An old Sikh scrubs a huge cooking pot
© Helena Schätzle

Divine Indian food

  • TEXT REINHARD KECK
  • PHOTOS HELENA SCHÄTZLE

Hauling sacks, stirring curries, washing pots: The Golden Temple in Amritsar feeds 100 000 pilgrims every day. Our reporter tried his hand as a kitchen boy

Perspiration was to be expected. Aching muscles, too. But now I have a cut right across the palm of my hand. A sharp edge on the bottom of the bucket slit the skin open. It’s not a dramatic wound or even particularly painful, but it is a nuisance because it’s my job to carry heavy iron buckets full of dirty dishes over to the scullery. And so this is how, at the end of my working day in probably the largest canteen in the world, I come to shed a few drops of blood – and seriously ponder whether I might have been a little overzealous.

Some hours earlier: I enter the Harmandir Sahib, or Golden Temple, of Amritsar alongside thousands of pilgrims and tourists in the morning. To the adherents of Sikhism, this house of god in the northern Indian city is the holiest shrine and probably the most-visited attraction on the Indian subcontinent. According to its administration, the temple welcomes some 100 000 people on the average every day – not even the Taj Mahal can boast that many visitors.

Just about as popular as the Golden Temple itself is the temple’s canteen. Known as the langar, the temple kitchen offers every visitor, pilgrim or tourist, a free vegetarian meal – day or night. Everyone is welcome here; age, background, religion and gender are unimportant. The langar tradition is as sacred to the Sikhs as Communion to the Catholics – except that the temple serves larger portions and divorcees are also allowed to partake. Another impressive fact is that only a dozen permanent employees provide sustenance for thousands of people. The mass catering is chiefly the work of almost 500 voluntary helpers, most of them pilgrims and believers seeking religious fulfillment and inspiration in kitchen work. Today, I am also a member of the kitchen team. But I am far more interested in the practical aspects of feeding the thousands than in spiritual enlightenment: What are the logistics? How does the food taste? And how hard do you have to toil in the kitchen?

No Indian dish would be complete without ghee, liquid butterfat; helpers in the pilgrims’ kitchen spread it thin flatbreads

No Indian dish would be complete without ghee, liquid butterfat; helpers in the pilgrims’ kitchen spread it thin flatbreads

© Helena Schätzle
The Harmandir Sahib, or Golden Temple, is Indian’s most-visited attraction: to its right: Ramgarhia Bunga fortress

The Harmandir Sahib, or Golden Temple, is Indian’s most-visited attraction: to its right: Ramgarhia Bunga fortress

© Helena Schätzle
The staff of the temple canteen constantly feed the giant ovens with firewood …

The staff of the temple canteen constantly feed the giant ovens with firewood …

© Helena Schätzle
… and peel onions

… and peel onions

© Helena Schätzle

 Before starting work, I buy myself an orange scarf for ten rupees, that’s roughly 14 cents, to cover my head. That, like going barefoot, is compulsory in the temple. At first sight, the temple is – there’s no other way to put it – spectacular. This magnificent building covered with gleaming gold leaf rises from the manmade Pool of Nectar, from afar resembling an oversized jewelry casket. The white walls of the surrounding palaces reflect the sun, leaving the temple bathed in a softer light. Overwhelmed by the sight, some pilgrims immediately fall to their knees and give themselves up to prayer.

The canteen is tucked away in a corner within the walls of the temple complex. Basically, every visitor can set to work straight away without reporting for duty, but I decide to introduce myself to the head cook. The man’s name is Uttam Singh. He is 82 years old, a small, wiry man with a blue turban and a bushy white beard. His crooked limbs remind me of the roots of an ancient tree. If Singh were to claim he was a sorcerer and flew home on a magic wand at the end of his working day, you wouldn’t lay odds against him. Now he’s stirring something in a cast-iron cauldron the size of a hot tub with a spoon resembling an oar. The something in the pot is dal, lentil soup, which is as elementary to traditional Indian cooking as pretzels are to a Bavarian snack. Wood fires as tall as funeral pyres burn beneath the huge pots. They blaze 24 hours a day because cooking goes on round the clock, too. It takes five tons of firewood a day to keep the fires burning.

