Banarasi khana is unique in its taste – very different from its Western UP counterpart or even Punjabi cuisine. Banarasi cuisine over centuries has created its own taste with influence from Bihar and Bengal, even taken inspiration from Muslim rulers and inhabitants. In Banaras, one even finds an Italian pizzeria, a Japanese restaurant or a Lebanese cafe which is comparable to leading restaurants in the country.
Banarasi cuisine is best experienced at homes or at small roadside makeshift shops. Being born and brought up in the city, I had never heard of Banaras Satvik thali offered by Taj Hotels till a few years back. So before quitting Banaras I had to have a taste of it with a family lunch two years back on my birthday.
Between four of us, we chose two each of vegetarian and non-vegetarian thalis. The vegetarian Banarasi thali was Satvik in preparation – cooked without onion and garlic, with as minimum spices as required. While the non-vegetarian cuisine had a distinct flavour unique to the region – inspired from the food of muslims and hindus alike.
Being the end of winter season, both winter and summer vegetables were represented in the Satvik vegetarian thali. The methi-aloo (fresh fenugreek leaves cooked with potatoes) sabzi was cooked in traditional home-style, while the Banarasi speciality nimona made of minced green peas was to die for. The lauki (bottle gourd) vegetable with tomatoes had just the right tang to it, and the dry parwal (pointed gourd) sabzi was a surprise – the vegetable was not yet seen in the market, but it was surprisingly fresh. The yellow dal tadka was too delicious and I was tempted to order more. Another eastern UP preparation – baingan kalonji (stuffed baby eggplant) completed the vegetarian meal with dahi, rice and roti staples.
The non-vegetarian thali had both the goat’s meat and chicken gravy – both equally delicious. It was accompanied by dal makhani and shikhampuri kebab, both were quite average. The vegetarian section was represented by dum aloo banarasi and the parwal sabzi – very home like preparations from the region. This thali also had mutton biryani with raita and I quite liked it.
To round of the meal, there was a choice of gulab jamun and rasmalai, we ordered both between the family. For my taste both were very sweet, and I was quite happy to give it a miss. But my mother loved the gulab jamun – given the fact that she herself excels at making the same and does not like eating it from any other place, it was definitely the highlight of the meal for her.
A Banarasi paan would have been fitting end to this meal, but sadly it was not there. Also, a local refreshing drink at the beginning of the meal would also have been appreciated. At approximately Rs 1000 a thali, it was little steep for a fixed meal thali and I believe that the prices have since then increased even more. But for visitors to Banaras who want to experience local flavours of food, this thali especially the vegetarian version at Taj Gateway Hotel Ganges (preferred the simpler name Taj Ganges before they rebranded their hotels) is the best way to have a taste of Banaras.