Salvation In The Form Of Food

Religion, rituals and food – this is the holy trifecta of Benaras. Unknown to most, this sacred city is also home to the special Muslim Gharana cuisine, which is very different from its Awadhi counterpart. Anup Gupta, Executive Chef, of The Gateway Hotel Ganges Varanasi helps Vinita Bhatia uncover the nuances of this little-known cuisine.

The holy city of Benaras is sacred to most Hindus. Situated on the banks of River Ganga, piety is a commodity that exchanges hands everywhere, whether it is at the ghats where funeral pyres burn day and night, or at temples were every puja is accompanied to the sounds of cymbals clashing together in orchestrated cacophony.

Navigating the streets of Benaras, or Varanasi as it was once called, is no easy task. Cows amble languorously while motorists dexterously avoid dashing into pedestrians, who in turn are blissfully unaware about their escape from imminent disaster. All because they are too engrossed wolfing down Gol Guppas or Dahi Bhallas sold by the many street sellers dotting the cityscape!

This is proof that just like any other Indian city, the people of Benaras too have a great appetite for good food.

However, did you know that the predominantly Hindu city of Benaras has a strong Muslim influence that extends itself not just to local professions but also the regional cuisine? Hard as it is to believe, one third of Benaras’ population is Muslim, most of whom are traditionally involved in the business of weaving, carpet making and cooking.

"Though spicy, the Benarasi Muslim cuisine has a lighter note when compared to its richer Awadhi counterpart," - Anup Gupta, Executive Chef of The Gateway Hotel Ganges, Varanasi
“Though spicy, the Benarasi Muslim cuisine has a lighter note when compared to its richer Awadhi counterpart,” – Anup Gupta, Executive Chef of The Gateway Hotel Ganges, Varanasi

THE MUSLIM INFLUENCE
Muslims came to Benares in the 12th century during the reign of the Delhi Sultanate, when Mughals ruled a major part of northern India. In the 16th century, Emperor Akbar helped the city regain its position as an intellectual hub. As more people visited Benaras to gain knowledge, the local cuisine evolved to accommodate the dietary preferences of Mughals, Awadhis, Hindus and East Bengali travellers.

Benarasi cuisine has two major components – the Shudh Satvik Brahmin food eaten by devout Hindus and the meat-dominated Muslim Gharana fare. The latter, which is an offshoot of Moghlai cuisine, consists of several meat and rice preparations like Kebab, Kofta, Korma, Kheema, Pulao, Biryani, Parathas, Halwa, Firni, etc.

Traditionally served in metal or ceramic crockery, diners would sit on the floor of an ornate dastarkhwan and use their fingers to polish off their meal of dishes like Gosht Biryani, Shammi Kebab, Haleem, Kheema Matar, Harey Dhaniya Mirch Ka Murg, Kanthal Ki Sabji and various home-styled chutneys of fresh produce.

LIVING IN HARMONY
The hallmark of this food is its rusticity in preparation and presentation, involving the use of fresh ingredients. Spices are freshly pounded to make masalas that are infused directly into the food to give it a distinctive aroma, rather than opting for the potli style (tying spices in muslin pouches), which is synonymous with Awadhi cooking.

Biryani, ready to be served at a streetside eatery. The layers of meat are always hidden under layers of rice.
Biryani, ready to be
served at a streetside eatery. The layers of meat are always hidden under layers of rice.

Though spicy, the Benarasi Muslim cuisine has a lighter note when compared to its richer Awadhi counterpart. In fact, the Awadhi cooking style’s importance is evident in this cuisine where the gravies are usually tomato and onion-based. But the local palate has equally inspired the cooking pattern at large. While rice-based dishes are usually cooked in the Dum style, gravies get the Yakhni treatment and are cooked with churned yoghurt and spices.

Over the years, the Gharana cuisine has considerately reduced the inclusion of meat into its dishes, out of respect for Hindus who live
cheek by jowl with Muslims in the crowded alleys of Benaras. In what is a significant departure from the Muslim culinary tradition, Gharana breakfast menus exclude meat to include dishes like Benarasi Kachori Bhaji, Channa Ghughani and Jalebi with Kullad Chai.

So if you are fortunate enough to be the guest at a local Benaras Muslim home, don’t be surprised to find Shimla Mirch Masaley Ki Subzi, Lauki Ki Shammi, Suran Kebab, Dal Dhuan, Dum Biryani, Zarda Pulao, Shahi Tukda and Sheer Seviyan on the menu. It will be quite a revelation!

The hallmark of the dishes like this 'Harey Dhania Ka Murg' is its rusticity in preparation and presentation, involving the use of fresh ingredients.
The hallmark of the dishes like the ‘Harey Dhania Ka Murg’ is its rusticity in preparation and presentation, involving the use of fresh ingredients.

One ingredient that is common to both Saatvik and Gharana cuisine is desi ghee. Use of packaged ghee is frowned upon in most Benaras kitchens, where the ladies of the house either churn the ghee themselves or procure it from their milk vendor. Another interesting fact is that saffron, which is the spice of choice in most Muslim delicacies, is missing from non-vegetarian Gharana preparations, though it is used without restraint in desserts and sweetmeats.

If you wish to savor this hitherto unknown cuisine in Benaras, your best bet would be to check out the smaller dhabas found in the Dal Mandi, Madanpura and Mehmoorgaj pockets of the city. However, if dining at a dhaba is not your thing, head to The Gateway Hotel Ganges at Varanasi, which specializes in Gharana cuisine. And you will experience tastes will explode every theory you have harbored about Muslim cuisine.