Singh was in charge of the army’s field kitchen until he retired. Now he plans the meals for the Golden Temple. Although Singh only has traditional Indian dishes served here, at home he also enjoys exotic European fare: like pasta with tomato sauce, for example.

The boss tells me to start work in the basement, where he needs men who are willing and able to work hard. I follow the sharp smell of onions and end up in the belly of the temple. This is where the storerooms are, with sacks full of flour and rice, and meticulously stacked vegetables; mountains of garlic cloves, chilies, onion and ginger are kept in separate rooms.

Rich or poor – all visitors to the Golden Temple receive a free meal and, if they wish, even a second helping. The tradition goes back to Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the founder of Sikhism

Rich or poor – all visitors to the Golden Temple receive a free meal and, if they wish, even a second helping. The tradition goes back to Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the founder of Sikhism

© Helena Schätzle
Reporter Reinhard Keck butters flatbreads with the pilgrims

Reporter Reinhard Keck butters flatbreads with the pilgrims

© Helena Schätzle

 A young man hurries over: Tejbir Singh, 25. He is not related to Uttam Singh, the head cook, he explains; all male Sikhs have the surname “Singh.” He waves a handwritten order note; Uttam needs 100 kilos of red lentils straight away. With enviable ease, Tejbir shoulders the first sack and hurries away. I take the next one – and immediately realize that I had misheard its weight: not 15 kilos, but 50. Hardly have I heaved the sack onto my shoulder, when a pain shoots into my back. I climb a dozen steps and already have to set it down again.

Tejbir’s stature is certainly not that of a weight lifter, but he and his friends haul masses of food through the temple. In 24 hours, an average of 10 000 kilos of flour, 1000 kilos of rice, 13 000 kilos of lentils and up to 2000 kilos of vegetables are cooked in the langar. There are precious few technical aids here. The most effective machine here is collective muscle power. “For us, there are only three things that matter,” says Tejbir, “praising God, singing sacred songs and working.” The fact that everything runs smoothly here is clearly due to the highly motivated, modest workforce. As Tejbir tells me, “Serving the community is a tradition and a good feeling.” Good karma is reward enough for him. Then he pulls out his cell phone and we take a selfie. He tells me with a grin that he can hardly wait to show his wife the new workmate who made such a fool of himself hauling sacks.

The langar tradition goes back to the founder of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak Dev Ji, an itinerant preacher, who traveled the Punjab region in the 16th century. He was a social reformer, who taught that there was only one, all-pervasive God of Creation, who was neither woman nor man. Of his disciples, he demanded virtues: Do good, live an honest life, work hard. Treat all men equally. Be generous and serve your fellow men. In the langar, the guru saw all these virtues combined: a free meal for all, taken together, prepared by volunteers and financed by donations. Five hundred years ago, this was a positively revolutionary act. And even today, the free kitchen is something very special in Indian society, where the caste system and social pecking orders inform daily life.
There are some 25 million Sikhs around the world. The men of the faith are recognizable by their turbans and bushy beards. They believe that since body hair is part of creation, it should not be cut. Traditionalists also always wear a wooden comb (kanga), a bangle (kara), knee-length underwear (kacha) and a dagger known as a “kirpan.” The langar is far more important to the Sikhs than their traditional clothing, however. The custom is widespread, even in western cities, such as London and New York, where they usually take the form of soup kitchens for the homeless and otherwise needy.

Hungry pilgrims wait in the entry of the temple canteen

Hungry pilgrims wait in the entry of the temple canteen

© Helena Schätzle

 While legend has it that Guru Nanak Dev Ji financed the first langar with just 20 rupees, the cost of running the kitchen at the Golden Temple runs into several million euros each year, but the number of anonymous donors is large enough to ensure its operation for two years in advance. In addition to money and labor, many people also donate food. Most of the stores laid up in the basement come from the farmers of Punjab.
Tejbir decides that I will be more using chopping potatoes than carrying sacks. One floor further up, a newly sharpened knife is pressed into my hand in the kitchen, and I set to quartering potatoes alongside dozens of other helpers. No one speaks, everyone is immersed in the business of chopping. Again and again, someone tips out a new bucket of potatoes beside us; the mounds just don’t get any smaller. Hours have passed and still there’s no end in sight, but no one seems frustrated by this. My workmates evidently regard the monotonous work as a relaxation exercise, as group meditation.

