Originating in Punjab, India, the lassi — a drink consisting of yogurt, water, spices and sometimes fruits and other flavorings — is simply delicious. India can get very hot and the food can be spicy, so these traditional drinks offered a tasty way to refresh from the afternoon heat throughout my three-week trip. But nowhere did I enjoy the lassi as much as I did in Varanasi.
Lassi Culture In Varanasi
Funnily enough, Varanasi is not really known for being a “foodie” city. Instead, this is the spiritual capital of India, with pilgrims coming from all over the country to bathe in the Ganges Rivers — or Mother Ganga — to rid themselves of their sins.
It’s also where people come to die, literally. Twenty-four hours a day, the bodies of the dead are attached to wood, sprinkled with ghee and incense, and burned. Their ashes are then sprinkled into the Ganga in an effort to rescue their soul from the cycle of rebirth and instead send them to heaven. The ritual is done right in the open on the burning ghat, and I myself witnessed it from a raised platform overhead.
For those who can’t afford this ritual, the bodies are sometimes simply dumped into Mother Ganga.
Not exactly meal chatter, but getting back to the lassis…
Crazy Lassi Concoctions
My first taste of Varanasi’s amazing lassis came while wandering through the main market in the Old City. The winding narrow lanes were crowded and loud, not quite as chaotic as Old Delhi’s, but definitely overwhelming. Shop owners aggressively beckoned me into their stores, while cows trotted up the streets doing their business. Motorbikes whizzed past me, honking as they drove through lanes that definitely should’ve been deemed too small for vehicles. Who knows, maybe they were. In India there never seems to be any hard rules.
While I enjoyed the madness for the glimpse of local life it provided me, I was thankful to sneak away into a surprisingly empty lassi shop called Blue Lassi, open since 1925 and still in the same Yadav family. Despite being a hole in the wall — quite literally, as you walk almost into a giant hole in the concrete wall and into a tiny room — this is one of the most famous lassi shops in all of India. Their lassis feature no artificial additives and they use only seasonal ingredients. They’re also extra creamy and you can order yours in almost every flavor imaginable; coconut, chocolate, banana, papaya, strawberry, saffron, mango, cashew, pomegranate, apple, coffee, pistachio, blueberry, grape, guava, orange, pear, pineapple — not to mention combinations of all of the above!
Modern lassi shops tend to use a blender to whip theirs up, but not Blue Lassi. Along with their historic recipes, they also use traditional methods, hand-macerating all fruits with a mortar and steel bowl. Then they mix in homemade yogurt and some sugar and voilà; a tasty treat is born. They also add some type of ingredient garnish on top, whether it be pomegranate seeds or banana slices. The lassi is served in a large clay cup — the Indian government has recently introduced initiatives to curb plastic use. This is desperately needed. Sadly India is drowning in garbage, and half of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in India.
But wait; I thought this post was about how to get high?
Yes, we’re getting to that right now…
The Bhang Lassi Can Get You High
Back to the lassis which, by the way, can also get you high. The bhang lassi is a treat that’s illegal in most places in India, though the holy city of Varanasi has a number of government-approved shops where it can be consumed.
Varanasi being a hub for bhang lassi makes more sense than one may think. Interestingly, bhang (the leaves and flower heads of cannabis) isn’t just some excuse to get high, but also part of the culture, with the grinding and preparation of bhang being considered an art.
Bhang has been used by Indians since at least the 4th century BC. In Hindu belief, it is associated with the powerful Lord Shiva, who’s said to have brought it from the Himalayas for mankind to enjoy. There’s also another story, saying the intoxicant was discovered when gods and demons stirred the ocean in an attempt to find the nectar of life. In terms of local Ayurvedic healing, cannabis is considered to have great medicinal value, especially for appetite and digestion.
