On October 22, 1976, I traveled to Vrndavana to ask Srila Prabhupada's permission to write a Vaisnava cookbook. There I met Sruti Rupa, one of his personal cooks, and I saw her dedication to studying Srila Prabhupada's instructions on cooking. Sruti Rupa is a natural cook, with refined senses and a thirst for knowledge. I visit her every year, and each year I'm enlivened with her new insights. The following interview, the first in a series, took place in Washington, D.C., and Key West, Florida, on May 20 and June 17, 1991.
YAMUNA DEVI: First, could you describe what prompted your interest in Krsna conscious cooking?
SRUTI RUPA: It wasn't a conscious decision but actually a desire to be near Srila Prabhupada.
YD: When was that?
SR: When I first saw him at Bhaktivedanta Manor in 1973. I had a magnetic attraction to his personal service. I somehow gravitated to service in the kitchen.
YD: Do you recall your first kitchen experience with him?
SD: It was in Vrndavana, 1976. There was a North Indian vegetable dish he requested on a regular basis. Arundati, his former cook, hadn't been getting it quite right. So when the time came for Palika and I to take over as resident cooks, Srila Prabhupada told us, "Tomorrow I'll come in."
YD: What happened?
SD: It was about 11:30 A.M., just after he'd finished his massage and bath. As the kitchen door opened with a whooshing sound, the air was infused with the fragrance of sandalwood oil. Srila Prabhupada was glowing, and as his smile turned into a chuckle, he said, "I've never been in my kitchen before. It is very nice."
YD: What was the vegetable dish in question?
SR: North Indian Punjabi Badi Sabji a vegetable stew with spicy urad badis [dried dal cakes] simmered in a seasoned stock.
YD: Can you describe how he made the dish?
SD: Srila Prabhupada sat on a low stool in front of two gas burners. I was holding containers of freshly ground spice pastes, and the vegetables were ready. He heated ghee in a heavy-bottomed brass pot over high heat. In quick sequence, he briefly fried a few paste masalas and then added potatoes and cauliflower. He added water and badis and simmered the stew until the vegetables were tender. That was it. So simple.
YD: Sruti, your conversations are always peppered with references to Srila Prabhupada. What did he stress the most in his instruction?
SR: Purity, cleanliness, and quality and to avoid waste. Srila Prabhupada taught us to be very particular about the quality and purity of spices. For instance, in '76 and '77 he refused preground dry spices. Everything had to be ground fresh daily. Every morning I set aside one and a half hours to wet-grind small bowls of several spice pastes cumin, cumin and black pepper, turmeric, fresh ginger, and hot chili paste. Turmeric root must be softened five days before grinding. And it's especially likely to be cut with other ingredients by merchants. So from Prabhupada's example I learned to look for the best ingredients to ensure the best taste.
YD: Do you find it difficult to get good ingredients?
SR: It's difficult where I'm living now, in Key West. I order ingredients by mail, or I sometimes drive quite a ways to get what I want.
YD: The same is true for discerning cooks around the world. In India, temple chefs travel the subcontinent to get the best seasonal grains, legumes, or fruits for the pleasure of the Deity.
I know you prefer organic ingredients. Why?
SR: Of course, now I've evolved to total organics. There are several reasons, from fragrance to flavor what to speak of the effect of chemicals on the food chain, the land, and the water.
Just compare the taste of organic grapes, oranges, tomatoes, broccoli, or potatoes to the taste of those sprayed with chemicals. Srila Prabhupada encouraged us to grow everything ourselves, to protect the cows, the bulls, and the land nothing artificial.
YD: Let me ask you about a topic people are concerned with: What do you consider a healthy Vaisnava diet?
SR: A diet that is balanced, seasonal, simple, nourishing, and sustaining. And weekday meals should be light, not loaded with butter, sugar, sour cream, or ghee. In India, a typical daily meal is boiled dal, rice, vegetables, and perhaps capatis. Heavy, rich, and fried foods are there, but saved for the occasional snack or festive holiday meals.
YD: When you were cooking for Srila Prabhupada, what was his typical daily diet?
SD: Fruits in the morning, sometimes with sandesa [cheese fudge] or milk. Sometimes he asked for South Indian wadas [urad dal dumplings] or tikkis [savory cutlets]. Lunch was dal, rice, vegetables, and capatis, often made in his tiered steam cooker. He liked a glass of fresh juice in the late afternoon. In the evening, hot milk and a little something made with ghee. Some nights he likedpuris [puffed flat breads] or maybe fried eggplant.
YD: From your point of view, what direction would you hope ISKCON cooking is heading?
SR: To the extent that ISKCON cooks take advantage of Srila Prabhupada's instructions and example, they'll be enriched. Simply study his standard.
Srila Prabhupada's Punjabi Badi Sabji
2 tablespoons ghee or butter
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 tablespoon cumin-pepper paste (below)
1 tablespoon coriander paste (below)
1 pound new potatoes, peeled and cut in 1-inch pieces
1 small cauliflower, trimmed, and cut into large florets
2-3 large Punjabi badis (available from Indian grocers)
5 cups water
¼ teaspoon turmeric
Heat the ghee or butter in a 4-quart saucepan over moderately high heat. Add the ginger and spice pastes and fry until they sizzle. Stir in the vegetables and fry 2-3 minutes. Pour in the water, add thebadi and turmeric, and bring to a boil.
Cover and reduce to moderately low heat. Gently boil until the vegetables are tender. Season with salt.
To make wet spice pastes, it doesn't have to take you an hour and a half. Here's how to do it:
Place 1 teaspoon of cumin seeds and ¼ teaspoon of black pepper corns in a coffee or spice mill and grind. Transfer to a small dish and stir in 1 tablespoon of water. Repeat using 1 tablespoon of whole coriander seeds and 1 tablespoon of water. Combine both pastes in the small dish.
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.