Hare Krishna dining

Many Indian sweets are an acquired taste for Westerners, but the Hare Krishna cooks have an array of desserts that appeal to Americans.

Hare Kishna food 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hare Kishna food 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In the late 1970s at cooking school in Paris, another student told us that we could get a free Indian vegetarian meal at the Hare Krishna temple. We decided to taste its food as a break from the rich classic cuisine we were feasting on at the cooking classes. When we told a French friend why we were going to visit the movement’s center, she looked horrified. “It’s dangerous! They’ll drug your food!” she said.
At the temple, after the chanting ceremony there was a brief discussion of the principles of Hare Krishna. We learned that they avoid all intoxicants – drugs, alcohol and cigarettes, as well caffeine. They stress nonviolence as the ethical foundation of vegetarianism and call their cuisine “spiritual vegetarianism” – before food is eaten it should be offered to God out of gratitude and love. To do this, adherents set the plate of cooked food before a picture of Krishna and chant.
According to Higher Taste: A Guide to Gourmet Vegetarian Cooking and a Karma-Free Diet published by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, “In preparing food, cleanliness is the most important principle. Nothing impure should be offered to God, so keep your kitchen work-area very clean. Always wash your hands thoroughly before preparing food. While preparing food, do not taste it. This is part of meditating that you are cooking the meal not simply for yourself but for the pleasure of Krishna, who should be the first to enjoy it.”
To our astonishment, we heard two of the young, orange-robed monks conversing among themselves in Hebrew. We couldn’t believe it. They were Israelis. Yakir asked them, “What, for God’s sake, are nice Jewish boys like you doing here? Can’t you find plenty of religion at home?” We sat on a large carpet with the other diners and we were served a modest, wholesome, tasty Indian meal.
We especially enjoyed the creamy, Indian-style rice pudding with bits of almonds.
Although we eat frequently at Indian vegetarian restaurants, we didn’t have Hare Krishna food again until last year, when a friend told us that she loves the vegetarian fare at their center in Los Angeles – at the Hare Krishna restaurant, called Govinda’s.
At Govinda’s we didn’t sit on the floor like in the Parisian Hare Krishna temple, and the food was not strictly Indian.
Unlike typical Indian eateries, they served brown rice. There was also Basmati rice to go with the “dal of the day,” a subtly seasoned lentil or bean soup that you could spoon over the rice as a sauce, Indian style, or eat in a bowl as soup with American rolls. When we took friends visiting from Turkey to the restaurant, they remarked that the dal tasted like Turkish lentil soup.
Another soup on the buffet was prepared Western style.
One day it was cream of sweet potato soup with corn kernels.
Another time it was a smooth carrot puree soup flavored with ginger.
To accompany the rice, there were Indian-inspired dishes like chickpeas with green beans, red peppers and soy nuggets cooked with coconut milk, as well as Chinese-influenced stir-fried vegetables with tofu. At the American-style salad bar there were some exotic offerings, like spicy tofu with black olives, celery, hot peppers, coriander leaves, olive oil and soy sauce.
A highlight was an entree of koftas, vegetable balls made of cauliflower and cabbage and served in tomato sauce. To us their flavor recalled falafel. We understood why when we learned from one of the cooks that the balls are made with chickpea flour and flavored with cumin and turmeric.
As in the Paris temple, we loved the dessert, which they called halwah. Unlike the familiar sesame halva, this Indian dessert resembled a buttery semolina pudding and was served warm. Once we had it flavored with apples, and another time with cinnamon and raisins. Our Turkish guests said it too reminded them of home.
Many Indian sweets are an acquired taste for Westerners, but the Hare Krishna cooks have an array of desserts that appeal to Americans. Their halwah components range from apples to zucchini-like squash and are usually infused with cinnamon or cardamom and enriched with ghee (clarified butter), cream or whole milk. They make several kinds of rice pudding, which might be flavored with rosewater and chopped nuts; baked with grated lemon, nutmeg and cinnamon; or mixed with whipped cream and chopped bananas or pineapple.
