I wrote this while traveling and shooting for another season of The Great Indian Rasoi. A lovely winter morning in Benaras, talking to proud and passionate groups of people. Every time I visit this city there is an omnipresent carefree air that defines the city for me. I believe, being the city of moksha has done that for Benaras over the millennia. Sometime being close to death helps define your perspective towards life!! Here it has defined a whole city….
First stop Laxmi Tea House, Chowk. Laxmi Prasad Chaurasia now in his 80s sits across a gullah, a frail figure with a wad of notes in his left hand and a keen eye on the brisk business happening in the now huge tea shop. After having made Benarasi Paan for the first 25 years of his life he chose to make chai out of sheer whim. This was 1966. ‘My tea was simple and honest’, he says. ‘I never added any spices or flavouring. Those days amazing variety of tea were available and I just brewed and blended the right quantity for the right time. I’ve still not been able to understand how this simple tea could create such traffic jams that the city administration had to move me inside the gulli for the sake of better traffic’!!!
The shop still sells only tea and fire roasted toast like it would in 1966. No nashta in Benaras is complete without kachori. And my next stop was a new kachori friend Bharat Lal Sharma who owns a small and simple 50 square feet corner shop in chowk. Again, selling only two things – Kachori, which had the thinnest crust that I have seen; and a mind blowing Mawa Jalebi. The beauty of kachori was that you needed no chutney for sweetness. The sweetness came from the fresh and seasonal winter green peas.
The mawa jalebi was an unforgettable dream. It was pedas of pure mawa dipped in jalebi batter; crisp fried and soaked in rose scented syrup. The mawa was unsweetened, perfectly centered and brought an amazing balance to the sweet outer layer. I do care about my diet yet I finished six of these fritters!!! Next time, when in chowk I would highly recommend these beauties.
All in all the beauty of Benaras is in its simplicity which reflects beautifully in such corner shops, which have been selling only a couple of simple recipes over generations. For me the phrase – “simpler the better” has found a new meaning in Benaras.