I had never thought that I’d write this post someday. For me, Banaras comes with the adjectives intellectual, spiritual and psychological attached to it. Hitherto I have been concentrating upon the action of place and time upon psyche and vice-versa. I never worked upon the effect of food that’s intimately related to a place, upon the psyche. Now is the time for a new beginning. It’s said in the Hindu tradition that any work should begin with Ganesha’s name. So, I start by invoking the name of lavanglata aka launglata. It’s a delicacy that does not look very delicate. The outward appearance of this king, or queen, of sweets is rough and tough. It looks like a heavy weight version of modified samosa, or a double sohaal with a sticky, syrupy thin covering. There’s a sweet khoya core within a thick crust of dough that’s deep fried and then dipped for a while in sugar syrup and then consumed, either hot and on the spot, or later, cold and with a definitely different taste. I’ve tasted two types of launglata in Banaras. Depending upon the core, it is either a fresh khoya, sugar, choronji, elaichi mixture, or, in the well-established and practiced tradition of jugaad, and occasionally, already made sweet of some kind. That’s the physical side of it. Can something be written of its taste?
I have never seen lavanglata in any other city. Probably it’s a unique taste of Banaras. I have asked people from many other parts of northern India about it, presuming that the chances of its being made in other parts of India are very low. (No, I’ve not Googled it yet.) No one recognizes it either by name or by a description of its external features. So it’s going to be really difficult to translate its taste with some kind of objective correlative for anyone who has never seen and tasted it. For those who have tasted it, there’s no need of a mediator, or interpreter of taste. Yet, even if inadequate, once declared, an attempt must be made to describe its taste. How vividly do I remember my latest experience of its taste? It was nearly six months ago that I had tasted it for the last time: for that was the last time I was in Banaras. Closing my eyes, I can recollect my lips getting the first feel of the hard, syrup coated outer layer, then, that small first bite that makes just a slight incision over the outer surface: a cut deep enough to release the first trickle of the sweet syrup trapped between the various layers of crunchily hard dough inside. The first few bites, tentative and closer to the surface, bring the fried dough dipped in syrup to mouth. The crunch and the mixture of the crust’s plainness with some sweetness that has not fully permeated it are the prominent features that I can recollect. Then comes the heart of the sweet: the succulent and purely sweet khoya portion. It tastes like any other khoya based Indian sweet, albeit, with a constant base taste of the crunchy bland-sweet outer layer. The fresh and warm thing tastes different from the colder one. Sugar syrup hardens on cooling, i.e. the dough too becomes harder and crunchier and the syrup less sticky and more solid with the passage of time. The yellowish golden crust tastes different from the deeper fried light brown one. This paragraph has only proven that I have inadequate vocabulary, or thinking capacity, to encode the idea of taste into language.
Let’s make one more attempt for the subject is difficult for me. This time round, I’ll try some comparisons. Imagine the outer thicker crust of a samosa dipped in sugar syrup. If there’s any way it could be done, it approximates to the taste of the crust of our sweet, and that is the easy part. How does one describe the taste of the core? Ah! failure once more. I now bring reinforcements. Ghujia is a popular Indian sweet generally prepared on the festival of Holi. It has a large range of filling options. When it’s filled with khoya and dipped in sugar syrup its core tastes somewhat like that of our target sweet. Descriptions don’t do justice to the taste. Lavanglata deserves to be tasted first hand (or, tongue!).
Where in Banaras can one get it? Everywhere. Is there any place that’s especially popular? Depending on which specific zone of the city one’s searching for it, there always is the people’s favourite shop, e.g. there’s one famous shop at Lanka crossing, one at Godowlia crossing, and over two dozen not-so-famous ones between them. This ubiquitous banarsi sweet, with some variation of taste, can be found, as the adjective suggests: everywhere in Banaras.