Long known as one of the world’s holiest cities, India’s spiritual capital is now luring culinary pilgrims as it transforms into a vegetarian paradise.I
Inhabited since at least 1800 BC, Varanasi is well known for being among the oldest living cities on Earth, and one of the holiest for the world’s estimated 1.2 billion Hindus. Every day, as the sound of ringing temple bells echo overhead, tens of thousands of devotees descend the city’s 88 stone ghat steps and dip themselves into the Ganges river to wash away their sins. Bereaved relatives flock to Varanasi’s two cremation grounds where funeral pyres burn around the clock, believing that Shiva himself whispers the Tarak mantra (chant of liberation) into the ears of all those cremated here, granting them instant moksha or salvation.
However, my reasons for travelling to Varanasi were quite different. I didn’t come to confront death or cleanse my soul; I came to experience the city’s unique vegetarian food.
Driving through the city’s busy streets, Rakesh Giri, chauffeur and raconteur par excellence, told me how Shiva, the destroyer of the universe, had founded Varanasi in the days of yore, according to Hindu belief. Like most Varanasi residents, Giri is a fervent Shaivite (Shiva worshipper). And since followers of Shiva believe he is a vegetarian God, he and most other Varanasi residents follow a strict sattvic (“pure vegetarian”) diet.
“My family and I have been pure vegetarians for generations. We refuse to even drink water in a home where eggs are consumed,” Giri said as he dropped me off.
aranasi may be India’s spiritual capital, but it isn’t exactly known for luring culinary pilgrims. Most food travellers will likely flock to the country’s famous epicurean hubs of Delhi, Kolkata or Chennai before making their way to Varanasi. Yet, chefs from around the world are starting to draw inspiration from its culinary heritage, recreating its flavours in their restaurants.
Chef Vikas Khanna, who received a Michelin star each year from 2011 to 2016 when he ran Junoon in Manhattan, said he was bowled over by the vrat ke kuttu buckwheat-flour pancakes served in a single Varanasi temple. “I’ve tried my best to recreate it in my kitchen at Manhattan. It tastes heavenly,” Khanna told Lonely Planet in 2020.
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