How temple cuisine in India made its way from places of worship onto the menus of five-star hotels
Long the mainstay of offerings made to the deity, or served to the poor and needy at places of worship as part of community service, ‘temple cuisine’ is now dished up in the kitchens of leading hotels as well.
Meenakashi temple puttu, pokharo at Jagannath Puri temple, ringan nu shaak at Dwarka temple or Annakoot and besani poori at Vrindavan, kada parshad at the Golden Temple in Amritsar... these are no longer something that one can sample only at the respective temples as ‘prasad’ or 'bhog'. Long the mainstay of offerings made to the deity, or served to the poor and needy at places of worship as part of community service, ‘temple cuisine’ is now dished up in the kitchens of leading hotels as well.
Whether it is the ‘Temple Cuisine Festival’ at Taj Mahal Palace — Mumbai, the Hyatt Regency’s ‘Pilgrim Palate’ or ITC Mughal’s ‘Brij Bhog’, hotels are increasingly trying to popularise temple cuisine (vegetarian satvik food), by giving their diners a unique experience.
Ajit Bangera, the senior executive chef of ITC Grand Chola, says, “Hotels feature temple cuisine for a number of reasons. As part of the Kitchens of India series, ITC Mughal features the ‘Brij Bhog’ or the temple cuisine from the neighbouring holy towns of Vrindavan and Mathura. It allows travellers to experience a part of the region’s culture and heritage. Another instance is the Navratras, wherein the cuisine is offered as part of the spirit of the festivities and to also help travellers follow their religious practices away from home.”
It was Taj Hotels’ endeavour to revive forgotten foods which led them to research the sacred food served in temples across India by sending their chefs there to experience it first-hand. Thus, the idea of serving this to patrons as ‘Temple Cuisine’ during Navratri emerged four years ago and the tradition has been continuing.
Raghu Deora, the executive sous chef of The Taj Mahal Palace — Mumbai, explains, “The festive season gives the hotels a great opportunity to showcase the special temple cuisines to the in-house as well as the city guests. The global traveler staying in the hotels may not have travelled to the holy sites of India, so the food promotions gives them a glimpse of the cuisine served in the temples. Rooting back to the nobility of Indian heritage and culture, we believe the temple cuisine is an integral part of the spiritual experiences India offers.”
A common factor for all temples with regard to bhog or prasad, is that it should nourish and feed not only the body but also the mind. Naturally then, satvik food devoid of onion and garlic, with a bare minimum of spices is the preferred choice.
Temple food is an extended form of traditional indigenous food that Hindu culture is synonymous with and is thus free from preservatives and chemicals. It is food served in its most basic and fresh form. The dishes are enriched with herbs, spices and natural fragrances. So you'll find five-star hotel chefs replicating everything from pavakkai pitlai, a bitter gourd curry and puzukhu made from ripe jackfruit and black chanas, to mangai kosamalli, the brinjal gravy dish and javarisi paal payasam, made from sago and reduced milk, served across temples in South India and bhoger khichuri from Orissa to langar di dal of Golden Temple and the poori chana of Vaishno Devi.
Sanctity is maintained not only in the food served but also in the preparation methods, right from the utensils used to the way the dish is served. Clay or earthen pots over a wood fire are preferred by chefs in hotels wherever possible and the food is served in copper thalis and banana leaves.
Chefs are equally strict when it comes to the recipes they follow when cooking the temple cuisine dishes. The recipes are well-researched and often teams sent to the temples to experience the food observe the cooking methods there, and gather tips from the local cooks there.
Again, ingredients play a vital role and chefs are careful when procuring these. Hotels ensure that the ingredients used are pure — just as in a temple. From ghee and curd made from cow’s milk, to matta, njavara, red, parboiled, varieties of rice and fresh seasonal vegetables to wholesome spices — every care is taken to recreate the original experience for the diner.
The temple cuisine offered by Taj Hotels is divided into four sections: north, south, east and west; it is served as a thali with an array of dishes, to let the guests discover the variety of delicacies that are served in temples of a particular region.
In reality too, each temple offers dishes that are characteristic of that region. Chef Ajit Bangera of ITC Grand Chola points out, “The food differs from region to region because of seasonal availability. It also changes with climate of the region. For example, at the Puri temple, the maha bhog has influences of the Oriya Cuisine. At the Tirupati temple, the food draws inspiration from Andhra cuisine. The food offered at Dwarkadish temple is influenced by Gujarati cuisine and the food offered at the Golden Temple langar is influenced by the Sikh culture.”
Some of the dishes offered as part of the temple cuisine in hotels may not be entirely new to diners, but the purity and sincerity with which it is prepared certainly proves to be a divine experience and transports one to the temples — albeit momentarily.
Mini Ribeiro is a food writer and critic. Follow her blog here.
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