Palitana is a Jain place of pilgrimage near Bhavnagar in Gujarat. I have been there thrice, as much for the sheer high it gives me to see 863 temples crowded on a single hilltop, as to eat the dahi (curd) that is sold at one of the gates to this walled temple city. Thedahi, brought up the hill and sold by women from the town below, is cool, refreshing, mouth-puckeringly sour and is sold in black clay pots. It would be quite unexceptional anywhere else. In a place of pilgrimage, however, it acquires a different dimension.
Maybe it’s because of my Roman Catholic background, where eating in church is a strict no-no; I’ve tended to stay away from food served at places of worship because of a subconscious association. How wrong I was! The finest “Punjabi” meal I’ve eaten in terms of taste has to be at the Sis Ganj gurdwara in Old Delhi, just as the most ambrosial curd was at Palitana. I’m off to Shirdi shortly, where friends tell me that the bhog (food that is first offered to the deity and then served to the public) alone is worth the trip.
Two other temples—one at Udipi, Karnataka, and the other at Puri, Orissa—not only serve bhog, they have a distinct community of cooks who do nothing else all their lives, except cook for the deity and then serve it to the faithful. In the case of Udipi, an entire cuisine has grown from the temple offerings. What has reached other corners of the country at innumerable Udipi shops doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on what is served in the temple. By all accounts, the food at the Udipi temple is simple and delicious.
Soul food: Langar at gurdwaras consists of simple dishes for devotees.
My friend Dolly Kukreja, who has made it her life’s mission to visit as many temples as she can and partake of the meals wherever possible, says that the Jagannath Temple at Puri has a unique method of cooking. Each giant container contains one ingredient, whether it is dal, rice or vegetables, with the seasonings. The entire contraption is set upon a steamer and left for a couple of hours. In that time, each ingredient gets cooked to perfection because of its proximity to the source of heat.
Dolly’s theory is that temple food tastes so good for a variety of reasons. First, when ingredients are offered to the temple—pure ghee, sugar and atta (flour) must be top of the list in gurdwaras—they are offered with piety. Second, those cooking temple food have been doing just that all their lives. And it isn’t as if the menu is long, as in a fancy restaurant. Even a streetside stall making just one or two items every day acquires a measure of skill. Third, in a temple, nobody takes short-cuts, not even the suppliers of grain, vegetables or spices. I guess we have our Indian culture to thank for that: Religion is the last holy cow we have left.
The general rules for making temple food: no onions, no garlic, no chillies, tomatoes or “English” vegetables (they were recent imports). It’s as small a carbon footprint as possible.
Serves 2 as a complete meal (or 8 as prasad)
K cup rice from south India (small-grained)
K cup split moong dal (green gram)
K cup ghee, or clarified butter
K cup mix of raisin, chopped almond, chopped cashew
K cup jaggery
Pinch of cardamom powder
1 tbsp dry coconut, grated
Pick over the rice and lentils, soak for an hour and cook with two cups of water in a pressure cooker for two whistles. Heat the clarified butter, gently sauté the raisins and nuts, remove, and melt the jaggery in the butter. Pour on rice, mix well, add the cardamom powder, grated coconut, leave to cook on very low fire for 5 minutes, then add nuts and serve.
Recipe courtesy Dolly Kukreja
Write to Marryam at firstname.lastname@example.org