folk at home.

Caciotta, Artisan cheese, Banaras 2016The other thing we carried back, all thanks to Ruchira’s eagle eye, was artisan cheese, caciotta. As we were driving out of Assi Ghat one morning, Ruchira literally flew out of the auto because she saw this.

Caciotta, Artisan cheese, Banaras 2016The rest was history. Before we knew it, we were in deep conversation with the Banarsi owner, he who spoke chaste Banarasi, then English, then cut over to free flowing Italian. He got the Italian cheesemaker, Emilio Marconi to drive in to meet us, after Ruchira insisted that we wanted to buy cheese even though the guys at the shop said it was sold out.

Caciotta by Emilio Marconi, Artisan cheese, Banaras 2016Call it perseverance, but cheese eventually showed up, and we happily grabbed some to carry home. The very sweet Emilio even made a fresh batch of ricotta for us, and with fresh baked bread from the same shop, our journey from Banaras to Delhi was naturally delicious!

Banaras 2016 We did have very amused co passengers who were thoroughly entertained by our nonsensical non stop banter, our hunger pangs, that we made for a very eclectic bunch. And thus our little journey wound up, chugging our way back into Delhi, sleepless in many ways! Happy, ticked off our list of things to do, shopped and lived it up. There was only one thing we missed, and that was a true Banaras ki thaali, or a local meal. Strangely enough, that was one thing we couldn’t find there, despite Ruchira googling for it endlessly.We needn’t have bothered, because here, back home, that is just what Rivaayat served up with Banaras @ 361°, The Oberoi, Gurgaon! A delightful, fuss free, home style menu of Banaras cuisine curated and presented with  passion by Chef Ravitej Nath along with Sangeeta. That Banarasi cuisine could offer such hidden gems was amazing. The food was simple and special, delicately flavoured, light on the tastebuds, and offered a lot of variety.

Banaras @ 361An array of cocktails and mocktails arrived first, my fave the Gullabo. Refreshing, lilting, summery almost like a local Ro, it teased the palette. The Panchamrit was a divine beginning, then delicious aloo and sabudana papads with an array of exciting chutneys. Wadiyon ki chutney and Tomato chutney were both addictive and different. Of course my favourite course was starters with chaat with Chivda matar, Banarsi tamatar ki chat, Chenna ka dahi vada and Aloo tikki. The Chenna ka dahi vada was amazing, as was the chivda and aloo tikki. The Tamatar ki chaat a little  low on tang and flavour as compared to what we had just experienced in Banaras.

Banaras @ 361°The fritters, Harey chane ka bhabra and Bajka both finger licking good, as were the dumplings, Masoor ki bhapouri and Fara. With chutneys, everything was elvated to delicious levels. Of course I was too full already, so I barely had a bite of the main course. I loved the homestyle Arhar dal, the Turai ki sabzi and Kaddu ki sabzi. All finger licking good. I also loved the aromas of mustard oil which stood out celebrating this simple cuisine. The Mutton kaliya was a little tough, yet I was happy with a simple vegetarian meal.

Murabba from Oberoi @ 361°The sweet Mallika chatted away with us happily through the meal. Already past being too full with such a sumptuous menu, it was time for dessert. Fresh back from Banaras, I did feel that the much awaited Malaiyyo was a tad disappointing as compared to what we had experienced there. It was far too light, quite foamy and not sweet enough. I believe it’s got something to do with the milk here as it’s difficult to get the fat content in milk locally that Malaiyyo demands. Maybe it’s best had in Banaras. The laddoos from Sankat Mochan Trust were rich and delicious, as was the peda. I heard lot about the khush khush ka halwa but didn’t get to taste that.

And that’s how we came full circle on Banaras, satisfied on all fronts of the food trail we set out to conquer!
Thank you Mallika @ The Oberoi for hosting us for this beautifully curated meal, and thank you Sangeeta for keeping the tradition going!

Blueberry Frangipane Wholegrain Tray Bake “I’ll be back before you can say Blueberry pie.”
Bruce Willis {Pulp Fiction}

Blueberry Frangipane Wholegrain Tray Bake, a tray that happened just because the galette failed. A friend recently got me some blueberries and they were a source  of constant inspiration. The pretty little deep blue berries had me fascinated. All day long I thought of how best to use them. Muffins, galettes, cheesecake, trifle, ice cream and so much more. Finally settled for a wholewheat galette!

Blueberries, food styling, rawWhat I ended up with was obviously far from it. While I was really pleased with the galette when it went into the oven, ten minutes later, I stared at a virtual meltdown. Disaster had struck. Like the rivers of Babylon, how the dough spread. The pastry spread to make a base, while everything else merrily leveled above it. Heartbroken, I left the disaster to bake, slamming the oven door shut in horror.Blueberries 3 1000I let it be for quite a bit, sitting to cool in the oven because I was heartbroken. Nothing much I could do I figured, and set out to make a trifle. Upcycle as Ruchira had cleverly suggested at my overbaked batch of Wholegrain Butterscotch Blondies. It made the most fab UpcycledButterscotch Blondie Pudding not so long ago. Clearly the more often I bake, the higher the chances of upcycling! Blueberry Frangipane Wholegrain Tray Bake Yet one look at the now settled tray seemed to suggest that all wasn’t lost. I stamped out shapes to salvage a few decent round cut outs while happy hungry mouths nibbled the left over edges away. No chance for trifles!! Turned out pretty delicious, and hence the Blueberry Frangipane Wholegrain Tray Bake was born. I’ve scaled the ingredients to match the tray bake, just the base has been reduced, while the rest remains pretty much the same. I did a test run with strawberries yesterday and that came out just as good too!

