They say Banarasi boli is sweet – the dialect spoken in the city. But what I miss the most is the chaat and the sweets of Banaras, and of course, the old world charm of exploring the city via its galis and gazing into the unknown across the Ganges while sitting on its ghats.
Varanasi has been home to many Bengalis which has resulted in good sweet shops over the centuries where you can get authentic sweets made from chhena (type of cheese curd in India, similar to cottage cheese). And then there are many varieties of sweets made of khoya (solidified dried milk used in India to make sweets). Keeping with the times, you see new recipes and new kind of sweets being sold not just in newer establishments but also in many of these old shops. I, however, search for the taste of my childhood and thus, go for old favourites which are either not available in Delhi-NCR or do not taste the same.
For the last few years, my first stop when I land in the city always is a sweet shop on the way to the BHU campus to eat couple of rajbhogs – to sate the hunger till I can explore other sweets of Banaras.
Made of chhena with a khoya, saffron and cardamom roundel stuffing, and dipped in sugar syrup this chilled ball of sweetness tastes of bliss after hours of travelling.
I am not a sweet person, but I make exception to the Rajbhog when I can have two at a time, with may be space for even one more.
Few years back, I wrote about the Tirangi barfi of Banaras, popular during the Independence movement of India symbolising the unity and diversity of the country. Made earlier from kaju (cashews), badam (almonds), saffron, and pista (pistachios), the cost and the diet both prohibitive today, it is now totally made of khoya – but it remains a popular sweet especially during Independence Day and Republic Day in the city. My favourite place to have this is from a 170 year old shop Ram Bhandaar in Thathari Bazaar of the Chowk area in the old part of Banaras, and sometimes when I cannot make the trek to this place, I buy it from another childhood favourite shop Madhur Jalapan at Godowalia.
Another old favourite is a mithai called badi from Ram Bhandaar – shaped either in the form of peda (sphere) or a gujiya (crescent shaped dumplings), made again from khoya and filled with small cut pieces of mishri (sugar candy). It is a sweet that travels well if you have to carry it back with you. I am not sure if this is available elsewhere though I have not seen it in other shops.
Kheer Kadam – a family favourite Bengali specialty also tastes very different in Varanasi and Kolkata, and I always bring it back with me. A different recipe but made of khoya and chhena and coated with poppy seeds, it is also called Raskodom in Bengal.
The Bengali favourite Rasogulla unfortunately cannot be brought back, so I end up having it only during visits – similar to Rajbhog recipe without its stuffing and saffron colour, but after having the spongy sweet ball in the hometown, the version available at Haldiram and other non-Bengali outlets of Delhi-NCR just doesn’t taste as sweet.
What about vegetable mithai – yes, you read it right. Banaras also has sweets made of vegetables – the most popular being parwal ki mithai – made of pointed gourd. Stuffed with khoya and dry fruits and dipped in sugar syrup, unless you are told that it is a mithai made of parwal, you would not be able to make it out. Obviously, not a favourite of many!
My absolute favourite is malai gilori – given the name because of the shape of paan gilori (stuffed betel leaf commonly used in India as a mouth fresher). Made of malai or milk cream and stuffed with dry fruits mixed with sugar and khoya, it is a delicacy which relies heavily on unadulterated fresh milk cream and has to be consumed the same day. One of the main reasons why one should buy this only from a trusted shop. This melt in the mouth sweet triangle is the only way I eat cream, and you just cannot have one!
I also make it a point to have the typical Banarasi breakfast of kachori-jalebi at least once during every trip to hometown – available at many sweet as well as other food shops across every nook and corner of the city, the tastes differ at every place but it is a soul satisfying start to the day.
And how can a visit end without some spiritual journey? A trip to famous Sankatmochan temple for Hanuman Darshan and of course, its famous lal pedas for Prasad or offering not just for the Monkey God but for oneself too.
These are some of my absolute favourites out of the many many different kinds of sweets from Banaras. Once you taste them, you will remember the sweetness forever!
These are few of my favourite sweets from my hometown Banaras!
P.S. Photos copyright @poojasodhi77 Pooja Sodhi – the author of the blog.