The Vaisnava Kitchen: Hands to Work, Hearts to God
ONE OF THE MOST MEMORABLE aspects of visiting a temple of Lord Krsna is sampling its renowned food artful Indian vegetarian cuisine prepared and offered for the pleasure of the Deity. This food is distributed as prasadam, or the mercy of the Lord, and temple visitors who understand its spiritual value feel fortunate to sample even a little portion.
In India temple cooks are generally regarded as the country's finest chefs. Aspiring temple cooks apprentice from two to six years. Only at the end of the training is a student allowed to cook in the temple kitchen.
While mastery of technique is a prerequisite to culinary excellence, the more substantive merit of a Vaisnava chef whether cooking in the temple or at home is purity of the heart, mind, and senses. The standards for cooking at home differ from those in the temple kitchen, yet cleanliness and purity are essential wherever one cooks for the Lord. So I'm beginning this series of cooking classes by discussing external and internal cleanliness as they relate to cooking.
Cleanliness is invigorating and purifying. And it's catching. Cleanliness in the kitchen will filter into other rooms of your house.
Your first task is to clean the kitchen from floor to ceiling every nook and cranny. Clean under the sink; then move on to each drawer, cupboard, and shelf. Thoroughly clean the refrigerator, freezer, oven, and stove. Scrub your utensils and pot bottoms until they sparkle. Wash the floors, counters, walls, and storage containers.
As far as possible, this is the way your kitchen should stay. To keep this standard, clean as you cook and avoid leaving clutter and messes while you work. If flour spills into a drawer, clean it before you move to another area.
Next, take a look at the organization in your kitchen. Unless you designed your kitchen, you probably want more countertop work space. It's likely there, but covered by decorative bric-a-brac, storage containers, and small appliances. Move these items elsewhere and clear your counters for working. Keep often-used equipment within easy reach, and less-used wares tucked in out-of-the-way spots.
Keep spices, oils, grains, and legumes in well-sealed containers and store them in a cool, dark area for the longest shelf life. Nuts and seeds will last twice as long when kept frozen in zip-lock bags. Sharpen the knives and treat yourself to a new cutting board if you need one.
I recently asked Brahmananda Dasa, one of Srila Prabhupada's first disciples, to recall what rules Prabhupada had given for internal purity in the kitchen.
He replied unhesitatingly, "Think of Krsna, chant Hare Krsna, and don't taste food while you cook it."
I then asked him how one should make cooking a meditation, or a devotional offering to the Lord.
He replied, "Simply remember that the food is for Krsna's pleasure."
To think of Krsna, you have to read about Him, discuss His teachings, and chant or sing His holy name, alone or in congregation. Try daily chanting the maha-mantra Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. While you clean the kitchen, for example, try chanting either in a monotone or to a melody.
Reading, discussing, and chanting the glories of the Lord is good for the mind, body, and heart. And for a Vaisnava cook, it is the recommended process for internal purification. It gives you insights on how best to please the Lord with your endeavors.
Srila Prabhupada established simple guidelines about kitchen standards in the 1960's through instructions and letters. To establish a Vaisnava kitchen in your home, adopt these attitudes and note the positive effects:
"The main thing is that whenever food is offered to the Lord, everything should be respectfully and cleanly presented and prepared."
"Place everything you have made for the Lord on a special plate and offer it with love and devotion. Think, 'Krsna, I have made this for You. Please take it.' "
"The Lord can eat as many times as you can offer … He is neither hungry nor poor, nor unable to eat, but He accepts everything when such eatables are within the groups of vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, dairy, etc."
"Hands should be always washed when preparing prasadam, and in this way everything shall be prepared cleanly and purely."
"Smelling and tasting of foods being prepared for the Lord should never be done. Become familiar enough with your ingredients so you can calculate the desired outcome. Offer first, taste later."
* * *
The recipe this month is a drink for breaking a fast or for taking in the morning upon rising. Srila Prabhupada suggested it in April 1967 for the first ISKCON observation of Lord Caitanya's birthday Gaura Purnima.
1 cup spring water
3 tablespoons lemon or lime juice
3 tablespoons maple syrup or raw sugar
barest sprinkle of cayenne pepper
Whisk until blended. Serve at room temperature.
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.