By:Â Saira Malhotra
To whom would you bestow the crown of being your favorite chef? (Besides Marcus Samuelsson, of course!) Is it a member of your family, a friend, a chef from your most visited restaurant or that trip you took last year to Santorini where Costas made those wonderful tomato Keftes? For people in the Indian Sikh community, their options go even further and many of them would agree that their favorite cooks can be found in the kitchens of the local Gurudwara; the Sikh place of worship.
Sikhs come from Punjab, a region in Northern India situated between the border of India and Pakistan. For Sikhs, religion is a very integral part of their life and many visit their local Gurudwara on a daily basis. Yet they aren't just there for spiritual tune-ups. They are also there to perform their duties as member of the community and connect with each other.
Every day, the Gurudwara serves Langar - three meals a day to everybody, regardless of their faith. Eating at these establishments requires payment in a different form of currency: love and equality. In the Langar rooms, there are no tables and chairs, as everyone is invited to eat in a community and on the floor. The purpose of which is to remove all social distinction and remind people that in God's home, 'we are all equal'. There is no paid staff here, and this powerhouse of an institution is run by people rolling up their sleeves and pitching in.
Growing up in London, my local Gurudwara bustled with ladies and men stirring large pots of food while children scurried around handing out paper napkins, fresh Roti (Indian flatbread) and cups of water to the diners. The British local, Tim Hanson frequented the Gurudwara on a daily basis too. He was not a Sikh and never actually made it to the prayer room (who's preaching?), but he did have his evening meal there every day and afterwards, would go to the kitchen where he provided 'Seva' - 'selfless service. Nobody ever explained the protocol to him; he just seemed to get it.
While this is a free kitchen, it is not a soup kitchen. There are no shortcuts taken and people show up to provide Seva at the wee hours of 4am. What makes the food experience here something that could rival even a Michelin-rated Indian restaurant? The freshness and love it is prepared with. There are large vats of simmering Matar Paneer (ricotta-like cheese and pea curry), buttery Daal (slow cooked black gram lentils), Gobi Aloo Sabzi (cauliflower and potatoes sauteed with spices, ginger, garlic and fresh cilantro), savory yogurt with tiny deep fried dumplings, fresh Roti and of course Kheer (sweet rice pudding). Though considered simple vegetarian fare by Sikhs, for whom this is a part of life, this from-scratch cooking process does require some effort and a lot of integrity. Langar draws from classical Indian culinary techniques and not flavor enhancers and packaged seasoning. The meal provides for both a spiritually and physically wholesome experience.
The Punjabi touch can breathe life into any dish and yet this meal also boasts of a feel-good factor that is derived from camaraderie, sweet giggles of children, and the chatter of ladies and men huddled around a stove.
To take part of this communal, spiritual and epicurean experience, check out your local Gurudwara. Here are a few locations in New York:
GURDWARA MATA SAHIB KAUR SIKH FORUM INC. 100 Lattingtown Road Glen Cove, NY 11542 Phone: 516 674 6793
SHRI GURU RAVIDASS TEMPLE OF NY 61- 01 BOADWAY WOODSIDE, NY 11377 TEL: (718) 898-8150 FAX: (718) 898-0932
NIAGARA FRONTIER SIKH SOCIETY 68 OLD SPRING LANE WILLIAMSVILLE, NY 14221 Tel: (716) 689 6172
SINGH SABHA OF NEW YORK, INC. 43-69 BROWNE STREET FLUSHING, NY Tel: (718) 461 2612
THE SIKH FORUM, INC. 1065 OLD COUNTRY ROAD PLAIN VIEW, NY 11803 Tel: (516) 931 9304
THE SIKH CULTURAL SOCIETY, INC. 95-30, 118 TH STREET RICHMOND HILL, NY 11419 Tel: (718) 846 9144
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