Ancient Indian temple cuisine is in a class of its own

(CNN) – All over India, temples have long served not only for a spiritual need, but also for a social need.

Many temples across the country have adopted a long-standing tradition of feeding the masses, allowing pilgrims and travelers to enjoy healthy and delicious meals every day.

Any typical Indian temple, whether in a city or town, will have its own kitchen where these meals are cooked, sanctified and served, and offered free or for a nominal small fee.

But these are not ordinary meals. What sets temple cuisine apart is the taste, which is unique to each location and notoriously difficult to replicate.

In fact, many established chefs have tried to deliver temple cuisine in their upscale restaurants, but ultimately failed to generate the same magic.

“Temple food is very ancient and was prepared by special cooks, known as Maharajas or Khanshamas, who belong to one family,” says Sandeep Pande, executive chef of the JW Marriott Hotel in New Delhi.

“Therefore, it is impossible to recreate the same taste in restaurants, even by trained chefs,” he adds.

Indeed, it is difficult to match the flavor of puttu – made up of steamed rice flour, coconut and jaggery (cane sugar) – served at Meenakshi temple in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, to name just one of the many incredible dishes on offer at places of worship across the country.

Puttu, a traditional dish from South India, is one of the dishes served at Meenakshi Temple in Tamil Nadu.

EyesWideOpen / Getty Images

Foods from Indian temples are prepared using traditional cooking methods, including the use of “chulha” – wood and charcoal stoves – and clay pots.

Only local ingredients are used, while the recipes are based on Ayurvedic principles. This makes temple cuisine a living repository of traditional cultures and spices.

Some temples even use water from an on-site spring or well, while nearby farms traditionally donate a portion of their harvest to the deity who presides over the temple.

The breadth of these meals is also remarkable, with some temples serving thousands of visitors per day.

The origins of temple food

The tradition is rooted in an ancient Indian mythological story in which Lord Vishnu the Curator – a god of the Hindu holy trinity – undertakes a long pilgrimage.

As part of his trip, he dived in the waters of the seaside Rameshwaram temple in southern India, meditated at the Badrinath temple in the north, visited the Dwarka temple in the west, and dined at the temple of Jagannath on the east coast.

The food he ate was prepared by his wife, the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, and therefore considered divine, paving the way for a ritual that continues to this day in which offerings known as prasad are made to the deity who presides over a temple and distributed to the faithful.

Here is a look at some of the most famous temples serving tasty and nutritious food to the masses.

The 56 foods of the Jagannath temple

Jagannath Temple in India is famous for its annual Rath Yatra, or chariot festival.

Jagannath Temple in India is famous for its annual Rath Yatra, or chariot festival.

STR / AFP / Getty Images

Located in the coastal state of Odisha in eastern India, in the city of Puri, the Jagannath Temple feeds a staggering 25,000 worshipers per day, but that number can reach a million during festivals.

The 12th century temple offers 56 varieties of food products. There are 40 different dishes of vegetables and dal (lentils), six dishes of rice and 10 traditional sweets, like peethas, payesh, rasagola and malpua. And it’s served six times a day, cooked up at one of the world’s largest kitchen complexes.

According to the ancient Ayurvedic method, food is cooked slowly in earthen pots stacked on top of each other in groups of nine. Legend has it that temple food is prepared by the goddess Lakshmi, not the cooks, and does not release its aroma until it is offered to the deity.

“Jagannath Temple receives many donations, mostly in the form of grain, from all the surrounding villages,” says Jagabandhu Pradhan, a temple guide.

In fact, many farmers set aside some of their land to cultivate for the temple, he adds.

Hadubhaina, a temple priest, told CNN that the cooking starts early in the morning and must be finished by 2 pm “because we are not using any artificial light in the kitchen.”

“Once inside, the cook cannot go out until the meal is prepared,” he says. “Throughout, he barely speaks and covers his mouth and nose.”

The prepared food is taken through a hallway to a holy space, where it is sanctified. It is then distributed in a row of kiosks, from which devotees can purchase food for a small token sum.

Used terracotta pots are thrown away and a new set is brought in each morning.

King-size laddu at Tirupati Balaji temple

Laddu

Laddu, a ball-shaped candy, is a popular offering in many Hindu temples in India.

Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters

Tirupati Balaji Temple – or Venkateswara Swamy Temple – is located in the state of Andhra Pradesh in southern India.

According to tradition, Lord Venkateswara – a form of Vishnu – appears in the temple every day, so it is the duty of the devotees to nurture him.

Tirupati serves “annadanam,” a Sanskrit word that refers to the offering or sharing of food, to around 80,000 pilgrims each day.

A team of over 200 cooks prepare the iconic Tirupati laddu, a circular candy made from chickpea flour, along with 15 other dishes, including jalebi, dosa, vada and other savory foods.

It is believed that Vakula Devi, the adoptive mother of Lord Venkateswara, oversees the preparation of food to this day. To allow him to supervise things in the temple kitchen, a small hole was made in the wall.

When worshipers leave the main temple after offering prayers, the prasad, or offerings, is distributed. This includes a smaller version of the day’s laddu and rice mixes, which are poured into leafy bowls.

100,000 people served daily at the Punjab’s Golden Temple

chai preparation

A volunteer cooks the cellar for the thousands of pilgrims who visit the Golden Temple every day.

Lucas Vallecillos / VWPics / AP

Free meals, known as langar, are served at all Sikh shrines, or gurudwaras, not only in India but all over the world.

The tradition was implemented by the first guru of the Sikh faith, who emphasizes a concept of selfless service to the community.

Sri Harmandir Sahib’s langar in Amritsar, Punjab, northern India, known as the Golden Temple, feeds up to 100,000 people a day.

Visitors of all faiths, rich or poor, can receive simple hot meals which are distributed almost entirely by volunteers.

There are two communal kitchens and two dining rooms, with a combined capacity of 5,000 people. The food is simple and healthy, including roti (whole wheat flatbread), dal (lentils), vegetables, and kheer (milk and rice pudding).

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