By Keertanya Dasa
Ashram food is invariably wholesome and delicious, despite the large-scale operation. What are the spiritual secrets of their success? We flag off a series on ashram kitchens by taking a look at the operations of the oneness university.
‘Annam Parabrahma swaroopam’. The ancients who said this saw food as the personification of the Divine. Leave alone seeing the Divine, how many of us can truly say that we even taste what we eat? How often do you find yourself aching to eat a particular dish and when you finally get it, end up losing the experience in inner noise, in thinking about something else? Ironically, many of us aren’t even aware that caught up in thought noise, we have actually never tasted anything. At the Oneness University founded by Sri Amma and Bhagavan, food is not just a question of the palate but an exquisite spiritual experience.
The cuisine here is typical South Indian siddha system. North Indians, however, are treated to a diet of phulkas and ayurvedic khicchidi once a day. The basic level courses do not focus much on food because the purpose and the objective of the course and the hectic schedule allow little time to dwell upon the subject.
At the advanced levels, eating takes on a totally different color. The participants invoke the Divine Presence before they eat. Thereafter, they automatically move into a state of experiencing. When a seeker asked Sri Bhagavan to define enlightenment, Bhagavan said, Enlightenment is to eat a banana and to drink a glass of water.’ When you do this without the interference of the mind, it is enlightenment. Participants are taught how to eat. The intense experiencing by the body helps in the absorption of the finer nutrients and contributes towards the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the partaker.
The entire kitchen is run by a team of nuns, otherwise called dasas or guides. At any given point of time, the university has to cater to a minimum of 3,000 people undergoing various processes at its six different campuses. Each campus is at a few kilometers distance from each other, the farthest ones being 13 kilometers away, at Golden City 1 and 2. The food is cooked at campus two and transported to other campuses through locked food trucks specially designed for this purpose.
Cooking begins at 2:30 in the morning when the first shift of volunteers and workers arrive. Led by the guides, the cooking is not just a duty but an intensely spiritual act. They cut the vegetables to the tune of the moola mantra, which is the anthem song of the movement. As they cook, they pray for the food to appease the taste of people and give them health and strength to grow spiritually. By 6 am, the entire team cleanly washes the kitchen and hands it over to the lunch team who, in turn, do the same for the dinner team. Hygiene is of utmost importance.
The cooking and shifting of the food moves in clockwork precision. Two separate wings in the kitchen take care of the diet for the Indian courses and the international courses. The latter have a menu which includes food of their own nationality, exotic recipes of ancient India, and a vatha-pitha-kapha balanced diet prescribed by Dr. Sunil Joshi, an expert ayurvedic physician from Pune. The international participants appreciate immensely the taste of India, as it is also prepared with minimum spice, suiting their system. It is 9:30 in the evening before the kitchen closes with a customary aarthi.
Kamalaji, a guide at the University, runs the kitchen and indeed, designed it herself, without any prior experience in architecture.
Says Kamalaji, ‘I was a primary school teacher from a planter’s family, living in a very remote part of Coorg. Inspired by the vision of Sri Amma Bhagavan, I wanted to be an instrument in the transformation of Coorg. In 1996, I joined the movement and worked towards rebuilding families in Coorg. After a very satisfying stint, I came back to the University in 2002 and lived a very calm life of meditation and deeksha.
‘I have no idea whatsoever of buildings or, for that matter, management. The university’s food affairs until then were managed by external agencies. At some point, the body of guides who govern the Oneness University’s functions, decided to take over the kitchen themselves. Before I knew it, I was in charge of this mammoth task. I was totally bewildered but with the gift of surrender that Bhagavan had bestowed upon me, I accepted the task. You must know that we had no professionals trained to cook but humble villagers and volunteers as new to cooking as anyone could be. We had simple thatched structures. And we had to provide for 3,000 people and also appease their taste. I had to begin from scratch!
‘I went into a fast for a week and asked for guidance within. One night, I woke up all of a sudden. I was amazed to see my mind function with absolute clarity. It was as though it stood as an entity outside me. The entire plan for the kitchen, with every minute detail of where to keep the taps, wash areas, windows, stoves, ramps to shift the food, everything stood crystal clear. I could see three months ahead of me and I knew what I would cook each day. I couldn’t wait for the day to dawn. So much energy flooded me and I couldn’t stop smiling.
‘The next morning I told the engineer to change his plans. He protested in the beginning, but by the time I completed my explanation, his mouth had fallen open. The work happened at lightning speed. I, along with a team of monks, took over the kitchen in March this year. We cook the food in the Divine Presence, chanting and singing. Every day of the past six months has been a growth in love, joy and satisfaction.’
While the main kitchen provides for the participants, the guides of the university cook for themselves. Periodically, they alter their dietary patterns. For over a year, they ate only once a day, followed by a period when they ate twice a day. They would break their fast at eleven in the morning for brunch and have an early dinner at seven. Often, they would venture into a fruit diet. Currently, they go into a total fast on Wednesdays.
Amma and Bhagavan essentially have a zero-oil South Indian diet cooked lovingly by the guides themselves.
Two delicious recipes from Coorg that are cooked in the university are provided here:
Raw rice: 1kg
Water: 2 liters
Salt to taste
Ghee: 2 tablespoons
Method:: Wash and dry raw rice in the sun. Powder into fine granular rava. Boil 2 liters of water at 100 degrees Celsius for 10 minutes. Add salt until the water tastes slightly salty. Add 2 tablespoons of ghee in the water. Keep the flame at the lowest. Wash the rava and drain the water immediately. Add the rava to the hot water and stir it continuously to prevent the formation of lumps. Stir continuously until the rava is cooked without any residue of water. Put off the flame and roll the cooked rava into beautiful white balls. Place the balls inside a soft white cloth and steam it for 15-20 minutes. Serve hot with vegetable kurma.
Green chillies: 3
Garlic: 1 pod
Ginger: 50 gms
Cinnamon: small strip
Red chilly powder: 1tbsp
Turmeric powder: ½ tsp
Dhania powder: 2 tbsp
Jeera: 1 tsp
Tamarind: lemon-sized ball
Finely chopped tomatoes: 2
Finely chopped onions: 2
Cooking oil: 150 ml
Mustard seeds: 1 tsp
Finely chopped coriander and curry leaves
Method:: Cut vegetables into 1-inch pieces. Fry them in a little oil. Add salt and turmeric to the vegetables and pour minimal water and allow to be cooked. Grind all the Ingredients of masala into a paste. Pour the cooking oil into a tawa and when smoking hot, splutter mustard seeds. Fry onions until they are golden brown. Add chopped tomatoes and fry them. Add the ground masala and fry until a fine flavor emerges and it has turned golden brown. Add the cooked vegetables to this mixture. Add required water. Boil it for 10-15 minutes, add required salt. Add finely chopped coriander and curry leaves. Serve hot.
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