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In Hinduism food is so important that the tradition is sometimes called “the kitchen religion”. No function is complete without the free distribution of food.
Food and philosophy.
Largely influenced by the doctrine of ahimsa, many Hindus are lacto-vegetarian, shunning all meat, fish and eggs, but those less strict will certainly avoid beef
During temple worship foodstuffs are regularly offered to the Deity (sacred image) and such sanctified food is called prasad – “the mercy of the Lord”. This prasad is distributed to visitors who receive a little respectfully in the palms of their right hand. Some Hindus will refuse to eat anything but prasad and hence in their household all meals are first offered at the shrine.
In the Bhagavad-Gita (17.8 – 10) food is categorised according to the three gunas (material qualities), as follows:
- foods in the mode of goodness (sattva) increase the duration of life, purify one’s existence and give strength, health, happiness and satisfaction. Such foods are juicy, fatty, wholesome, and pleasing to the heart.
- foods that are too bitter, too sour, hot, pungent, dry and burning are dear to those in the mode of passion (rajas). Such foods cause distress, misery and disease.
- foods prepared more than three hours before being eaten, food that is tasteless, decomposed and putrid, and food consisting of remnants and untouchable things is dear to those in the mode of darkness (tamas).
The best foods are those which promote sattva – harmony, purity and intelligence. Sattvic foods include milk products, sugar, rice, wheat, pulses, fruits and many vegetables. Rajasic food, including anything excessively rich, stimulates excitement, passion and action. Tamasic foods (e.g. meat) promote laziness, dullness and ignorance. Prasad is considered sacred, transcendental to the three material qualities.
Cooking is often performed over open fires, whilst squatting on the floor. Men often cook as well as woman, especially in temple kitchens. Brahmins often prefer to cook for themselves.
Cooking usually requires scrupulous cleanliness and there are various conventions according to specific tradition and strictness of adherence. Hands should be thoroughly washed before touching food and some will freshly bathe and wear clean cloth. Food should not be tasted (nor sometimes even smelled) whilst cooking. This is particularly true for those who offer food to the Deity.
Spices are used extensively though very hot food is not considered healthy. Hot curries are not so common as popularly thought! Spices are usually fried in hot ghee, as seeds or in ground form, before being added to the preparation. Popular spices are: chilli (whole or powder), cumin (seeds and powder), coriander (seeds and powder), fresh coriander leaves, mustard seeds, turmeric powder (a bright yellow colour), black pepper, asafoetida (a good substitute for onion) and masala powder (a mixture of powdered spices).
There’s an Indian proverb which says that the best cook is yourself, then your mother, then your wife, followed by everyone else.
Common cooking utensils are:
- karhai: (like a wok, but deeper, for deep frying such food as puris)
- tawa: (iron skillet for roasting chapattis.)
- belan: small diameter rolling pin
- chinti: chapatti tongues
- masala dibba: large tin with seven spice containers
Serving and Eating.
The are various rules about cleanliness. Hands and mouth should be washed before and after meals.
The person serving food should not eat at the same time. In some families the mother will not eat until her husband and children have finished.
There are often scrupulous rules about eating itself. One should not stand whilst eating, nor should one get up or interrupt a meal. Left over food (jutha) is considered polluted unless it is prasad. The left-overs of saintly people, however, are considered special and purifying. Remnants of food are distributed to the animals to avoid wastage.
Food is often served on a stainless-steel tally (small bowls, katoris, on a large tray) or using natural products such as banana leaf plates and clay pots. The food is usually eaten without knife, fork or spoon but using the right hand (the left is reserved for unclean jobs.)
According to the rigid, hereditary caste system (often considered a corruption of the original system) members of higher castes will often not accept food from those deemed of lower status. It is often thought that the mentality of the cook subtlety enters the food.
Fasting and feasting are important, especially on festive occasions. Many Hindus fast all day on Janmashtami (Krishna’s birthday) and feast shortly after midnight. Some will fast, partially or completely on a particular day of the week, often depending on their worshipful deity. Especially important is Ekadashi, the eleventh day of the waxing or waning moon, when many Hindus avoid grains and beans.
According to Ayur Veda (the Vedic scripture dealing with medicine and health) different foods should be eaten at different times of the day and to different degrees according to a person’s constitution. The higher the sun, the hotter the fire of digestion, and thus the main meal is usually taken around noon. The different foods, categorised according to the six tastes, should be eaten in a specific order, though this may vary according to regional customs.
A traditional lunch would consist of: rice, dahl (a spiced bean soup), subji (a vegetable preparation) and chapattis (a round, flat, unleavened bread). There may also be a chutney, a savoury (such as samosas) and a sweet (such as barfi).
A wide range of cookbooks are available from most ISKCON centres, from ISKCON Educational Services or from the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, Unit 3, The Terrace, Manor Way, Borehamwood WD6 1NB (catalogue available upon request, £1 refundable with first order).
For visiting school groups, full traditional lunch is available at Bhaktivedanta Manor from 1.00 pm – 2.00 pm, usually as part of a comprehensive programme on the Hindu philosophy and way of life. For bookings please write to: The Secretary, ISKCON Educational Services, Bhaktivedanta Manor, Hilfield Lane, Aldenham, Herts WD25 8EZ or ring 01923-859578.