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The Masala Dabba #4, our spice journey“Chili, spice of red Thursday, which is the day of reckoning. Day which invites us to pick up the sack of our existence and shake it inside out. Day of suicide, day of murder.”
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, The Mistress of Spices

Time for The Masala Dabba #4 & Chettinad Chicken Curry. Both very delayed yet finally here. This time I’m lagging behind royally. Chilies was the pick for the month of April, and we’re well into May now June.  I can’t say I didn’t try because I began writing this in May, but life happened! One month ran into another, time racing at an alarming pace. It was just yesterday, in January 2016, when we began the spice journey. June already! Really? Where did April and May go?Chilies from Karaikudi

Chettinad Chicken Curry Only me to blame even as I thought April was going to be the most explosive spice journey ever as Dolphia picked chilies. Just back refreshed from a very exciting trip from down south in Karaikudi {do read about it here}, chilies was all I had on my mind. The vibrancy of the region we had just visited added to it. Heritage, colour, culture, architecture, art, cuisine, shopping…Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaAs I rather belatedly enter month #4 of our collaborative spice journey exploring or rather ‘shooting’ spices, a fun interaction with Dolphia, Simi, Meeta and me, April was for chilies. I really love the spice journey and the stories it carries with it. Personal tales, heritage recipes, travelogues and all sorts of inspiration that connect us as community. My story this time comes from Karaikudi, a region deep in the heart of South India.Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaOur stay at Chidambara Vilas, then a masterclass on world famous Chettinad Chicken Curry, stops at other heritage properties in the region and local market jaunts,  that included shopping for guntu chilies, inspires this post. Not least, my companions in crime, the two vegetarian bloggers Sanjeeta and Madhuli, who were more than ready to dive into chicken curry as the chef stirred it up, chilies and all!Gundu Chilies from Karaikudi This is just what Chettinad cuisine is all about, freshness and simple local flavour. Pure delight – the aromas of whole spices and shallots hitting hot oil, the curry leaves crackling, the colours, fresh simple ingredients, the location an outdoor heritage courtyard kitchen, the company, the curry! Sunset, Chidambaram Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaThe women of the Chettinad community were instrumental to managing the vast estates and running kitchens, often while the men were away. {More about the region here}. Easily available local spices and ingredients, traditional cooking methods and a deep interest in food led to a vast repertoire of recipes collectively called Chettinad cuisine. Chettinad Chicken Curry, Masterclass @ Chidambara Vilas, KaraikudiChettinad chicken is the regions most popular export to the culinary world, and it was nowhere fiery and spicy as I believed. A traditional recipe, it’s made with very basic ingredients. Spice mixes from roasted spices, ginger, garlic, shallots, tomatoes, curry leaves and coconut paste. Red chilies of course! Chilies from Karaikudi Shooting spices is therapeutic, inspiring and always fun. I mean, can you not fall in love with an ingredient that promises so much colour, character, variety and texture? Consider the fact that there are as many uses as varieties around the world and the charm multiplies! I’m thinking chili chocolate. Mmmm…Chilies from KaraikudiCooking curry is equally therapeutic and fun. You just need a basic recipe in your head, then go about throwing in as much spice, or as little, as you like. Taste as you go. I do loads of North Indian chicken curries at home, so this authentic South Indian one was even more engaging. Chettinad Chicken Curry Of course I deviated here and there. Bay leaves tossed in, fresh mint tossed over. That’s just the charm of curries. Follow your palate.Chettinad Chicken Curry

