Feasting with gods: traditional cuisines of the festive season

Sunday, 13 October 2013 - 8:37am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
This festive season, Yogesh Pawar visits temples around town to sample the rich, pure and traditional cuisines.

The banana leaf is so tender that it wilts when steaming rice is served.

Little Dhanya, 6 watches every dish being served carefully. She's sat through the whole navratri special shatha-chandi yagna for the payasam which starts coming her way at the dining hall at Central Mumbai's South Indian Bhajan Samaj temple at Matunga. She reaches out her hand to taste the spoonful ladled onto her leaf only to be stopped by her grandfather.

“Wait for the prayer,” he says only to notice chief priest M V Ganesa Sastrigal lead the diners in prayer.

“Brahmaarpanam Brahma Havih Brahmaagnau Brahmana Hutam / Brahmaiva Tena
Gantavyam Brahmakarmasamaadhina [God is everywhere, in the food, inside the devotee and even in the hunger. So, the devotee is taking the food (God) to the hunger (God)]," he chants and soon as the people begin tucking in he settles down to talk.

“The temple offers food to the devotees in keeping with what is prescribed in our holy texts. So there is payasam, curd, sambar, rasam, rice, papad, one dry and one gravy-based vegetable along with tender mango pickle,” he explains.

Over 800 kms away at the famous Mookambika shrine at Kollur in Udupi district of Karnataka  the menu is almost the same. Only the meal is on the house. “When you go to the Mother's house, doesn't she feed you?,” asks Bhaskara Rao the chief cook and priest at the shrine. He's supervised  the cooking for over 2,000 devotees daily. “Our cooks have to bathe, wear
freshly washed wet clothes and cook. They cannot touch or taste anything.”

From the frugal South Indian temple food to the Amritsar's Golden Temple, Sikhism holiest shrine, the langar (community kitchen) where over 80,000 consume rich dripping-in-ghee delicacies is a study in contrast.

12 tonnes of whole wheat flour gets kneaded and rolled out into nearly a quarter-million rotis, three and half tonnes of dal cooks in mammoth cauldrons, stirred with wooden spoons as large as oars. The kitchen which uses 250 kilos of ghee, also consumes an amazing 800 kilos of onions and 60 kilos of garlic and 150 kilos of red chillies!

Priest Jagtiar Singh who was helping out at the kitchen told DNA, “Our third guru Guru Amar Das created the langar in the 16th century. He wanted to propagate equality,” and added, “Guruji created an institution where everyone would sit on the floor together, to eat the same food irrespective of class caste or gender.”

According to him apart from ensuring participation from everyone in cooking, serving, and cleaning, the  langar also teaches etiquette of sitting and eating as a community. “This has played a great part in upholding the virtue of sameness of all human beings; providing a welcome,
secure and protected sanctuary.”

Back in Mumbai, the Zaveri family is out for lunch at the Golden Star thali joint at Opera House.

“We've been busy dancing at the dandiya. How can we be expected to cook?” laughs Jaywantiben the family matriarch. Her bahu Hansa who asks for another puran poli adds, “To cook such lavish navratri fare will take humongous effort and time.”

Their thalis are laden with four kinds of sweets, three kinds of farsans, four kinds of vegetable preparations from Rajasthan and Gujarat, four kinds of rice preparations and four kinds of rotis.

Rumi Ranji who owns the 19-year-old chain of thali joints points out how the crowds are maximum when they serve their Navratri and Diwali special thalis. “Our octogenarian Maharaj (master chef) Shree Maubji Purohit has painstakingly created these dishes from recipes which borrow the best from traditions associated with our temples and palaces. Nothing can get more
festive than that.”

Burp! We have to agree!!

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