Food and religion unite in Flushing.
October 15th, 2013
“I don’t know much about Hinduism,” I say to my tour group, as I point out the large black stone sanctum sanctorum housing the elephant-headed god Ganesha. We are in Flushing, at the Hindu Temple Society of North America’s Ganesh Temple—or Šri Mahã Vallabha Ganapati Devasthãnam as it’s called among devotees—named after the deity with an esteemed reputation for both removing obstacles and bestowing good luck upon new ventures.
We are here to eat at the humbly named Temple Canteen, downstairs from the clusters of shoeless worshippers. Only a 20-minute walk from the heart of downtown Flushing’s Chinatown, the canteen is one of New York’s most impressive South Indian vegetarian restaurants, and is a favorite stop on my food tours. The cafeteria-style eatery’s menu includes more than a dozen types of dosa, the crispy, ghee-griddled crêpes made from a mixture of fermented rice and lentils.
As I slip back into my sneakers, the swirl of saris and statues lingers in my mind when I gaze up at the temple’s turrets, a jarring contrast to the simple homes surrounding us. I decide it is time to learn more about Ganesha and unravel the connection between these mysterious gods and those savory pancakes being made in the basement. I decide it’s time for an official blessing.
Offering food to deities is a central tenet of Hinduism, Dr. Uma Mysorekar, president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America, tells me. “We have special religious cooks from India and they prepare what we call naivedyams,” generally 10 to 15 different rice preparations—including tamarind, tomato and lemon—for the gods, all of whom have different tastes. For example, Hanuman, who takes the form of an ape, has a predilection for lentils and bananas, while Ganesha has an affinity for bisibelebath, a rice and lentil dish served with raita and a mixture of nuts and crunchy corn- flake-like bits.
When it is time to meet Pradeep Sharma for my blessing, I explain my biggest concern is feeling blocked on a book project. He tells me we will pray to three gods: Ganesha, for my project’s continued success; Dakshinamurthy for mental clarity and focus; and Shiva to vanquish the enemies who will try to attack and tear me down—or in modern parlance, haters.
After taking me to each deity we return to Ganesha, where Pradeep has me repeat a long chant. I begin to feel transported. Pradeep asks me to walk eight times clockwise around the sanctum sanctorum. Then, he enters the inner sanctum, rings a bell and holds a ghee lantern, instructing me to wave my hands over it towards my head. “The blessings of Ganesha,” he says. “Do it again.” Then he gives me bananas and flowers to make an offering in my pooja room, a must-have shrine to the gods in Hindu dwellings. I don’t have the heart to tell the dear man my own home lacks such an amenity. I place the flowers on the smaller stone Ganesha statues that line one of the temple’s exterior passages.
I meditate, then meet up with friends for lunch. Our feast includes four types of dosa: the conical Ghee Roast; Set, three thick, flapjack-like versions topped with a pat of butter; the Pondicherry, filled with a crunchy mixture of yellow lentils and nuts; and the megaphone-shaped—and sized—crispy Paper. All are served with bowls of sambar, a spicy, reddish vegetable soup made from lentils, pigeon peas, mustard seeds and curry leaves, along with a light green coconut chutney that sings with the flavors of chile, cilantro and just a touch of smoke. For a deeper understanding of the temple’s culinary rituals, we delve into some of the canteen’s less familiar dishes, including upma, a South Indian couscous of sorts made from semolina shot through with vegetables and spices like fenugreek. And of course, since it is the day of my Ganesha blessing, we also have bisibelebath.
The food is especially satisfying today, and I am reminded by what Dr. Mysorekar had told me, that consecrated food tastes better: “It is a feeling within that you are getting food blessed instead of running to a restaurant. This being a temple, that’s why things taste so good.”
A few days later I return with a friend. After a walk-through of the temple, in which I avail myself of a quick lantern blessing and run into Pradeep, we head downstairs for a Paper dosa. She takes a photo of the massive, brightly colored Ganesha statue that presides over the canteen. “Everybody wants to eat next to Ganesha,” she says. Later, the photo appears on her Facebook page with the caption, “It’s a blessing.” Indeed.