Chettinad Chicken Curry
Print Recipe
Chettinad Chicken Curry; mildly hot, tangy and finger licking good. Simple basic pantry staples and a coconut paste ​​make for a hearty good curry. This is my rendition of the curry we learnt at the masterclass.
Servings Prep Time
4-6 people 20 minutes
Cook Time
30 minutes
Servings Prep Time
4-6 people 20 minutes
Cook Time
30 minutes
Chettinad Chicken Curry
Print Recipe
Chettinad Chicken Curry; mildly hot, tangy and finger licking good. Simple basic pantry staples and a coconut paste ​​make for a hearty good curry. This is my rendition of the curry we learnt at the masterclass.
Servings Prep Time
4-6 people 20 minutes
Cook Time
30 minutes
Servings Prep Time
4-6 people 20 minutes
Cook Time
30 minutes
Ingredients
750g chicken on the bone, cut into 12 pieces {skinless}
Spice 1 / Dry mix
1 tsp ginger paste
Spice 2 / Coconut paste
Servings: people
Instructions
  1. First make the spice mixes. These can be doubled, and/or made in advance. Store the dry mic=x in a cool place, and the wet mix in the fridge for 2-3 days, else freeze.
  2. Spice mix 1 / Dry mix
  3. Roast the fennel, cumin seeds, red chili, coriander seeds and pepper gently over low heat until fragrant. Dry grind. Reserve in bowl.
  4. Spice mix 2 / Coconut paste
  5. Roast the cashew nuts, coriander seeds, cumin, red chilies, fennel and black pepper gently over low heat until fragrant. Grind to a smooth paste with ginger, garlic and grated coconut. Reserve.
  6. Heat the oil in large heavy bottom pan or wok. Add cinnamon stick, star anise and fennel, followed by curry leaves. Give it a good stir and add the shallots. Sauté until the shallots are golden brown and fragrant.
  7. Add Spice Mix 1 {dry masala mix}, ginger paste, chopped tomatoes, coriander powder and turmeric powder. Stir well and cook until the tomatoes are soft, stirring once in a while.
  8. Add the chicken pieces and stir well to coat them with the spices, followed by crushed garlic. Add a little water, about a cup, stir well, season with salt and simmer until the chicken is cooked.
  9. Now stir in the coconut paste or Spice Mix 2, fresh coriander. Garnish with fresh coriander {or mint as I did}
  10. Serve hot with rice or chapatis, paratha, naan, tandoori roti etc.
Share this Recipe

Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India“Every dreamer knows that it is entirely possible to be homesick for a place you’ve never been to, perhaps more homesick than for familiar ground.”
Judith Thurman

This year has been a bit of a travel story. Yet when food meets regional cuisine, it cooks up a charming new story each time not matter which part of the world you go to. India is no different, but it is much more complex. Every city surprises you with so much variety that regional cuisine takes up a new avatar. A trip to Lakshman Sagar in Rajasthan early this year, then a much planned and absolutely exciting trip into Banaras the next month filled my head with stories, the camera with images that would live to tell the tale, and the stomach so full. As if that wasn’t enough, there was one more trip that was surreal.Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India This one. To Karaikudi. What’s that? Where? Huh? Those were the questions folk asked when they heard the 3 of us, Sanjeeta, Madhuli and I were bound for the Chettinad region. It’s not everyday that one would head to Karaikudi, a city buried deep down south, an overnight train journey from Chennai. To be honest, it was a pretty hair-brained plan, a plan to shop, eat, to catch up with each other after we met at the IFBM 2 years ago. Also a plan to explore a region that had long fascinated me, with stories from Sanjeeta who’d been there several times. I had dreamt about it for a few years.Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaNothing prepares you for what you might see, or rather experience in this region. As the train slowed down entering the suburbs of Puddukotai, we got a tiny glimpse – an abandoned mansion, tall pillars, arches, tiled roof, large yard, hidden stories, right in the middle of nowhere! As the train pulled into Chettinad, a neat little almost private station, it’s a different time zone altogether. Alongside the station lies the former resting house of the Raja of Chettinad, and you enter a fascinating part of history.

Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaSlow country life, no one in a hurry, gentle quiet folk, the echo of chai/coffee, sun already sharp 7am, azure blue skies, monkeys bouncing off trees. History greets you as you hit the highway. In the distance the Thirumayam Fort, a fortress built by the Raja of Ramnad in 1687 stands tall. Next to it, a rock cut temple. Thirumayam Fort, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaKaraikudi the biggest city in Sivaganga district is known as the capital of Chettinad, because of the predominance of the ‘Nattu Kottai Chettiars’. This elite business community, a prosperous group of bankers/money lenders, expanded their business to South and South East Asia in the 19th and 20th century, mainly towards Ceylon and Burma. Changing winds of trade and world politics eventually led them backto India, where they made this their traditional base.Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaThis 600 acre region is home to 74 villages. Barren roads, scant traffic, an odd scooter/moped, cattle, laid back lifestyle, huge mansions, local Chettinad food and temples dominate the landscape. Paddy fields, fresh ground spices, temples, tall trees, tiled roofs, community water tanks, roosters, cattle, peacocks pretty much make up the local environment. And those mansions! That is possibly the most fascinating part of the Chettinad, a rich cultural heritage hidden deep in South India.Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India

Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaWhile the area is dotted by almost 20,000 massive mansions, most have fallen to decay. Stripped by greedy antique dealers, locked over custody battles, or just plain abandoned, a few have been painstakingly restored to their former glory. Painstakingly indeed because it is no minor task given the power, opulence and finances this money lending community enjoyed. One such lovingly restored residence is the Chidambaram Vilas, a luxury heritage property near Karaikudi, that we experienced on our short visit there.

