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Sunday 20 August 2017
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ISKCON Kitchen ‘God’Fidential

With 10,000 visitors daily, ISKCON Bangalore has seven kitchens to serve different needs — from offerings to temple deities to midday meals. A behind-the-scenes glimpse into what goes into this undertaking.

Walking through one of the seven kitchens at the ISKCON temple premises in Rajajinagar, there’s a sense of awe at the scale of operations. Giant cauldrons of milk being churned mechanically, kadais, the size of drums, with boondi being fried in hot oil, hundreds of trays of ghee-laden Mysore Pak, laddoos, gulab jamuns, ras malai, namkeens and more being packed by a line of workers — for a moment, it’s easy to forget that we are on temple premises, this could easily be a mithai factory.

Prasadam Preparation

It’s about 4.30 pm so all is quiet in one of the neighbouring kitchens, which incidentally, is where the Akshaya Patra or midday meal scheme was first initiated in 2000. But a visit early next morning presents equally hectic scenes with workers in uniforms wearing face masks and hair nets, using shovel-sized ladles to transfer steaming hot mounds of vegetable rice into vessels that are then ferried in steel carts to be packed into massive dabbas that will be distributed in 487 schools covered under the midday meal programme.

Rivalling the output of these two kitchens is a third one that prepares the daily prasadam of khichdi that’s distributed among the 10,000 visitors that come to the temple every day (on a festival day like Janmasthami this number goes up to a lakh).

In all of this, there are two underlying principles that unify these commercial-scale operations. One, all of the food is Sattvic (which means no onion, garlic or meat and egg-based products) and two, everything is first offered to the Lord first — smaller idols of the temple deities adorn the entrances of all these kitchens and as soon as a batch of food is ready, samplers are laid out for the Lord to bless. This, basically also means that cooks cannot taste the food while preparing them, hence, they need to follow very precise recipes.

Away from the chaos of the kitchens, seated in the hush of a conference room, ashram initiate Bharatarshabha Dasa, head of their communications team, talks about the philosophy behind their many community kitchens. “At any temple, the primary focus is prasadam because no worship is complete without it. Even what is offered in the restaurant (Higher Taste, their fine dine space which opened in 2005 ) is also prasadam,”Bharatarshabha says going on to recite lines from the BhagavadGita that forms the essence of this idea: Yatkaroshiyadasnasiyajjuhoshidadasi yat. “It essentially means, ‘whatever I do, whatever I eat, should be an offering to the Lord’ and that is the fundamental principle.”

Prasadam Distribution

He’s one of the 25 ashram devotees who are dedicated to the various sevas of the temple deities — eight in all: Radha-Krishna, Krishna-Balaram, Nitai-Gauranga, Prahlada Narasimha and Sri Srinivasa Govinda — one of which is preparing seven offerings that have to be presented to the Lord through the day. So, Bharatarshabha’s day begins at 3.15 am following which an offering of sweet rice is made to the deity around 3.45 am. Thereafter, they offer milk, dry fruits, sweets, fruits, etc, at regular intervals, with the largest offering being the Raja Bhog with a minimum of 12 items (this can go upto 108 items during festivals) at 12 pm — with separate plates for each of the eight deities. Unlike the other kitchens, which have a mix of volunteers and paid staffers — about 250 in all — supervised by an ashram devotee, the deity kitchen can only be accessed by ashram initiates like Bharatarshabha. And at any given point there are about 10-15 devotees who are in charge of cooking for the deities.

Even the food that is cooked for initiates like Bharatarshabha, who work full-time at ISKCON, comes from a separate kitchen. In all, there are about 120 ashram initiates — a 100-odd brahmacharis who live within the premises and the rest like Bharatarshabha, who is a Grihasta (even his wife is a full-time devotee at ISKCON), are given an allowance to rent a small place nearby. “The food that’s cooked for the deities is usually distributed among the initiates and volunteers who come from outside. Apart from that, two simple meals consisting of rice, dal, sabzi, roti and buttermilk or curd is cooked for us,” Bharatarshabha says, adding that their food is very light, and made without spices.

The whole idea being that Sattvic (pure) food is nourishing and elevates one’s thinking unlike Rajasic (stimulating) and Tamasic (base) foods. “It goes beyond vegetarianism; we are Krishnatarians. Meat, onion, garlic and intoxicants, even caffeine, is in the mode of passion which increases your desires, pushes you to think on the mundane platform.”

Interestingly, the Higher Taste kitchen has a separate team of about 40 employees that are overseen by ashram devotees who are passionate about food. An in-house food lab, set up in 2005, a sort of mini kitchen, is used by the chefs to try out some of the more innovative items on the menu such as paan ice cream, gooseberry soup, Kabulistani biryani (made with potato and cauliflower), Vedic coffee (like a kashaya). “For instance, one of the devotees who had gone to Brindavan, found some old recipes there and we tried it out here during the week of Janmasthami. So, we test on a smaller scale at the lab and then introduce it on the menu,” Bharatarshabha explains.

A bird’s eye view of ISKCON today can easily make one forget its humble beginnings in 1997 when they had only about 3,000 visitors.

With the growing number of devotees visiting every year, their plans include setting up a annadana hall where visitors will be served prasadam. But the core idea of serving food that’s rich in Prana or life-force remains their divine purpose.

KHEER ANAND Serves 5

Ingredients: 2 litres milk, 100 gms Basmati rice, 2 tsp ghee, 300 gms sugar, 1/2 tsp saffron, 1 1/4 tsp slivered cashew nut, 1 1/4 tsp raisins, 1 1/4 tsp slivered almonds, 1 1/4 tsp slivered pistachios, 1/4 tsp powdered green cardamom, 1/4 tsp whole cloves, 1/4 tsp whole cinnamon

Method: Heat a heavy bottom pan on low to medium heat. Add the milk with cloves and cinnamon, bring it to boil, simmer and let it reduce to three-fourth of its quantity. Add rice and stir constantly till the rice is cooked. Heat ghee in a pan. Fry the almonds, cashews and pistachios till it gives out an aroma and add this to the rice mixture. Continue stirring. Let it cook on medium heat. Continue stirring the mixture till most of the milk is absorbed. Add sugar and cook for 10 minutes stirring constantly. Remove from heat and add saffron and green cardamom powder. Chill for four hours. Garnish with saffron strings and chopped dry fruits. Offer to Lord Krishna and relish it with family and friends.

NUMBER CRUNCHING

38,79,800 Number of donnas (leaf cups) of free khichdi prasadam distributed to the daily visitors to the temple in 2012-2013

Rs 1,09,21,500 Total expenditure towards distribution of prasadam to pilgrims, invitees and others in 2012-2013

1,000-1500 kgs The amount of khichdi that’s cooked everyday

THE GODS’ MENU CARD

4 am: Sweet rice and khaja

6.45 am: 5-6 varieties of fruits

8.15 am: Idli, dosa, sambar, chutney, sabzi, curd, milk

12 pm: Rice, roti, dal, three varieties of sabzi, chutney, fruit juice, sweets, savouries, salad, curd, milk

4 pm: Fruits

5 pm: Roti, rice, sabzi, dal, salad

8 pm: Milk and dry fruits

Source:- Bangalore Mirror




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