Recipe: Blueberry Frangipane Wholegrain Tray Bake your picture

Summary: Moist, full of wholesome almond and fruit flavour, here’s a tray bake that you might enjoy. The Blueberry Frangipane Wholegrain Tray Bake is a quick and fuss free bake for times when berries are in plenty. Makes one 8″ X 8″ tray.

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 45 minutes
Ingredients:

  • Wholewheat biscuit base
  • 110g wholewheat flour
  • 60g unsalted butter, chilled, chopped
  • 15g brown sugar
  • Pinch salt
  • 10ml apple cider vinegar
  • 40-50ml water
  • Frangipane
  • 75g butter
  • 75g brown sugar
  • 75g almond meal
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 tsp almond extract
  • 1 vanilla bean scraped
  • 150g Blueberries {or strawberries, cherries, peaches etc}
  • Almond flakes for garnishing

Method:

  1. Wholewheat biscuit base
  2. Place wholewheat flour, butter, brown sugar and salt in bowl of food processor and process briefly until you have a coarse mix. The butter should be pea sized.
  3. Add the vinegar and process briefly, then gently pour in enough water until it just about begins to come together when you pinch it between your fingertips. Don’t over work, else the pastry will become tough.
  4. Line the base of an 8″ X 8″ baking tin {or 7″ X 11″} with parchment paper. Lightly grease sides.
  5. Press the biscuit it evenly to line the bottom.
  6. Chill for 20 minutes while you preheat the oven, and make the frangipane.
  7. Frangipane
  8. Place butter, almond meal and brown sugar in same bowl of food processor and blend to mix.
  9. Add remaining ingredients and briefly process to mix. { Can be stirred together in a big bowl too.}
  10. Assemble
  11. Preheat the oven to 180C.
  12. Spread the frangipane over the chilled biscuit base, and scatter the blueberries over.
  13. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the frangipane feels set.
  14. Allow to cool for 30 minutes, then cut into squares or bars.
  15. Serve with unsweetened cream and extra berries if desired.

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Wholegrain Dark Chocolate Almond Biscotti“So much chocolate, so little time.”

Wholegrain Dark Chocolate Almond Biscotti … chocolate yet again because it was a hurried baking batch. Same story, different biscotti. With the better half set to travel and a last minute change in plans, I had little to almost no time to bake. I hurriedly threw these together this morning adapted from a recipe from Smitten Kitchen. One stop over at Deb’s blog, or leafing through her cookbook, leaves you inspired to hit baking mode.

Wholegrain Dark Chocolate Almond BiscottiFor me chocolate is one of the easiest and most forgiving mediums to bake with. With my hashtag #makehalfyourgrainswhole, I can blindly experiment, knowing in the end we’ll have something edible, if not delicious. Going the whole food way has been possibly one of the most satisfying journeys of my life, if not the most exciting. Makes me want to constantly experiment, try new things. That makes life a lot less mundane too. This biscotti did just that giving me room to change things around.Wholegrain Dark Chocolate Almond BiscottiHazelnuts out. Almonds in. I added butter since I often find biscotti a little ‘skinny’ or dry. Personal choice definitely but a delicious end nevertheless. I also added dark couverture chocolate just because I like cookies that have deep, chocolaty flavour. Cocoa powder often is not enough to get you the indulgent edge. Since I threw these together with limited time on hand, I cut the slices quite thick. Taking advice from Ruchira, next time I will freeze them a bit to try and get thinner biscotti. That is my dream and hopefully I get there one day. Biscotti with plain flour behaves a lot easier for thin slices, is also easier to handle. Thick chunky biscotti is a healthy trade off I guess!!

Recipe: Wholegrain Dark Chocolate Almond Biscotti your picture

Summary: Comfort cookies with deep chocolaty flavour, and toasted almonds just hitting the right notes. Wholegrain Dark Chocolate Almond Biscotti might just be the answer for comfort food; never mind what the question is!!

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour
Ingredients:

  • 75g almonds, toasted, roughly chopped
  • 50g unsalted butter
  • 75g dark chocolate
  • 1 tbsp espresso powder
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 150g wholewheat flour
  • 60g all purpose flour
  • 40g almond meal
  • 30g good quality cocoa powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 3/4 tsp baking powder
  • 200g brown sugar

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 180C. Line a heavy baking tray with parchment.
  2. Melt the butter and chocolate in the microwave, 1 min. Stir until smooth, then stir in espresso powder.
  3. In a large bowl stir together wholewheat flour, plain flour, almond meal, cocoa powder, salt, baking powder, baking soda, sugar and chopped almonds.
  4. Place the egg and vanilla extract in bowl of stand mixer. Whisk on high speed for 15 seconds, then add melted chocolate mix and stir on low speed for 15 seconds to combine.
  5. Add the dry mix and run mixer for 20-30 seconds on slow speed to combine. Don’t over work.
  6. Turn out onto work surface and divide into 2. Form into 2 long flat logs about 8-10″ long {or as desired}
  7. Transfer to prepared baking sheet, brush gently with water, and sprinkle over with brown sugar.
  8. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until firm to touch.
  9. Remove tray from oven, allow to cool for 5-10 minutes, then slice at an angle as thin as you like with a good sharp serrated knife.
  10. Reduce oven temperature to 150C. Return the sliced cookies back to the tray, cut side down {and up of course!} and bake for a further 20-25 minutes until crisp and dry.
  11. Cool completely on racks before storing.

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The Rabid Baker, The Times of India