Cooking the Faith: An Indian Feast of Equality

Women cook for langar meal at Sikh gurudwara. Photo by Ramaa Raghavan

Women cook for langar meal at Sikh gurudwara. Photo by Ramaa Raghavan

On a sweltering Sunday morning young Sikh volunteers in vibrant turbans gather outside the Nanak Naam Jahaj Gurudwara in Jersey City, New Jersey to welcome their arriving brethren with refreshing ice-cold juice.

Inside attendees help themselves to a buffet table loaded with Indian snacks and sweets, and then sit cross-legged on the floor to eat. There are jalebis and gulab jamuns (fried dough soaked in sugar syrup), followed by bhature (deep-fried flatbread), chole (chickpeas in spicy gravy), pakoras (vegetable fritters), vegetable noodles, dhokla (savory steamed “cakes” made with ground lentils), idlis (savory steamed “cakes” made with ground and fermented rice and lentils), chutneys, and a variety of salads and fruits.

“These are only appetizers,” Gaganpreet Singh, a young member of the congregation, notes. “After the prayers are performed, lunch will be served.”

Serving free food, called langar, in gurudwaras is an important tenet of the Sikh religion that evolved out of the tradition of cooking to feed the needy and the homeless in North India, where Sikhism originated.

It’s a practice that has followed them here. During Hurricane Sandy, the Sikh community fed many New Yorkers who were left stranded by the storm.

Over the years, the concept has broadened to feeding the entire gurudwara congregation, as well. Today Nanak Naam Jahaj employs a full time cook and is open every day of the week.

Langar is a concept of equality, of sharing, of a congregation coming together,” Harpreet Kaur, another gurudwara member, explains. “Here only the preachers and singers of scriptures sit up on a raised platform. Langar represents equality where everyone else sits on the floor.”

Read Part 3 in this series Cooking the Faith: A Buddhist Feast of Nonviolence

Inside the gurudwara’s bustling kitchen roughly a dozen women are busy, rolling out and frying fresh bhature and making salads out of cucumbers, carrots, radish and tomatoes. Seated on small stools in one corner, several women flatten out balls of boiled potatoes, onions, breadcrumbs, and spices to make aloo tikkis (potato fritters).

While the women cook, holy scriptures and religious hymns are recited in the gurudwara’s prayer room, where members of the congregation sit on the floor to listen. As they cook, the women listen too—over a loud speaker in the kitchen.

Members of the Sikh gurudwara in Jersey City serve and eat langar meal. Photo by Ramaa Raghavan

Members of the Sikh gurudwara in Jersey City serve and eat langar meal. Photo by Ramaa Raghavan

The women are dressed in traditional Indian clothing with their heads covered with colorful scarfs (a sign of respect observed by both men and women within the gurudwara). In large stainless steel vessels the main dishes for the mid-afternoon langar meal are cooked and ready: paneer (fresh white cheese) with vegetables, more chole, rice, and desserts.

It looks like an incredible amount of food, but Singh explains that it’s just enough to feed the 400 people who attend the service and the langar afterward.

“It’s always like this—packed—as it’s not just Sikhs who come here,” she says. “Since Jersey City is diverse, a lot of students from India come here as it gives them a homely feeling.”

Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, and the Nicholas B. Ottaway Foundation.

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