Chidambaram Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India The heritage rooms at Chidambara Vilas recreates the ambience of authentic Chettiar lifestyles. This is visible in the attention to details, from the vintage hand operated panka fans to even the switches which are designed in a format from a previous era. This is also reflected in the furnishings to the lighting and the design elements like Athangudi tiles, the wooden roofing and panelling. Chidambaram Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India The rooms at Chidambara Vilas are the most authentic Chettiar experience available today, and is the result of a painstaking effort at renovation, which involved the use of innovative and creative techniques to blend old world charm without compromising on luxury.

Chidambaram Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India One step into the cool interiors of Chidambaram Vilas, the reception yielding way to covered corridors, stone courtyards, fine wood work, Italian marble, carved beams in Burma teak, handmade tiles, egg white washed walls, fine chandeliers, grandfather clocks. You know this is something special, maybe more than special. The interiors aren’t very flashy yet scream good quality and craftsmanship, refined taste and a subdued grandeur reflective of the Chettiars. Chidambaram Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India Tranquility defined our stay there, a strange peace and quiet that one craves for. The perfect symmetry held my attention, the intricate designs mesmerising. Pillars, wooden beams, tiles, stained glass, doors, chairs, windows, arches – everything handcrafted in beautiful patterns. Unbelievable. The aesthetics, the colour palette, the soothing marble meets wood and wood meets marble.

Chidambaram Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India 5The sheer scale of near royal magnificence cannot be put into words. I tried to capture some of this well restored heritage property that took about 3 years to be brought back to its former glory. There are a clutch of heritage properties that operate out of restored mansions in the region. Staying here comes at a bit of a cost, but it’s justified. You won’t find this anywhere in the world. Chidambaram Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India It’s difficult to imagine that some of the finest residential properties of the world are nested here in a rather unknown corner of the world. Every minute here was worth our time. Here just for 2 days and a night, we decided to make most of our precious trip. Cuisine, architecture and temples are the three things that seem to define Chettinad. Temples, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India

Temples, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India A temple every 200 yards or so, and a good chance of coming eye to eye with a rooster in the next! Tea and coffee roadside shacks, deep fried snacks, palm jaggery, rangolis, fresh produce, flowers to offer God, water bodies, well laid out roads, old mansions, simple folk, cows, cricket, so much in this scorching heat. Oh yes, and little kids dressed in their Sunday best for the quintessential temple visit.Tea, Pillaiyarpatti, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India

Karpppaga Vinayar Temple, Pillaiyarpatti, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India

Karpppaga Vinayar Temple, Pillaiyarpatti, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India

