‘When in Rome, do what the Romans do’. Going by the age-old saying, trying out the traditional ‘Baati Chokha’ in Varanasi is a must. Arguably Varanasi’s most famous and favoured restaurant for traditional meals, ‘Baati chokha’, has attained the status as the top most recommended place to enjoy the flavours of Eastern Uttar Pradesh in Varanasi.

‘Baati Chokha’ – is the flagship dish of the ‘Bhojpuri’ cuisine, which predominantly represents the cuisine of eastern Uttar Pradesh and western Bihar. ‘Baatis’ are made out of wheat flour dough and cooked on an open fire made out of either wood or coal and is often fuelled with cow dung, a unique method of cooking, providing it with a distinct smoky flavour.

Intrigued by this preparation method, we visited the exquisite ‘Baati Chokha’ restaurant. At the complex's entrance, we saw a huge grill over which two men continuously turned the round, semi-cooked Baatis. “In about 8-10 minutes, ‘Baatis’ would be ready”, replied the senior in charge, responsible for dishing out the amazing ‘Baatis’ served at this iconic restaurant.

Gauging our deep interest in exploring the authentic cuisine served at ‘Baati-Chokha’, we were ushered in and escorted to the first floor of the restaurant, where a big and beautiful hall, decorated with a traditional set-up, giving it a rural as well as comfortable dining set up. The place was packed, despite having a huge sitting capacity (Upwards of 200 people can sit and dine). We sat down squatting on the floor, on a cushioned ‘gaddi’, and service resumed, quickly filling up our ‘Thali’ with multiple dishes.

‘Baati Chokha’ offers different sets of meals, and depending on your preference, you can choose- ‘Baati Chokha Thali’, ‘Khichadi Thali’, ‘Roti Thali ‘or a ‘Dal Poori Thali’. As we wanted to explore the cuisine in depth, we ordered each of these 'Thalis’ for our group to try. While certain snacks, beverages, accompaniments and sweets were common to all 'Thalis', there were distinct features of each of the combinations served to us.

Baingan ka chokha

The meal started with a piece of ‘Phara or Fara’, ‘Dal ki Pakodi’ and a ‘Paneer Papad Pakodi’, to be enjoyed as a starter, with a spicy green chutney. The 'Phara' casing is made of rice flour dough stuffed with a mixture of ‘dal’ and spices. ‘Pharas’ can be steamed or fried. At ‘Baati Chokha’, the fried version was served, sliced, and well presented. It tasted delicious. ‘Dal Ki Pakodi’ and ‘Paneer papad Pakodi’ too were enjoyed for their flavours and crispness, preparing us for the heavier meal to follow.

Now was the turn for the star dish. Two big pieces of Smoky ‘Baatis’ were served. One was stuffed with ‘Sattoo’; a mixed flour made out of ‘Bengal gram and Barley, sometimes with additions of other grains and pulses. The other ‘Baati’ was stuffed with spiced ‘Paneer’ (Cottage Cheese). Two types of ‘Chokhas were served’, Aloo (Potatoes) Chokha’ and ‘Baingan (Aubergines) Chokha’. ‘Aloo’ or ‘Baingan’ is roasted and mashed. Green Chillies, spices and seasoning provide a spicy flavour; however, the critical elevation in taste comes from the pre-heated ‘Sarson ka Tel’ (Mustard Oil). The flavour of mustard oil with roasted vegetables gives it a unique flavour. Also, the addition of raw chopped onions, and coriander, provide it with an unbeatable texture and freshness. The best flavours of it can be enjoyed when eaten along with an authentically made ‘Baatis’, which is the Restaurant's speciality.

A generous amount of ‘Ghee’ (Clarified Butter) is poured atop the ‘Baatis’, which makes it soft and rich in flavours. Break the 'Baatis’ into small pieces, and pour the slow-cooked and tempered yellow dal over it. Add a bit of ‘Chokha’ to each bite you take, enjoy it with some green chutney if you like, bite on raw onions provided as a salad, or to tone down the spice level, add a bit of yoghurt’. It’s truly a fantastic experience, a melody on your palate, speaking volumes about the depth and taste of the cuisine of Purvanchal.

Khichadi Thali

Khichadi Thali

Those opting for a ‘Khichadi Thali’ can enjoy this delicious, healthy and nutritious preparation of rice and lentils cooked together over low flame. Spiked with Jeera (Cumin) tempering and copious amount of ’Ghee’ that goes into the ‘Khichadi’, enjoying It alternatingly with different accompaniments like chutney, Chokha and yoghurt is a delightful experience for any gastronome looking for a traditional Indian culinary affair.

Roti Thaali

Those who love ‘Rotis’ and wish to try the extensive vegetarian affair of the ‘Bhojpuri cuisine’ can try the ‘Roti thali, served with special curries. The first dish that took our notice was the ‘Banarasi Dum Aloo’. A popular dish from Varanasi, these dum aloos are fried baby potatoes cooked in a rich gravy. The perfect balance of chillies, herbs and spices makes it an ideal companion to soft and ghee-soaked ‘Rotis’ served at ‘Baati Chokha’ Restaurant.

A choice of ‘Paneer Sabzi’, a mixed vegetable sabzi, and the delicious Dal, was served in the ‘Thali’, along with rice and papad. Altogether, sitting in a traditional set up of the ‘Baati Chokha’ Restaurant, enjoying the generous and courteous hospitality of the restaurant staff, the traditional food of Purvanchal, in probably its best rendition outside of home kitchens, is an experience worth a trip to Varanasi.

Roti Thali

To make things sweeter, we ended our meal with a combination of irresistible desserts served at ‘Baati Chokha’. We tried a trio of ‘Moong Dal ka Halwa’, ‘Kheer’ and ‘Churma’. Woah! As I wrote this sentence, my mouth watered, imagining the taste of the ‘Desi Ghee ka Moong Dal Halwa’. The texture and flavours of this sweet preparation were bang on! It was simply addictive; we asked for repeats!

Each ‘Thali’ is priced at Rs 325. At such reasonable prices, enjoying the array of traditional dishes from the region certainly leaves you with no reason to miss this authentic and memorable dining experience. Varanasi as a city offers a wide range of culinary marvels for you to enjoy; with such a positive environment all around this epic town on the banks of the holy river Ganga, visiting ‘Baati Chokha’ Restaurant will undoubtedly aid the sense of satisfaction you get as you explore the ancient city of Banaras. It's truly a gastronomical delight!

Sidharth Bhan Gupta is a Hospitality/F&B Consultant travelling across India exploring regional cuisines.