Cooking at the Vaisnava Academy
Talk about cooking up a storm! If you think preparing meals for your family is a job, imagine feeding up to twenty hungry teenagers every day. That requires the dedication and commitment of a special person. So along with a glance at salads, the next subject in our cooking class, this month you get the benefit of a recent chat I had with one such dedicated person.
Atadhvaja Swami is the asrama teacher at the Vaisnava Academy for Boys in Alachua, Florida. The Academy draws students from all over the U.S. His work days average sixteen hours, with responsibilities from shopping and cleaning to gardening and administration.
Yamuna Devi: How do you plan your menus?
Atadhvaja Swami: The meals are not grand or elaborate. They loosely follow repetitive formulas. The students practically grow overnight and need three substantial meals a day.
Making breakfast is not time consuming. I make dishes that simmer away in a pot with only an occasional stir grits, oatmeal, perhaps kicchari [rice-and-dal stew]. Once a week I spend more time and make pancakes with syrup. Lunch centers on rice,dal, capatis, vegetables, and salad. The students love the salad. I usually make a salad of greens with a sour-cream dressing.
Dinner is early about five o'clock and consists of rice, dal, and a vegetable. Or rice, a vegetable, and bread sticks. Or rice, dal, and puris or capatis. Pasta and pizza are favorites anytime. The boys love my pizza.
Within this simple framework there's plenty of variety.
YD: Can you give examples of that variety? What changes have you made in response to the likes or needs of the students?
RS: We have an organic garden at the Academy, and a long growing season in Florida. So I can introduce really fresh seasonal produce into the meals. Of course, I take into consideration the requests of parents. If I left it up to the students, they would eat sweets, sweets, and that's it. I work two sweet meals into the weekly menus pancakes and syrup and oatmeal. And on Sunday they can relish rich dishes at the Sunday feast. Students with a strong sweet tooth can always satisfy it by rendering temple service in exchange for maha-prasadam sweets. Invariably, if someone earns a large bowl of maha-prasadam sweets by winning a scholastic contest, the sweets are shared by one and all.
For convenience, when traveling we eat a simple breakfast of puffed cereal and milk. We don't eat grains cooked by nondevotees.
YD: Please define "cooked grains." Do you eat prepared breakfast cereals? Do you puff and grind your own wheat?
RS: No to both questions. With the exception of puffed wheat and rice, which Srila Prabhupada ate, we don't eat boxed breakfast cereals. The principle is that we don't eat grains prepared or cooked by nondevotees, including bread, crackers, and tortillas. We eat only Krsna-prasadam, food offered to the Lord for His pleasure.
Everything we eat I make from scratch puris, capatis, pizza, bread sticks. Instead of making tortilla chips from store-bought corn tortillas, or burritos from store-bought white-flour tortillas, I make tortilla chips and burritos from fresh whole-wheatcapatis. I want the students to see how easy it is to live without eating food prepared by nondevotees, a principle Srila Prabhupada repeated so many times. I keep the menu fast, fresh, and healthy.
YD: Are the students interested in cooking? Do you teach classes?
RS: Not formally. If someone shows an interest in cooking and requests training as a chef, I have enough skill to teach him how to make almost anything. Though the kitchen is Spartan by some standards, stocked with only the basics, I can expand it when a student desires to increase his skill. I begin by teaching how to assist cleaning, cutting, sometimes rolling capatis or frying puris. The boys watch, assist, and learn like an apprentice.
YD: What makes cooking for Krsna a spiritual activity?
RS: Arjuna was a fighter, a warrior, and he fought for Krsna. He was thinking of Krsna while fighting. Similarly, if you have some ability to cook, Krsna says you should use that in His service. Simply do your best to please Krsna, your spiritual master, and the devotees by cooking nicely, and not only do you become enthusiastic, so does everyone who tastes the prasadam.
Cooking for Krsna in an inspiration and a meditation it purifies the heart and mind. Cooking for Krsna helps you control your senses, because by the time you've finished your meditative cooking and the meal has been offered with love, you almost feel like you've absorbed nutrition from the empty pots and your appetite is satiated.
YD: What do you most emphasize in relation to prasadam?
RS: Prasadam should be honored; it is Krsna. Now there are fourteen boys in the asrama, up to twenty at meal time, with ages ranging from eleven to fourteen. So the policy is that whatever is served as prasadam, students should not be critical of it; rather, they should respect it. For example, not everyone may like the one cooked item I prepare for breakfast, but everyone should respect it because it is prasadam. Maybe the next day someone likes the dish more or less, but whatever it is, prasadamshould be relished. Of course, there are always exceptions, and no one is forced. Taking prasadam should be a joyous experience.
YD: Yes. Thank you very much.
Now on to classic Indian salads. As discussed in the last column, in India yogurt raita salads are popular in many areas. The other type of salad most commonly served as part of a full meal is known by various names: salaat, kachambar, kosumalli, and kosumbara. In the north it is as simple as sliced tomatoes or cucumbers sprinkled with salt, pepper, toasted cumin seeds, and lemon juice. In other regions it more often takes the form of chopped raw or blanched vegetables dressed in salt, cilantro, chopped chilies, lime juice, and oil infused with spice seeds. You can play with these concepts as you like, according to available seasonal produce.
If you're following the class series with the textbook, Lord Krishna's Cuisine, you know what to do. Working from the chapter on salads, prepare several salads, including selections of small and side-dish salads. Observe how the type and amount of seasoning in a recipe complements the featured ingredients. Experiment with available seasonal produce. Instead of chick peas, try another legume. Instead of coriander, feature another fresh herb. Fill a hollowed-out tomato with salad. Come up with some new variations of your own. If you have teenagers who like salad greens with a rich sour-cream dressing, try the salad below.
Yamuna Devi is the author of the award-winning cookbooks Lord Krishna's Cuisine: The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking and Yamuna's Table. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and Vegetarian Times. Write to her in care ofBack to Godhead.
Use any lettuce you like. Atadhvaja Swami says his students like iceberg lettuce the best. Some students don't like bell peppers, so he cuts them into ½-inch dice so they can be easily removed. Adjust the ingredients according to tastes. To cut down on fat, use yogurt instead of sour cream.
¾ pound trimmed and sliced iceberg lettuce; or torn romaine, green, or red-leaf lettuce
1 carrot, finely shredded
1 cup sprouts
1 cup chopped green pepper
½ cup finely sliced celery
½ tablespoon mustard seeds
1-2 tablespoons ghee or olive oil
pinch of asafetida
2 cups sour cream or slightly drained yogurt
salt and pepper
Toss the salad ingredients in a bowl. Place the mustard seeds in a small pot over moderate heat. When they start to crackle, add the ghee or oil, partially cover, and cook until the seeds turn grey and pop. Remove the pan from the heat and sprinkle in the asafetida. Pour in the water and whisk in the sour cream or yogurt. Season with salt and pepper. Just before serving, toss the salad and dressing. Offer to Krsna.
4 cups water
pinch of asafetida
1-2 tablespoons butter
1 cup quick-cooking hominy grits
salt, as desired
1 cup grated cheddar cheese or diced fried potatoes, optional
Place the water, asafetida, and butter in a medium saucepan over high heat. Bring to a boil. Stir in the grits. Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 10-15 minutes, or until thick. Remove from the heat. If desired, stir in optional cheese or potatoes. Season with salt. Offer to Krsna.