Like Indian vegetarians, Hare Krishna cooks use no eggs.
What is most surprising to us is that they do not use onions or garlic, because according to this Hindu movement’s philosophy, these vegetables are considered “not clean.”
Asafetida, an Indian flavoring, is used as a substitute for these ingredients. Their food is a good example of how creative cooks can prepare flavorful meals even when restricted in their choice of ingredients.
Makes 4-5 main-course servings, with rice.
This easy vegetable entree is flavored with cumin and coriander ground with fresh hot peppers. The spice paste gives the vegetables a wonderful flavor. Serve this entree with Basmati or brown rice.
1⁄2 tsp. turmeric
salt to taste 1 small cauliflower, divided into small florets 1 small zucchini or white squash (keeshou) (optional), diced 450 gr. spinach, leaves and small stems only, rinsed, cut or torn in bite-size pieces 1 or 2 green or red jalapenos or other hot peppers 1 tsp. ground cumin 1 tsp. ground coriander 1 or 2 Tbsp. olive oil, vegetable oil or ghee (clarified butter) 3 cups cooked chickpeas (garbanzo beans) (see Note) or two 400-gr. cans, drained 1⁄2 cup coarsely chopped fresh coriander
In a saucepan bring 1 cup water to a boil with turmeric and pinch of salt. Add cauliflower florets. Cover and cook over medium-low heat for 7 minutes. Add zucchini. With pan on low heat, add spinach in 3 batches, covering briefly after each addition so spinach wilts. After adding all of spinach, simmer uncovered for 1 to 2 minutes or until tender.
Cut hot peppers in a few pieces, discarding membranes and seeds if you prefer peppers less hot. Grind peppers with cumin and coriander in a mini food processor or blender; or pound them in a mortar with pestle.
Heat oil in a deep skillet, add hot pepper-spice paste and stir over low heat for 3 minutes. With slotted spoon, add vegetable mixture, stir, and pour in 1⁄2 cup of their cooking liquid. Add chickpeas and bring to a boil. If desired, simmer uncovered for 2 to 3 minutes to thicken slightly. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve sprinkled generously with coriander.
Note: To cook dried chickpeas: Sort and rinse 225 grams (1⁄2 pound or 11⁄4 cups) dried chickpeas. Put in a medium saucepan and add 5 cups water. Bring to a simmer. Cover and cook over low heat about 2 hours or until tender; old ones may need 3 hours. Drain well.
Makes 4 servings.
Flavor this quick-cooking pudding with rosewater, cardamom, cinnamon or all three, according to your taste. Use a heavy saucepan so the mixture won’t stick. You can make the pudding with whole, low fat or nonfat milk. Instead of almonds, you can sprinkle the pudding with chopped shelled unsalted pistachios.
3⁄4 cup white rice, short- or medium-grain 3 cups milk, or more if needed pinch of salt 4 to 6 cardamom pods (optional) 4 to 5 Tbsp. sugar 1 to 2 Tbsp. butter (optional) 1⁄4 cup raisins 1 tsp. rosewater, or to taste cinnamon for sprinkling (optional) 2 to 4 Tbsp. slivered almonds, lightly toasted if desired Bring 6 cups water to a boil in a large, heavy saucepan. Add rice and boil uncovered for 7 minutes; drain well.
Bring milk to a boil in same saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Add rice, salt and cardamom pods. Cook uncovered over medium-low heat, stirring often, for 15 minutes or until rice is very soft and absorbs most of milk. Rice should be creamy but not soupy; add more milk if necessary and heat through. Discard cardamom pods.
Add 4 tablespoons sugar to pudding and cook 1 minute, stirring. Remove from heat and stir in butter, raisins and rosewater. Taste, and add more sugar if desired. Serve warm, sprinkled with cinnamon and almonds.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.