Prabhupada in the Kitchen
THERE ARE ONLY a few photos of Srila Prabhupada cooking, and for twenty years I've kept one of them in my kitchen. He is standing in front of a white gas range, holding a slotted spoon in his right hand, its tip hovering just above a metal mixing bowl. Srila Prabhupada is focused on the contents of the bowl, his head and eyes slightly downcast. He is freshly bathed and wearing only a silk dhoti. The silky smooth skin of his upper body and shaved head seem almost effulgent.
Of the two pots cooking on the stove to his right, the one clearly visible is well known to all his servants and cooks simply as "Srila Prabhupada's cooker." One of the few personal possessions he carried in his extensive travels, it went around the world more than ten times and ended up on stoves on almost every continent.
Made in India, the cooker is a heavy-gauge three-tiered brass steamer about sixteen-inches high. The snug-fitting lid is bowl-shaped and when inverted doubles as a small cooking pan, called a karai or Indian wok. The cooker comes with two removable tin-coated metal inserts that may be used to hold dishes in the two top steaming tiers. Srila Prabhupada trained his assistants in the use and care of the cooker, which is large enough, he said, "to make a full meal for four gentleman appetites in an hour."
Just glancing at the picture, I remember Srila Prabhupada's scent his clothes and body hinting of sandalwood mixed with pure goodness. As a rule, before he entered the kitchen to cook he took a massage and a bath and put on fresh clothes. I have never met anyone who so reflected cleanliness, in his person and habits, in and out of the kitchen, externally and internally.
Celebrating the Centennial In the Kitchen
As I mentioned in the last column, to celebrate Srila Prabhupada's centennial year in this cooking-class series, each column will also focus on one of Srila Prabhupada's instructions. So this month, along with discussing pakoras we'll consider what it means to become an expert cook.
Some dictionary synonyms for expert are "proficient," "adept," "skillful," and "competent." The Caitanya-caritamrta mentions several great devotees as expert cooks. The dishes cooked by Raghunatha Bhatta Gosvami "tasted just like nectar." Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya and Krsnadasa Kaviraja Gosvami were expert in the "art of preparing and serving food."
Certainly an expert Vaisnava devotee is fixed in knowledge of the Absolute Truth and highly skilled in the art of serving the Lord and His devotees. For the novice who aspires to become expert in Vaisnava cooking, I often stress three things good training, sincere and steady practice, and prayer.
In 1967, Srila Prabhupada taught us to recite the following invocation prayer every time we entered the kitchen to cook, something I do to this day:
caksur unmilitam yena
tasmai sri-gurave namah
"I was born in the darkest ignorance, and my spiritual master opened my eyes with the torch of knowledge. I offer my respectful obeisances unto him."
So with training, practice, and prayer, surely competency follows. If you watch a naturally adept cook in the kitchen, you'll notice he or she moves with fluid ease and, aware of time, performs many tasks at once. Flair and personal style are second nature to these cooks, but anyone can develop these qualities. It's only a matter of time.
You'll always find people who say that cooks are born, not made, who feel persistently clumsy themselves and say their attempts always end up in a string of mistakes. To that I say, you can overcome your obstacles with practice and a sincere devotional attitude. Given the right environment and encouragement, anyone can become a good, competent, even masterful cook.
How Prabhupada Taught
Srila Prabhupada taught both men and women how to cook in Krsna consciousness. In India, women learn to be expert cooks, usually from family members. In most temples, only expert brahmana men are allowed to work in or around the kitchen. In the last quarter century, restaurants have become fashionable in India, giving rise to both male and female equivalents of the Western professional chef.
At any rate, Srila Prabhupada taught cooking both to men and to women. In ISKCON'S fledgling years, he allowed his disciples in New York and San Francisco to watch and assist him as he prepared his noon meal, when he frequently cooked also for his students and drop-in guests.
On rare occasions, such as Janmastami in 1968 and Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati's disappearance day that same year, Srila Prabhupada entered temple kitchens to teach us how to make special dishes for feasts. Rarer still were spontaneous classes like the one he held one evening in 1967 in his San Francisco Willard Street apartment he grated coconuts on the floor and made an exotic melt-in-your-mouth Bengali confection of coconut, sugar, cardamom, black pepper, and camphor.
In these ways Srila Prabhupada taught cooking by example. He encouraged us to learn, become expert, and train others. He said that only a person with a fool's intelligence would keep teaching the same thing without qualified students to pass the knowledge on. One of my great desires in this Centennial year is that as a reader of this column you not stop at reading it but go to the class textbook, Lord Krishna's Cuisine, and use it. Learn everything it has to offer, because more than ninety percent of the dishes in the book are either from Srila Prabhupada or requested by him, or are ones he told me to learn to make. Let us use, share, and preserve his standards and instructions and thereby introduce many people to devotional cooking and the glories ofkrsna-prasadam, food prepared and offered first for Lord Krsna.
Now on to the topic of this cooking lesson.
Though pakoras are often called Indian vegetable fritters, they are quite different from all other kinds of vegetable fritters. Instead of using white flour or wheat flour for the batter, one uses besan, a flour of finely milled, lightly roasted small chickpeas. It's also called garbanzo bean flour and is available from Indian and natural grocery stores. The flavor of pakoras is also unique because the besan is seasoned with herbs, spices, ginger, and chilies.
The texture of pakora batter varies with the vegetable to be fried. For example, delicate vegetables such as spinach leaves need a thin batter, wet items such as green tomatoes a fairly thick one. The batter thickens considerably upon resting and will stick to the foods better if allowed to sit for a half hour or so before you use it. Adjust the batter consistency before frying.
The simplest kind of pakora consists of raw or cooked vegetables dipped in seasoned batter and fried until crisp. A second type of pakora is made by adding diced vegetables to a thickish batter and deep-frying spoonfuls of the mixture.
Just how a batter is seasoned usually depends on the region. In North India cumin, turmeric, and coriander are the norm. South Indians often prefer fried curry leaves and asafetida. Bengalis and Oriyans often add kalonji or black cumin seed. Gujaratis and Marwadis put in ajwain seeds. Everyone uses cilantro and some type of chili. If you're following along in the series, besides the recipe at left try several batters and pakora variations from the class textbook, Lord Krishna's Cuisine.
Pakoras are traditionally served with a chutney, fresh or cooked. Try one from the textbook or last issue's column.
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 ofBTG.
Bell Pepper Pakora
(Serves 6 as a snack or 8-10 as part of a meal)
1 cup chickpea flour
½ teaspoon turmeric
¼ teaspoon cayenne
1 tablespoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon yellow asafetida
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup water or as needed
3-4 evenly shaped red or yellow bell peppers
ghee or vegetable oil for deep-frying
Combine the first 7 ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth; pour into a bowl.
Cut each pepper into two halves, top and bottom. Remove the veins and seeds. Slice the pepper crosswise into rounds ¼-inch thick.
Pour 2 ½ inches of ghee or oil into a deep-frying pan and heat to 355 degrees F (180 degrees C). Dip each round into the batter, drop it into the oil, and fry it until crisp, about 2 minutes. Depending on the size of the pan, you can probably fry 4 or 5 rounds at a time. Skim the oil frequently to remove droplets of batter and keep the oil from darkening. (Do not use the oil again for pakoras.)
Transfer the pakoras to a paper towel to drain briefly. Then offer them to Krsna.