Thinking of trying the bhang lassi for yourself? One warning: proceed with caution! These drinks are not for the faint of heart. You can try this intoxicating — literally — treat at a shop with a very weird sign and no English name. It’s a tiny place with bright lights and just a few tables in the back. You’ll pay 50 Rupees (~$0.75 USD) and will be given a green drink with yogurt pulp mixed in. While not as thick as the creations at Blue Lassi, the effects are certainly more lasting.
Traditional Indian Music With A Buzz
Now, I’m not saying I had bhang lassi, but if I did my head would have been buzzing when I went to see a traditional Indian music concert with a sitar, tabla and harmonium at Jolly Music House. This space features a small theater with mismatched blankets set up on the floor for seating.This #delicious #drink in #India can get you high! Click To Tweet
Each gesture and expression of the dancer had a meaning. She danced to live tabla and harmonium music, hundreds of bells around her ankles accenting certain beats. Her bare feet hit the ground hard in musical patterns, like tap shoes tapping out ball changes and barrel turns.
It’s an intimate cultural experience that can certainly be heightened by the effects of the lassi drink, which is actually stronger than you can imagine (even if you get the light one!). In fact, it’s so strong one might almost see the musical notes emitting from the instruments, and the players’ hands moving so fast they look like putty. At points, you might actually feel like the music is inside of you (I mean this very literally; again the lassi).You must try this #delicious #local #drink when visiting in #India. Click To Tweet
The day was one of my favorites of the trip, equally delicious and eye-opening. If it’s your first time with the bhang lassi, I highly recommend drinking only half of it if you’re planning to go to a performance afterwards. For a visual, one man who drank one full light bhang lassi got so freaked out during the show he basically tried to break down the door to escape the room and proceeded to pace outside for hours.
Whether you like your lassi laced with bhang or bananas, definitely try one while traveling through India!
Stay: Kedareswar B&B. I really, really, really loved this place. Since you can’t drive down the street they’re on, the staff will meet you nearby and carry your bags to their accommodation. Throughout my stay everyone went above and beyond to make sure I was comfortable. Rooms are clean, there’s a rooftop with Ganges River views, breakfast and Wi-Fi are included, and there’s hot water.Price: Rooms start at 2200 Rupees (~$33 USD) per night.
Blue Lassi: D 36/190, Godowlia Rd, August Kundaas, Godowlia, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh 221001. It’s at the edge of the old city’s main market. Open 9am to 10pm daily. Lassis cost about 40 Rupees (~$0.60 USD) for the traditional/plain flavors and about 60-80 Rupees (~$0.90 to $1.20 USD) for most flavors (saffron varieties are a bit pricier).
Bhang Lassi: The shop I went to — along with a few other government-sanctioned Bhang Lassi shops –was located at the intersection of Dashashwamedh Road and Jangambari Road. Simply walk away from the Ganges River up the main road splitting city from main ghat — it’s right behind Dashashwamedh Ghat — and at the first main interaction it’s on the left corner, across from the Ganges Grand Hotel. Price is ~60 Rupees (~$0.90 USD).
Jolly Music House: D- 34/4, Dashashwamedh,Near Baba Handicraft, Near Shudhir Sweets, Khalishpura, Bangali Tola, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh 221001. Email them at email@example.com to check the week’s shows and ticket prices.
- 3-Hour Varanasi Morning Sunrise Boat Tour ($35)
- 3-Hour Varanasi Evening Aarti Tour ($40)
- Private Full Day Varanasi Pilgrimage Tour ($44)
Currency: Indian rupee. As of October 2016 the exchange rate was about 66.91 Rupees = $1 USD.
Language: Hindi and English
- Clever Travel Companion Pickpocket-Proof Garments will come in handy when wandering India’s many crowded markets and streets.
- A Vigilant Personal Alarm is essential for both home and away. Wear it as a a bracelet and, if you feel danger approaching, pull the pin to have it blare as loud as a firetruck. The idea is to scare off whoever is approaching.
- Always carry your hotel’s business card. India’s streets aren’t always labeled, so if you need to get back you can easily hand it to a took took driver.