Karpppaga Vinayar Temple, Pillaiyarpatti, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaIndia is absolutely fascinating! We immersed ourselves in the ambiance, authentic and exciting, both at Chidambaram Vilas and driving around the region.  The Chettinad belt is possibly most famous across the world for its cuisine as the Chettiars specialised in good food.Masterclass, Chicken Chettinad, Chettinadu cuisine, Chidambaram Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India The most famous of course is the Chettinadu Chicken Curry for which we had a masterclass at Chidambaram Vilas. My other companions, vegetarians to boot, were ready to devour the curry once made as it smelt SO GOOD. Of course I came back and stirred one at home, and will share the chefs version soon. The Chettinadu Chicken Curry is as simple as it is flavourful. Very frugal, basic pantry ingredients resulted in delicious curry, finger licking good curry! As characteristic of regional Indian cuisine, every household has its own version.Chettinadu cuisine ,Chidambaram Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaThe women of the community were instrumental to managing the vast estates and running kitchens, often while the men were away. Easily available local spices and ingredients, traditional cooking methods and a deep interest in food led to a vast repertoire of recipes collectively called Chettinad cuisine. Chettinad chicken is the regions most popular export to the culinary world, and it was nowhere fiery and spicy as I believed. A traditional recipe, it is made with very basic ingredients, spice mixes from roasted spices, ginger, garlic, shallots, tomatoes, curry leaves and of course coconut paste. Masterclass, Chicken Chettinad, Chettinadu cuisine, Chidambaram Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaMeals served Chettiar style, on banana leaves, make up a typical lunch meal, as lavish and as filling as it sounds. Beginning with a rasam, drumstick or beetroot, a sweet rice offering, a line of kuttoos, pickles, chutneys, papad, crispy fried banana chips, dal vada, rice, sambhar, quintessential drizzle of ghee, fried fish, yogurt raita, a sago pudding or payasam to finish. The helping might be just a tbsp each, yet by then end of the meal you can barely move.Chettinadu cuisine, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India We retired to our room for an hour, and then set out under the blazing sun to look around Karaikudi. A visit to the local market was delightful. Small scale sellers, FRESH greens, organic produce, a very ‘farm to table’ slow living existence. They are a self sufficient community. You find everything and more there. Vegetables, sacks of spices, coconuts, coconut graters, rope, cast iron pans, woven baskets, pickling jars.Chettinadu cuisine, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India A step deeper into the market into dusty unnamed by-lanes revealed treasures we’ve been waiting for. Karaikudi is virtually a shoppers paradise for vintage lovers and collectors. It’s not easy to get around and communicate as language is a hindrance so do get a good local guide {or a willing local friend as was our case}. Begin walking and wander around nameless little alleyways, up nondescript staircases, into dusty rooms and keep your eyes open. You never know what you might spot! Kitchen collectibles is what we went for, and that we got plenty of, or rather saw!Shopping in Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India Enamelware by the truckload, every shape and size makes your heartbeat race, race too quick. Yet there is only that much you can stuff into a suitcase, so it’s more a feast for your eyes. Rows upon rows of kitchenware which once made up dowry for new Chettiar brides line every nook and corner. Nothing comes cheap anymore. Different quality cook and serve ware demands different prices, including fine quality enamelware from Sweden and Czechoslovakia. Shopping in Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaMost enamelware was never used, still with labels on from a 100 years ago, as it didn’t suit local traditional cooking methods. It was local tradition to gift the Chettiar bride fine imported enamelware, crystal, silverware etc. Most enamelware has landed up in sheds for sale. There was loads of brass ware too as it is hardly used in houses now, stainless steel having won the battle of modern day cookware!Shopping in Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India

Shopping in Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India Most shops are a cornucopia of everything. An odd chandelier hangs lonely from the ceiling, a rocking chair high up on a shelf, enamelware and earthenware mixed up, some china that’s lost its family, odd pieces, dust laden. Family portraits dumped into large rooms, once lovingly shot in studios and framed for grand walls, now on sale without buyers. Every piece had perhaps a hidden story of glorious days gone by, days that fell to nought with depleting fortunes.

Shopping in Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India The second world war called an end to the golden age of the Chettiar moneylenders as local politics meant the shut down of banking businesses in Myanmar, Burma etc. Their massive fortunes disappeared overnight, the community forced to return to India. Shopping in Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaWhile they still are a very influential banking community in India, especially down south, those days of glory never returned. Large hand crafted iron keys and infinite heavy safes in all sizes and dimensions stand silent testimony to the times gone by. You can imagine the fortunes they guarded!Sunrise at rooftop, Chidambaram Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaEarly morning we attempted to see sunrise from the rooftop of the Chidambaram Vilas. Up a spiral stairwell in pitch dark, the seemingly never-ending stone steps were like a page out of an Enid Blyton book, mysterious and almost claustrophobic. One step onto the rooftop of and it was just another world. Sunrise at rooftop, Chidambaram Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaThe tops of the Vilas bathed in early morning light were a stunning sight. Beautiful architecture, palatial mansions as far as the eye could see. Most of them abandoned, in a state of neglect, yet the vastness of the community in good times was palpable. Each house has its own architecture, its individual character, bits and bobs from Ceylon, maybe Burma. Yet most big mansions follow a similar basic layout. An external entrance area/courtyard, a reception, an inner enclosed hallway, then maybe a private courtyard bathed in sunlight often covered by grills, surrounded my numerous living quarters, separate dining areas for every course, outhouses for staff, community and private kitchens etc.

