ISKCON’s Bangalore temple offers 1,200 sattvic recipes to raise diners’ consciousness to a higher plane.
Krishna, the eighth incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, has moved with the times. He no longer thrives on just butter or yogurt stored in an earthen pot dangling from the ceiling. That would be outright boring, with a global gastronomic explosion afoot. The Lord’s feast now includes Italian pasta and bruschetta, Chinese stir fried noodles, Russian salad, American burgers and French coffee walnut mousse.
That is just a sample of the offerings at the Bangalore temple of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, also known as ISKCON or simply the Hare Krishna Movement. After being blessed by Krishna, the food finds its way to the lavish buffet at The Higher Taste, the temple’s fine dining restaurant, where bhajans play in the background to remind guests of the food’s higher purpose. Here, eating and divinity are closely related. As the restaurant’s name suggests, the lip-smacking food is aimed at helping diners reach a higher level of consciousness.
Various centres of the movement run 100 such restaurants around the world, all of which promote what ISKCON calls sattvic vegetarianism. Sattva is Sanskrit for ‘pure’. ISKCON’s cuisine includes no garlic, onion, high-protein pulses and caffeinated drinks.
“Sattvic food eliminates chemical reactions that generate negative energy,” explains Chamari Devi Dasi, Division Head of The Higher Taste. “To generate the best consciousness, to nourish the mind and soul, eating sattvic food is important,” she says, a little wrinkle in her forehead marked by a tilak made with mud from Krishna’s childhood home of Vrindavan. Onion and garlic, she says, generate tamas, the state of ignorance.
The Higher Taste employs 280 people, and can cook up to 1,200 dishes. The kitchens at the Bangalore temple – one of the largest ISKCON temples in the world – use 400 kilos of nuts, 250 litres of milk, 150 litres of oil, 500 coconuts, and more than 150 kg each of sugar, rice, potatoes and flour daily. All these ingredients go into 20 types of laddoos, dhoklas, rice dishes and 2,000 samosas.
On holidays, some 20,000 people visit the Bangalore temple, and many stay back to partake of its sattvic fare. If ISKCON were a commercial organisation, its food business would be one of the largest in the city rivalling top restaurant chains – through sales from temple counters, its restaurants, stores and catering, it generates revenues of Rs 16 crore a year.
For several years, ISKCON’s Govinda’s Restaurant, at Juhu in Mumbai, has been engaged in a tussle with the Maharashtra state income tax authorities, who say it should be taxed as a commercial operation. The Bangalore restaurant, however, is under no such pressure. ISKCON says it is not a commercial outfit. It is a not-for-profit organisation, founded in 1966 in New York City by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada to preach Bhakti Yoga, or “the science of devotional service to Lord Krishna”. Today, it has 400 centres worldwide. Its restaurants are typically run by a trust. Profits from the sale of food mostly go into preaching or charity. ISKCON is the world’s largest vegetarian food relief organisation.
The Rs 4 crore annual profit that ISKCON Bangalore makes is used to print religious texts, youth programmes and sometimes for free meal programmes.
Cooking 1,200 dishes daily is a complex operation, and professional chefs and managers, overseen by devotees who are passionate about food, make things smooth for those who pay to get their minds and souls nourished. The revenue-generating kitchens alone have 60 chefs. The food must be offered to the Lord before eating, which means chefs cannot taste it while cooking. This is why they must perfect ISKCON’s version of molecular gastronomy – a scientific cooking method that requires strict adherence to temperature and proportions of ingredients.
Work is divided into three units. Plant One is a huge production unit that caters to the temple counters that sell sweets, savouries, juice, and packaged products such as snack mixtures. Plant One also caters for companies and events. Plant Two makes cakes and cookies. The third division is the restaurants.
Besides The Higher Taste, there is Annakuta, a cafeteria that sells fastmoving items such as dosas and sandwiches. “We have separate managers for each division, but ISKCON has a centralised system to predict sales, receive orders and pass them on to different plants,” says Chamari Devi Dasi. To handle the complexity, Plant One’s kitchen is subdivided into ten – there are separate kitchens for rice dishes, snacks, North Indian sweets, South Indian sweets, Bengali sweets, laddoos, mixtures, samosas, fried fare, and a speciality kitchen that makes spring rolls, bread rolls, burgers and cutlets.
Devotee Kaivalya Pathi Dasa is a chef with a passion for experimentation. ISKCON, he says, is a master at innovation. An in-house food lab started in 2005, is a repository of around 3,000 recipes that its fine dining restaurant draws on daily.
Cooks and devotees constantly try out new combinations in the lab to keep sattvic cuisine alive and kicking. One of the experiments was on biryani: how can you create an authentic biryani taste without using meat, onion or garlic? The result was the Kabulistani Biryani, which substitutes meat – traditionally goat or lamb – with cauliflower and potato.
Continued research and development will be necessary for ISKCON to retain its fan following. But competition is brewing. Just a few weeks ago, two former employees of ISKCON teamed up to open Sattvam, a sattvic restaurant less than five kilometres from the temple. ISKCON has to grapple with problems that other food entrepreneurs face, such as attrition.
How does ISKCON maintain quality given the staff churn? Pat comes Chamari Devi Dasi’s reply: “Krishna is in charge. He’s managing it.”