Eating Baati Chokha (Round Roti) on the Funeral Lane in Varanasi, India

By Mark Wiens 14 Comments
Varanasi, India
Varanasi, India

I was exploring the ancient narrow lanes of Varanasi, searching for something delicious to eat, when a man smiled and cheerfully invited me to his restaurant from across the lane.

He was serving something known as round roti, more commonly known in India as baati chokha.

Soon, I’d find out this was the funeral lane (where bodies were ushered down to the Ganges River).

But more on that later.

Cooking the baati chokha
Cooking the baati chokha

Perched in a window, the man sat in front of the grill, facing the alley lane while rolling and grilling up his spheres of dough.

Just like many of the Kolkata street food vendors, this man was excited to serve me, and he also wanted to explain to me exactly what he was cooking.

Though he was chewing a mouthful of paan, saliva nearly dripping off his lips, I tried to listen.

This is round roti, baati chokha,” he said. “There is garam masala inside.”

The baati chokha vendor explaining something to me
The baati chokha vendor explaining something to me

A baati chokha, or round roti, is basically a ball of dough that’s filled with spices and grilled over charcoal. From the grilled char, it’s slightly crunchy on the outside, but really flavorful from the addition of spices.

Cooking the round rotis over charcoal
Cooking the round rotis over charcoal

The round roti balls are moved around the grill every few seconds so as not to burn.

The finished ones are placed on the edges of the grill, remaining warm, until being ordered and served (the good thing is, they stay hot and fresh).

A fresh plate of baati chokha (round roti)
A fresh plate of baati chokha (round roti)

When you order baati chokha, he pulls a couple rounds off the grill, places them on a little paper plate (not a leaf bowl this time), adds a scoop of sauce, some red onions, and a chili on the side.

The sauce was a flavorful blend of what tasted like mashed potatoes mixed with lots of spices, oil, and coriander. It was perfect for the dry roti balls.

As I broke my first roti ball in half, generously dipped it into the sauce, and inserted the bite into my mouth was when I heard the chanting and saw a crew of men running down the lane carrying a bamboo stretcher with an orange cloth wrapped dead body on top…

I literally had to duck my head to avoid colliding with the corpse.

Despite the deliciousness of the baati chokha, I suddenly wasn’t quite as hungry as I previously was.

So I had another bite, and boom, another funeral procession and corpse came straight through the lane again, but this time I was more prepared for it.

Varanasi, India
Varanasi, India

It’s quite an interesting experience to be munching on delicious Indian street food while sharing the lane with corpses being ushered down to the Ganges River to be cremated.

So if you do visit Varanasi, India, take a walk down Manikarnika burning ghat lane (heavily guarded by armed military) and you’ll find the man grilling baati chokha.

He’ll probably say a gurgled “hello,” from his mouthful of areca nut and tobacco, and you may have to duck under a corpse or a few, but his snack is sure tasty!

14 comments. I'd love to hear from you!

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  • Britt

    2 years ago

    Ball-shaped roti’s!! we will have to see if we can find these when we are Varanasi

  • Rana

    7 years ago

    Mark, The dish you test is popularly knows as LITTI in whole India. Its a dish of Bihar and UP state of India mainly food of poor villagers and Gypsies. It is a dough of plain wheat full with dry mixture of check peas dust, garlic, ginger. Garam Mashala is not use in that because it is not so available and quite expensive. That dough then burn in cowmud cake, hope you saw it in India popularly used as fuel in Indian oven. After sufficient burning it take out of they oven and polished with clean cotton cloth and massage with pure clarified butter we call it Ghee, and served with baked potato, tomato , onion, that you mentioned as chatni. The shop modernise the way of making and serving. Yes its known as Baati Chokha also. Baati is that round dough. Chokha is some vegetable that you can baked, like potato, egg plant, tomato, smashed and mixed with mustered oil, salt, fine chopped onion, coriender leave etc. It itself is a desperate dish.

    • Mark Wiens

      7 years ago

      Hey Rana, wow, thank you so much for the extra information here, I appreciate you sharing. It’s such a simple food, but it does taste really good, especially with that chokha.

  • Arti

    8 years ago

    I have never tried this even on my multiple visits to Varanasi! Looks Yummy, will try it the next time, though not in this lane!!

    • Mark Wiens

      8 years ago

      Hey Arti, I really enjoyed this, simple and delicious!

  • Jan Paul

    8 years ago

    Hey Mark, why did you remove my comment? I sincerely meant what I wrote. It was funny for me to read your adventure with the corpses and how you wrote it.

  • JB & Renee

    8 years ago

    Was the garam masala mixed in with the dough, or an actual filling?

    • Mark Wiens

      8 years ago

      It was mixed into the dough, so it was tasty throughout!

      • JB & Renee

        8 years ago

        Awesome! Sorry for the double post Mark, I thought there was an error when I submitted it the first time, so I did it again. 🙂

  • Zara @ Backpack ME

    8 years ago

    Eating street food while observing people with corpses passing by… one of those (not so rare) instances when Incredible India becomes INCREDULOUS India!..

    • Mark Wiens

      8 years ago

      Haha, that’s exactly correct!

    • Deep

      6 years ago

      I am not sure if my post is going to be helpful because your post is 2 yrs old. However, I am writing it for those who will read it post my post. I thought it necessary because I was born and brought up in Varanasi, although I live in San Francisco from last 15 yrs.
      Funeral lanes are supposed to have food stalls, particularly the food which is considered simple and basic. This is tied to ancient traditions and in Varanasi area it is still followed by some, though it is vanishing fast. When someone old dies, his/her death is not considered an occasion for grieving, instead it is celebrated believing that s/he has just achieved Nirvana (A concept in Hinduism/Buddhism where one achieves ultimate happiness in the end after doing all his/her duties throughout life and duties include dedication to god, earning livelihood for the family and dependents, and of course reproduction i.e. carrying the chain of life forward. concept is a bit more complex than I just explained). In some cases family members actually hire a band when funeral procession begins. The strict rule here is though that there has to be a reasonable case that person actually lived his life and actually fulfilled his/her responsibilities. There can be a “Will” where one can actually say if a band is to be played after his/her death. Generally it is done for those who lived 90 yrs or more.
      Complexity here is that after the death family members and relatives, particularly those who are going with the procession, can’t eat anything till body is cremated and a subsequent group bath has taken place. In modern times people have vehicles but procession used to be done by foot in ancient/medieval time and reaching the river bank, doing the cremation, and finally completing the activities used to take 24 hours or more. Final celebration involves eating afterwards but a simple meal. This is why Baati-Chokha has a particular meaning and that is why it is ok to eat in funeral lane. Those who know the drill will not hesitate but those who don’t would be aghast and probably scarred if eating is to be done while watching a funeral procession.
      Hope this helps.
      Deep

  • JB & Renee

    8 years ago

    Those look really good! I’m a little confused about the garam masala though. Was the garam masala kneaded in with the dough, or was the ball actually filled with garam masala? Can’t imagine how garam masala would be a filling, unless it was mixed with something first…