Chettinadu cuisine, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India The houses hold hidden tales of the golden years, of untold riches, of classy extravagance beyond belief. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you wake up to the foolish knowledge that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Most mansions are jaw dropping from within. One such house we stopped by to see was Laxmi Vilas, which has been maintained like a local museum and charges a fee to look around. Quite an unassuming property, a small entrance right on the street, yet one step within and it’s like entering a period home where India meets Europe. Laxmi Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India

Laxmi Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India Italian marble, mirrors from Belgium, Belgian tiles that cover the floor and ceiling, gold touched fittings, hand painted frescoes both from Europe and local mythology, Burma teak pillars. Outer courtyards that yield way to inner courtyards, that further yield way inner most courtyard, doors with numbers, tiles that celebrate an era of plenty, dining rooms to seat hundreds, with wooden beams and high ceilings, woodwork on wooden ceilings that feel like a church in England, stained glass, doors and windows that open in all directions. Some opening into outhouses, huge community kitchens, everything reflecting meticulous planning and superior quality. Laxmi Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaThere was a method to the design, deeply thought and well executed. Every door and window made to exact specs, hand-carved wooden beams, etched glass, murals. The mind wonders, ‘HOW? How was so much even possible?’ Prime teak from Burma was tied to ships sailing across high seas and delivered to Indian shores, well seasoned by sea water along the way. The teak still stands tall. The same for spiral wrought iron staircases from Manchester. Failing fortunes meant a generation of artisans lost, livelihoods lost to politics of the world.Visalam, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaYet another heritage property we stopped by was Visalam. That is another stunning ‘experience hotel, an 80 year old traditional home built by a father as a gift for his daughter. It has a hugely colonial feel to it, yellow verandahs, bougainvilleas, water harvesting pots, shaded courtyards, lush green lawns, a traditional kitchen and master classes, an in house baker, a spiral staircase imported from Manchester, big game room drenched with rays of the setting sun, Belgian mirrors, vintage Phillip radio, old ceiling fans, board games – every detail so fascinating. Visalam, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India We were invited to Visalam for a meal, but with our tight schedule all we managed was a hurried cup of coffee, a delicious wholewheat banana cashew loaf cake baked inhouse, and addictive  paniyarams served in a quaint poolside cafe. Bliss! Such a pretty place, and so vastly different from the others. So much character! Most luxury properties built pools later; that was not part of local culture a 100 years ago.Visalam, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India 1000Most villages with mansions are well laid out, in a grid system, where often it is one mansion per street. A look down and you can see the whole house, one end to the other, then visualise what lies behind the tall stone walls. Several garage doors, doors to outhouses, little balconies all open into side streets.

Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India

Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India The main porch shines like a beacon and opens into the main street. The richer the Chettiar, the bigger his mansion, the closer it often is to the center of the village. The centre often has a community water body, with a temple alongside. Interestingly, the region houses one little village that is under 100% CCTV coverage. The mansions here have too many valuables within to ship out, so this particular community got together to secure the village!Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaIn the short time we were in Karaikudi, we also managed a trip into Athangudi to see how floor tiles are made. Tile making here is a traditional local craft. Tiles handmade here are in vibrant colours, reflective of the rich cultural heritage of the Chettiar community. They have their own distinct charm.

Athangudi Tiles, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India

Athangudi Tiles, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India It’s a fascinating process, a skill which is slowly fading away, yet is world famous. The tiles are handmade mixing white cement, sand and pigments, then poured into molds. With increasing wear and tear on Belgian tiles, it became expensive to constantly import them. That created a demand for local tiles, and the artisans believed that the earth from their land was best suited for these.Athangudi Tiles, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India

Athangudi Tiles, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India 3Designs from European tiles were replicated and mixed with local colours to develop a characteristic local specialty in dusty hot corrugated roofed sheds. These tiles are 100% handmade, eco friendly and are being used across hotels and homes in the region. The process is time consuming, labour intensive, and also a dying legacy due to limited artisans. They are quite expensive and have carved a small niche for themselves.Sunrise, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India

Sunset, Chidambaram Vilas, Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaWhat we didn’t manage was to see was the weaving of cotton sarees that are special to the region, the kandaangis. In earthy bold hues like the colours of the rising and setting southern sun, orange, red and black dominate the weave. If Banarsi saris are inspired by the hues of sunrise, then the kandaangi weave truly meets the sun on the other side. A stop by the weavers was on our list of things to do, but we just couldn’t manage it. We’ll be back!Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India Still we managed much more than we could ever imagine. 2 days can never be enough for a place as beautifully, and as historically and culturally rich like this. Karaikudi, Chettinad, South IndiaI’d definitely like to go back again, maybe when it is cooler. There’s so much more to explore, so many heritage sites in the region, ongoing ASI excavations, forts, temples, artisans, kitchens. Also so many more doors and windows, small things that fascinate me. Here are some I managed to capture.Doors and windows of Karaikudi, Chettinad, South India Incredible! Just so incredible!!

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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!