Divinely delicious

Divinely delicious

One of the mysteries that attract many to revisit Jagannath Puri is its kitchen. Sprawled over an acre of land, the kitchen comprises 32 rooms, 752 stoves and 9 large earthen pots, and has an army of 500 cooks and 300 helpers, divided into mahasuaras (temple cooks), swaras (executive chefs) and jogunias (kitchen assistants). Numbers aptly matched by the royal kitchens of Jahangir and Shah Jahan. And yet, fascinatingly, when it comes to cooking the mahaprasad, none of them are allowed into the main chamber where the cooking is done through an ancient technique of placing carefully layered food pots on top of each other in a way that all the food — which includes khichdi, dal and vegetables — are cooked in the same time. Legend has it that the food is cooked by Lakshmi as Lord Jagannath would not have food cooked by anyone else.

But for those who have had the opportunity to walk the pious corridor of this mega kitchen, the ‘mystery’ of how the food can be cooked this way only transforms into more wonderment. Driven by a team of inheritors — that’s right, each cook/assistant in this kitchen has inherited the skill of chopping/layering or even baking from his father, who in turn has learned from his — who have ably mastered the skill of prepping the vegetables and other ingredients in a way that the pot on top gets cooked at the same time like the pot in the bottom, without the need of any supervision. Recalls Chef Hemant Oberoi, who launched the first Temple Food Festival that included part of the bhog from Puri a few years ago, “Their handiwork is astoundingly precise. Each cube is exactly the same as the other. And, while to the untrained eye, the whole prepping process of the food pot may seem like a random activity where one ingredient is thrown in after the other in quick succession, in truth it is a well-thought, experimented and standardised way of making food. Such is the level of mastery that every time the dish has the same taste, texture and aroma as it has had the first time it was made.”

What makes it even more stunning, adds Chef Oberoi, “is that it isn’t the story of one kitchen, but five different kitchens that dole out nearly 100-plus dishes throughout the day, using some of the brilliant culinary techniques that were prevalent in AD 12.”

Like the Bheem Rasya. A culinary technique that is fabled to have been introduced by Bheema, the second of the Pandavas, during their last year of exile, when he was asked to cook, and created what today is popular as dalma, using only vegetables and dal. It was India’s answer back then (and even now) to no-oil cooking.

Culinary technique is just one factor to the awesomeness of this kitchen. Another interesting aspect of this kitchen is that the food prepared here stays hot for at least 5 to 6 hours after it is removed from the cooking chambers. This means that the food, when it reaches Ananda Bazaar (where the prasad is sold), can still scald the tongue.

What makes it so is the use of specially-made earthen pots — both in which it is cooked and served — that weds the properties of a French sauté pan and a Chinese wok to preserve the heat without overcooking the dish. Still, if you scrape the bottom of the pot, you wouldn’t find a burnt particle of food. These little secrets could perhaps explain why, even after so many years, where other temples like Salasar Balaji, Rajasthan, that have outsourced some of their prasad to meet the growing demand, Jagannath Puri’s still remains largely in-house, much like Sri Venkateshwara Swamy Temple in Tirupati.   

Interestingly, the mysticism of cooking unforgettable brilliant food and their cooking style isn’t limited to the kitchens of Jagannath Puri. The Udupi style — perhaps the only cooking system out of the holy kitchens to ably produce food with mass appeal — was developed inside Lord Krishna Temple, Udupi. It is said that the cooks — who were also the priests of the temple — had to regularly wrestle newer dishes to keep infant Krishna from running away. This would often entail the priests to wander far and wide in search of that one dish that would entice Krishna back. Result: the creation of an entire menu that is tasty, nutritious and comforting with that extra mass appeal.

But food, says culinary czar Jiggs Kalra, “was only a part of the ancient temple kitchen’s aura that right from the beginning remained priest-dominated and closed to the prying eyes of everyone, including the Devdasis and the wives of the priests. Where it did match the kitchens of the royal court was that each temple developed its own signature dish: like the paal payasam, kancheepuram idlis, black rice kheer and the annakuta in Lord Krishna Temple in Uttar Pradesh.

The beginning
Says chef Arun Kumar of Zeaside, “Though temple kitchens have always been a part of the temple architecture, they came to prominence with the rise of kingdoms and dynasty. Till then, it was much of a home affair, where the bhog was a simple fare of fruits and flowers.”

According to historians, the debut of the temple kitchen — at least the way we know it today — began with the start of kingdoms, where kings took to commissioning temples as the showcase of their faith. Back then, temples were not only places of worship, but also avenues where people could be gathered — and bhog became a way to connect to people, and help them accept the new/old deity.

Adds Kumar, “What the creation of temple kitchens and the bhog also did was create this new line of divine food that was good for the mind, body and soul.”

Interestingly, most of what made the prasad back then were local community/produce-based food. Essentially, dishes whose ingredients could either be grown or procured with ease, and was popular among the community. This, perhaps, could explain how for most rice-growing states, kheer or payasam became such a prasad. A fine example of this is the Meiteis’ Govind Devji Temple in Manipur, which serves kheer made of black rice cooked over slow fire in ostrich-neck earthen pots.

Developed during the era of Maharaja Nara Singh, the kheer resembles a luscious risotto and gets its earthy flavours from the way it is cooked. Or how smoked or grilled fish with fruits stuffed in became the bhog for the Warrior and Seafarers Temple in Brahmagiri in Odisha. A goddess’s abode, the temple still serves fish as bhog that has been cooked the way the sailor community would, back then.  The design of the kitchen even back then was made for mass cooking.

