The world sat up and took notice when the Zen Buddhist nun Jeong Kwan charmed our screens in the Netflix Documentary Chef’s Table. Organic. Seasonal. Slow cooked. There’s no denying the magic that the South Korean nun brings to her food, made from not just culinary skills, but from the heart. As she presented temple cuisine to the world, Kwan revolutionised the very way we think about food. With a new food trend stirring across pots around the globe, how could #OurCity be behind? As Delhi increasingly engages with temple food, we delve deep and bring to you the what, how, and why of this movement.
Traditionally, food offered to deities or religious entities before being offered to humans constitutes temple food. In the Western world it is typically associated with the food of Buddhist monks. As Buddhism spread, the monks gradually made the switch from begging for alms to preparing their own meals, and thus was born the temple cuisine, aka sachal eumsik in Korea, shōjin ryōri in Japan, and fucha ryōri in China.
Closer home, Indian temple food is widely known as Prasada or Sattvik bhojan, either made in the temple itself or by the devotees who offer it to the deity. Religious shrines, always at the centre of Indian civilization, unsurprisingly influenced the kitchens of the people – perhaps the reason why, even today, we continue to visit Puri temple for its mahabhog, the Tirupati temple for its famous laddoos, and the Golden temple for its never-fails-to-impress langar.
What is temple food?
Vegetarian fare (excluding the onion family), fresh, natural, and seasonal ingredients; minimal spices, zero-waste cooking, and following these principles with unwavering discipline is what makes temple cuisine. It is prepared in earthen pots, discourages use of vegetables grown in unnatural ways, and applies environment-friendly techniques. Case in point, the Gunch-e-Kadai (sun-dried cauliflower florets with capsicum and ginger) at Sattvik, the capital’s pioneer in serving temple cuisine. They prep the lip-smackin’ dish using the ancestral way of sun-drying cauliflower during its peak season and storing it in clay pots for use throughout the year.
Not just the physical aspect, temple food calls for active involvement of the emotional facet too. It is believed that the energy a cook brings to the kitchen is elemental to the food. You can glimpse into the philosophy at the Jagannath Temple in Puri, where the cooks are to follow two mandates: enter the kitchen on a full stomach, so you don’t covet the food you cook and thereby prevent indigestion for the consumers; and chant God’s name while cooking so as to induce a peaceful disposition. There is an equally strong emphasis on not being attached to the food itself while eating it – it is believed that the aim of consuming food is only to produce a healthy vessel to fulfil God’s wish, and no human desires (a cookie we’re still trying to crack).
Taking over plates across the globe
With the world collectively gravitating towards healthier, cleaner, and sustainable food, it’s no surprise that temple cuisine has found a new form in today’s F&B milieu. Tokyo’s Chef Toshio Tanahashi reinventing shojin ryori at his restaurant Gesshin Kyo; Jeong Kwan cooking for Michelin starred chefs in New York; New York hosting the first ever temple food festival in September 2017…the culinary wave has undoubtedly charmed the world, as well as made a forceful knock on the doors of the existing structure of the world food map.
Once again, bringing the lens on India, the Festival of Temple Cuisine during Navratri by the Taj group has celebrated this cuisine since 2004. Following suit, you have ITC Edo Japanese Restaurant and Bar (Bangalore), which experiments with shijon ryori cuisine, and Hyatt Regency’s festival, Pilgrim Palate, celebrating this style of cooking.
Decoding the capital, we speak with Sattvik, the 10-year-old restaurant bringing forth a holistic dining experience, “We’ve seen a definite increase in the popularity of sattvika food. Earlier people would bring their parents and grandparents, however, recent times have seen an influx of a younger crowd,” they say. Following the philosophy of holistic oneness of the elements of universe and serving dishes from all corners of India, we ask how their concept has been received, “We have achieved our vision, and much more. Our guests come in from across states, people ask for our recipes and offer franchises. We also have the maximum number of repeat guests within the mall.” With the city taking to temple food, more establishments are cropping up catering to this trend – you could visit Madhuban in Gurgaon for sattvik South Indian fare and Masala Art at Taj Palace Hotel, New Delhi for their food festival during Navratri.
Ruling supper tables at the moment, will temple food become a mainstay or another trend that winds down with time? As Jeong Kwan would say, “Let nature take care of it.”
Featured Image Courtesy: Xiaomei Chen