A restaurant in Rishikesh offers a taste of food of the gods

A thali at VARR.
A thali at VARR.


Curated thalis bring diners a taste of temple food from Ladakh to Madurai, enduri pitha to ringan nu shaak

Rishikesh is a city of contrasts. The smells, sights and sounds seem so familiar—similar to other towns and cities by river ghats, where prayer and pilgrimage are the mainstay—and yet there is something surreal and exotic about it. Perhaps it has something to do with the all-pervasive sense of calm and spirituality—extending beyond religion— that one feels there. It extends to almost everything in Rishikesh, even to the food.

Take, for instance, an experience at the restaurant VARR. As soon as you enter, a gentleman, clad in a crisp white dhoti and vermillion-hued kurta, anoints your forehead with a cooling paste of sandalwood. He then chants a few mantras as part of the achanam ritual, which involves purification of the hands with drops of ganga jal. The river water on your palm is then replaced with a spoonful of delicious panchamrit, a concoction made with milk, ghee, honey, ganga jal, and holy basil, which is usually served after puja and havan. The gentleman ends the welcome ritual by placing around your neck a tulsi mala, a garland made from the wood of the same holy basil tree.

It takes a while to realise that the person welcoming you isn’t a priest but the restaurant’s manager. The eatery is located within Holywater by Ganga Kinare hotel in Rishikesh’s Avas Vikas Colony. With the tagline “Temple food of India", this conceptual restaurant was started in 2021 as a place that would source, refine, modify and serve offertory dishes made in temple kitchens across the country. The menu is modelled on temple prasadam and has bhog-inspired dishes curated by Chef Deepak Bhatt, who is from Uttarakhand.

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The dishes are vegetarian, made with desi ghee, but not all are strictly sattvic—which means devoid of pungent ingredients such as onion and garlic. Over two dozen dishes are spread across four distinctly-themed thalis, which are priced at 1,050 per person for unlimited helpings, and carry titles such as ‘Uttsava Raj Bhog’, ‘Rachna Raj Bhog’, ‘Naivedyam Raj Bhog’ and the ‘Annandam Raj Bhog’.

These extensive platters are rotated across different days of the week. However, their format remains the same—each features appetisers, mains, drinks and desserts, served on gleaming kansa thalis.

“It is a common misconception that all temple food is sattvic. In fact, almost all temple foods follow the traditional Yogic approach of mitahara, which is moderation in eating," explains Bhatt. “Yog focuses on Saguna Brahma, or the right balance of all three gunassattva, representing purity of soul, rajas, or an action-oriented mindset, and tamas, which stands for ahamkara or ego."

At VARR, diners are introduced to temple offerings from all across the country, be it from the famous Gurudwara Pathar Sahib situated along the Leh-Kargil road in Ladakh, the Sree Padmanabhaswamy in Thiruvananthapuram, or the Somnath temple in Gujarat and Manipur’s Govindajee temple. One gets to sample dishes like puttu, a cylindrical steamed sweet rice cake, stuffed with jaggery, and served at the Meenakshi temple in Madurai, and the local Garhwali pahari palak offered at the Badrinath Dham. Also interesting is the ringan nu shaak, a dry vegetable dish made with small eggplants in a thick peanut-based sauce, and served at the Dwarkadhish Mandir in Gujarat. Then there is, of course, the famous kada prasad, made with equal portions of whole wheat flour, ghee, and sugar, from Amritsar’s Golden Temple.

There are other sweet options as well, like Mathura ke pede, believed to have originated from the birthplace of Krishna. And though not strictly temple foods, one can also sample sweets such as the sandesh from West Bengal, made with chhena and sugar with hints of saffron. It finds mentions in medieval Bengali literature and in the hymns of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.

One of the highlights of the menu is the wide variety of comforting khichdis, which are huge favourites at temple feasts. At VARR, the most popular one seems to be the Abada Jagannath namak khichdi. Made in the kitchens of Jagannath Puri, this is a simple preparation of rice and lentils cooked only with salt and served with ghee. According to tradition, 14 days before the famous Rath Yatra, Lord Jagannath fell sick. He, along with his siblings, was served boiled food, with this khichdi representing comfort.

In fact, a large chunk of the menu features dishes from the Jagannath Temple. For instance, one can find the enduri pitha, a steamed rice dumpling wrapped in banana leaf and the famous chana dal, a sweet and savoury lentil dish, which is an integral part of the mahaprasad, and is made with 12 whole spices such as cinnamon, cloves, coriander, mustard, fennel, cumin and fenugreek. There is also the panira bhappa, an appetiser served to the deity, and crafted with fresh cottage cheese, which is marinated in lemon juice, coated in coriander masala, freshly grated coconut and mustard seeds. It is then wrapped in banana leaf and steamed.

Many of us would have tasted some of these dishes at temple bhogs across the country, but to find them assembled in one place makes for a unique experience.

Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.

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