I'M BEGINNING my second year writing this column. In the premiere issue I asked readers to send in their requests for topics. Nearly all the letters came from people living outside ISKCON temples a chef, a prison inmate, a graduate student, and a physician, to name a few. The most requested topic was cooking lessons.
Many ISKCON centers offer cooking classes, but for Back to Godhead readers who don't have access to them, this year in this column I'll focus on introductory cooking lessons.
The textbook and homework source for the study is my new paperback entitled The Best of Lord Krishna's Cuisine. A shortened edition of my 800-page hardback, it offers substantial text and 172 recipes from five regional Indian cuisines North, South, East, West, and Central. While classically Indian in origin, these vegetarian recipes keep Western tastes in mind. Hot chilies and seasonings are used in moderation, and much like salt and lemon juice, they act as flavor enhancers instead of overpowering elements.
In the eight years I served as one of Prabhupada's personal cooks, he sampled more than eighty-five percent of the dishes in the book. If he critiqued or commented on a dish, I worked that information into the final version of the recipe. More than a dozen dishes are Srila Prabhupada originals from Creamy Mung Dal with Chopped Spinach to the techniques in Three Methods of Cooking Vegetables. For the Simple Tomato Chutney he simply gave me a list of the ingredients and left the amounts and texture up to me. Creamy Pineapple and Rice Jubilee is a dish he taught my sister Janaki in San Francisco. His recipe for Bittermelon Chips with Coconut was a regular on many lunch plates, with flavor variations of the dish rendered by his cook Malati Devi Dasi.
On occasion Srila Prabhupada might have suggested a seasoning adjustment or explained how a different heat intensity would affect the finished texture or body of a dish. Perhaps he came into the kitchen and gave an impromptu demonstration of a technique or procedure. No matter what his involvement in my learning these recipes, I've tried to let each page of The Best of Lord Krishna's Cuisine reflect Srila Prabhupada's standard and instruction.
Srila Prabhupada continually revealed new aspects of the art of devotional cooking, not only to me but to all his student cooks. So I've spent day upon week collaborating with many of his other cooks, collecting recipes, comparing notes, and recalling stories for the text. Most of my colleagues agree that his instructions seemed to flow out of the student's eagerness to learn. He once said that he gave the instructions because we wanted to hear so intently, and of course he was right.
As with the cookbook, in this column I will try to explain things in a simple, uncomplicated way. I hope it will spark your interest enough so you'll delve more deeply into the subject. You can use either the soft- or hardback edition of the cookbook for the course. They're available in bookstores or by mail order from Bala Books, 12520 Kirkham Ct., Poway, CA 92064.
Before we proceed to class topics such as rice, legumes, vegetables, and condiments, I'd like to address a few questions I'm repeatedly asked about devotional Vaisnava cooking: What is the attitude of the Vaisnava cook? What rules and regulations surround the preparation of food in the kitchen? What type of food should we eat daily? How do I organize my kitchen, and what special equipment do I need? How do I make my cooking a meditation, a yoga, and a devotional offering to Lord Krsna? What is the nature of food offered to Krsna, and how does it affect consciousness?
In the next issue, we'll glance at some of Srila Prabhupada's early letters and conversations on these subjects and hear insights from early ISKCON cooks.
For the newcomer to Vaisnava cooking, these topics are concisely answered in an excellent BBT publication called The Higher Taste A Guide to Gourmet Vegetarian Cooking and a Karma-Free Diet, available through ISKCON centers worldwide. Pick up a copy for good reading.
The standards you'll learn in this course will be be easy to put into gear, as I'll give more weight to attitude than to paraphernalia. Devotional cooking is not a mechanical process but a means of purifying the heart.
In subsequent issues we'll focus on chapters in the book such as Rice, Dals, Vegetables, Salads, and Beverages. We'll concentrate on ingredients, how and where to find them, technique, and easy-to-prepare recipes for workday meals. I encourage you to get The Best of Lord Krishna's Cuisine and explore a new culinary adventure this year. It will not only expand your taste horizon; it will likely change your life.
The classes will start in the next issue, but for now, here's a recipe for a simple pepper blend with a terrific flavor. Try it out for a week in place of plain black pepper.
½ tablespoon dried lemon peel
1 tablespoon allspice
1 tablespoon coarse sea salt
2 tablespoons white peppercorns (muntok)
3 tablespoons black peppercorns (preferably tellicherry)
3 tablespoons red peppercorns
4 tablespoons freeze-dried green peppercorns
Simply mix the ingredients and while you're cooking grind them fresh from a pepper mill when the recipe calls for black pepper. The ingredients are available at gourmet and specialty food stores.
Yamuna Devi is the author of Lord Krishna's Cuisine: The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking and is a regular contributor to the Washington Post.