The mood is livelier in the bakery. It is also where they have one of their few machines: an oven with a conveyor belt that spits out thousands of rotis, as the thin, Indian flatbreads are called. But before baking, the dough has to be shaped into clumps the size of a soccer ball and then pressed into the baking machine. The finished rotis roll into a side room, where an army of helpers spreads the small loaves with butter.

One of those helpers is Archana Revankar, a woman in her early 30s from Bangalore. She works as a manager in the steel industry, but is now on vacation with her mother in northern India. Both regard their shift in the kitchen as payment for the free meal they will enjoy later on – as do hundreds of other visitors. The work is spontaneous, unorganized – but the collective efforts of the volunteers are what keep the langar system going.

The food served in India is hardly ever a personal thing, but almost always a political issue, Revankar tells me. We are what we eat. Nationalist Hindus demand a ban on the consumption and trading of beef because for them, the cow is a sacred animal. In big cities like Mumbai, there are entire neighborhoods where only vegetarians are welcome. “Anti-meat-eater” clauses are not unusual in tenancy contracts – some Hindus occasionally use these rules to keep out Muslims and members of the lower castes.

An informal order that has evolved over centuries keeps life running smoothly in Amritsar

At the Golden Temple, too, only vegetarian food is prepared, and only non-meat dishes may be served in its vicinity. This also applies to a branch of McDonald’s located in the neighborhood of the shrine.

After my stint in the bakery, my stomach is finally also grumbling. The tableware service hands me a metal plate and cutlery at the entrance to the dining hall. The room is the size of a gym. The moment you have taken your place, legs crossed, in a long row of diners,
someone hurries over to fill your plate with dal, rice, a roti and the dessert, kheer, a pudding made of almonds and raisins.

Everything is well seasoned, and the dal, very spicy, is excellent. As soon as your plate is empty, a second helping is gladly served. Only now do I appreciate the enormous scale of this all-you-can-eat canteen: A never-ending stream of people passes through the dining hall. There are no peak times, it is always full – except at nighttime, when people come in their hundreds rather than thousands. Once a group has finished their meal, cleaners quickly mop down the part of the hall they vacate. Cooking, serving, eating, cleaning – maximum efficiency is achieved with a minimum of organization. The langar is like a perfectly functioning ant colony: An invisible informal order that has evolved over centuries structures the chaos.

After the meal comes the washing up. The dirty dishes are passed along a human chain, and the last person slings the plates Frisbee-style into large iron buckets. The buckets are filled within seconds and I have to carry them as quickly as possible into the scullery, where I tip them into a sink.

The clatter of a thousand plates creates a sound experience in the upper decibel range. There’s an army of dishwashers here, lined up at meter-long sinks, scrubbing beakers, knives, forks and plates in opaque water that sprays in all directions. In 24 hours, 300 000 items are washed here. Quite unlike the silent potato peelers next door, the dishwashers really let rip, adding their mantra “Wahe Guru, Wahe Guru,” which means “wonderful teacher,” to the thunderstorm of metal on metal. With every bucket of dirty dishes that I carry across the slippery floor and tip into a sink, the chants grow more euphoric. What an ecstasy of dishwashing! Then I suddenly feel a stab of pain – not in my back this time, but in my hand.

Later, with the din of metal far away, I sit beside the Pool of Nectar and recover from the scullery madness. I bandage the cut with a handkerchief as the soft, unending singsong of prayer ripples from the loudspeakers. When I bid farewell to the old kitchen guru Uttam Singh, he places a gulab jamun, a dumpling swathed in syrup, in my injured hand. The end of a working day can be so sweet.


 

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