Developing their own
It wasn’t until religion took on a bigger role in the lives of the society, and the king, that the real temple cuisine began developing. Most anthropologists rank it around the rise of the Gupta Empire, when religion also became a way to control the society. Temples became lavish, rituals more complex, and prasad more elaborate. And kitchens that were once a way to sustain the temple people and to ensure a devotee never leaves the temple on an empty stomach, took on a loftier ambition. The kitchen almost resembled that of a royal court, where channels were created for pure water to flow in, there were corners that were designated for different work, godowns built for storage and a system of supervisors, chefs and helpers were put in place to ensure the prasad was also an object of envy and wonder. What didn’t change is the constitution of bhog. The elaborate kitchens still cooked food that was inspired by the local food culture, but this time with the added spice of innovation — with the food or the plating — and a generous sprinkling of legends which made it unique.

An interesting case in point is the Guruvayoor’s unforgettable paal payasam. Made with 800 litres of milk, the payasam is cooked in a massive brass cauldron over a raging coconut husk fire to lend it that signature smokiness, and make it unique to the temple.

And the prasad at Srinathji Temple in Nathdwara is a sweet mathri called thor, which used to carry the aroma of camphor because it was smoked with it. Says Chef Oberoi, “Though it was 100 years ago, the temple still makes the best scented thor naturally.

Yet another incident is of the Padmanabha Swamy Temple, Thiruvananthapuram. Known for its paal payasam, unni appams (spongy, brown, fried pieces made using a mélange of rice powder, banana, jackfruit and jaggery) and avial (a spicy mix of vegetables, fresh coconut and coconut oil cooked using mustard seeds), the unusual part of this temple is the rice which is offered in a coconut shell. It is said that Sage Divakaramuni dreamt that Lord Vishnu was taking an unripe mango in a coconut shell as an offering plate before performing the puja. Since then, it is customary to offer prasad in a coconut shell. 

In fact, the need of the kitchens to innovate also brought out masterpieces like the kadhi served at the historic Shrinathji Temple at Nathdwara in Rajasthan.

Instead of the usual chickpea base, the kadhi here has apples and ber with a pinch of sugar added to the preparation in December, while for the rest of the year it is prepared with grapes as well as fresh green chana pakoris with mango slices.

Instead of the usual chickpea base, the kadhi here has apples and ber with a pinch of sugar added to the preparation in December, while for the rest of the year it is prepared with grapes as well as fresh green chana pakoris with mango slices.

The puzhukku at Guruvaryoor is pepped up with kala chana, rock salt and grated coconut, and served on plates made of arecanut leaves. Then there are examples of puliyogare from the Parthasarathy Temple in Triplicane, where dry chillies are replaced with pepper to give that aromatic, unmatched taste to the dish that is hard to replicate.

Then, of course, there is the all-prevailing yet unique panchamritham. Prepared with crushed plantain (the small viruppachchi variety), kandasari sugar (unrefined raw white sugar), dates, raisins, sugar candy, sandalwood, cardamom and ghee in proper proportions in Palani, it was, says Chef Kumar, a dish that finally led to the invention of Punch.

Of course, there were a few others who used bhog as a way of defining their importance. Like the Salasar Balaji. Perhaps the only temple in India to have a moustache-and-beard-bearing Lord Hanuman idol, the prasad here, called savamani, isn’t only based on the varieties, but also the weight. A loose translation of ‘sava’, meaning one-and-quarter in Hindi, and ‘mun’, meaning a unit weighing roughly 40 kg, the temple cooks 50 kilos of bhog daily for its devotees, which includes varieties like dal baati churma, boondi, peda and churma laddu among others.

And while with the rise and fall of dynasty, often showcased in the temple bhog, unless it was designated a dham and accepted, the one thing that remained unchanged is the influence. Temples continued to take local flavours and dishes and presented them in a new form, and would often adapt to newer culinary techniques to bring something awe-inspiring. Like the use of steaming. The cooking technique that arrived in South from Indonesia was adapted by Jagannath Puri to make the various pancakes, which form a part of the mahabhog.

This, along with the fact that the temples would only choose the best of local produce, soon turned them into centres that encouraged the concept of ‘Slow Food’ as more and more temples retained the traditional manner of cooking dishes. Wood is still the fuel for stoves at Puri and down South to cook the prasad on.

The temple kitchens went through a final change with the rise of new religion. Bred out of revolution, the places of worship shunned the idea of keeping the kitchen a closely-guarded secret, but retained the essence that led to the origin of the temple kitchen — and its cuisine: the bhog was still made of dishes that were part of the regular food culture of the community, the kitchens, which looked like the modern avatars of those back in time, still managed to awe wi­th their size, and the food produced still had such beautiful taste and flavours that it became food for the soul. And these kitchen are gastronomical destinations, be it the langar at the Golden Temple, Amritsar, or the simple rice-dal-bhaji prasad at the Shri Sai Sansthan Prasadalaya in Shirdi.

Ends Kalra, “What makes these kitchens — ancient and modern — such fascinating places isn’t just the delicious food that they prepare or the innovation that gave us masterpieces like the Balaji ladoo and different styles of presenting the bhog (mahabhog being one of them), but the fact that how beautifully they have preserved the nuances of our food culture that has been the foundation stone of our lives. And this is the reason why we relate to bhog so emotionally and find it comforting. And that is what makes each temple kitchen such a unique place.”

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