Eat, Pray, Judge: Lunch With The Sikhs

by Dan Packel

In the month since I’d dined with the Episcopalians for Shrove Tuesday, I’d been spending too much money going out to eat. It was time to take advantage of the generosity of another religious group and avail myself of a free meal, so I headed to the closest Sikh temple.

The trip from my South Philadelphia home took me to the tiny town of Millbourne, just outside the city limits, but serviced by the El train. Of Millbourne’s slightly more than 1,000 residents, the 2010 census found that over half are of Asian descent — and almost all of these are South Asian: Indians, but also Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.

From the El, I quickly found my way to the Philadelphia Sikh Society Guruwdwara, a squat brick building attached to the rear of a dollar store, and arrived at the stroke of noon.

With a massive, floor-standing mixer, a range hood that wouldn’t be out of place at a busy casual chain-dining establishment, and two industrial stainless steel fridges humming away, the kitchen at the society’s gurudwara must sometimes be used for serious volume cooking. My Friday visit did not fall on one of those days.

Indeed there was no indication that the kitchen had actually been used to prepare the day’s langar, the daily free community meal that gurudwaras (sometimes spelled “gurdwara”) provides for Sihks and non-Sikhs alike. No one was stirring inside of the kitchen. Three stainless steel pails of food rested on the long counter, but given the dormant look of the kitchen, the food in the pails could easily have been prepared elsewhere.

Three men sat on the narrow strip of carpet that ran the length of the long wall opposite the kitchen, eating off Styrofoam plates and quietly conversing in Punjabi. Two were clothed in the loose-fitting cotton kurta pajama that serves as a traditional standard of Indian clothing. The third wore trousers and a button-down shirt. All three wore turbans.

Entering the room cautiously, I clasped my hands in greeting and inquired about the food.

“Yes, please. Go ahead,” responded the man clad in western attire. “But first you must cover your head.”

Retreating to the foyer, I grabbed a blue cloth wrap (pre-tied for my convenience), fitted it over my head, and returned.

At the counter, I gave the contents of the silver pails a closer examination. Each was filled halfway to the top. In one: yellow dal, or lentils. Another held a mix of curried potatoes, in a strikingly similar color to the dal. The third: yogurt, both for protein and to cut the heat of the spices. While Sikhs are not strictly vegetarian, the langar always is, so that anyone who shows can partake.

I spooned a serving of all three onto my plate, added two room-temperature rotis

, or flatbreads, that were stacked on a plate, and then grabbed two green chilies and a pinch of iceberg lettuce. The last element counted as the “salad.” (Pronounced “Suhl-ahd” in Hindi, this garnish of undressed raw vegetables — often including tomato, cucumber, and onion — has always struck me through multiple stints in India as an especially peculiar vestige of colonialism. The iceberg was an especially bland example of the practice.) From an insulated beverage dispenser, I filled a Styrofoam cup with milk tea.

Seated on the carpet, I dug into my free lunch. The dal was the highlight. In a standard preparation, the pressure-cooked lentils had been tempered with a paste of garlic, ginger along with onions and chilies. With my hand, I scooped up the pleasantly spicy mix with my roti. This was gone before anything else on my plate.

The potatoes were less appealing. What I’d initially judged (filled with hope!) to be aloo gobi failed to include any gobi (cauliflower). Alongside tender potato chunks were the chickpea-sized spongy orbs known in Indian cooking as “soyabean nuggets.” Simmered in an inoffensive masala paste, the mixture was certainly palatable — but not something to consume with much gusto.

While I ate, two of the men farther down the carpet rose to leave, discarding their plates in a garbage can by the door. All the while, they had barely acknowledged my presence. Perhaps random Caucasian visitors to the unadorned mess hall were more common than I presumed. Or maybe lunch was lunch, and they brooked no unnecessary distractions from their daily meal.

“Can I get you anything else?” asked the third, the same man who had responded to me earlier. Satisfied by the amount of food on my plate, I declined. I then took the opening to see whether strangers like me made regular appearances.

“If anyone is to come, we are to prepare food for them,” he responded inconclusively. “According to the spirit of the one above,” he paused, pointing at the ceiling, “we must provide to anyone who needs food or shelter, regardless of race or religion.”

An admirable creed. And a reminder that the quality of the food per se perhaps wasn’t the real issue here.

Still, finishing my meal, I sputtered a little when I started in on my tea, both lukewarm and lacking sugar.

Luckily, my host, nimbly balancing between solicitousness and unobtrusiveness, stopped in front of me and asked if I’d like my tea heated. “We have a microwave here.” He returned with a hot cup of tea and a cup full of sugar.

I thanked him and introduced myself. He shared his name (Sarwar) and soon wandered across the room. A young Indian woman walked in, served herself a plate, and sat down. I finished my tea, and rose to leave, thanking Sarwar.

“You’re welcome, Mr. Daniel,” he responded. “Please come again, anytime.”

Dan Packel writes about food (and more!) from his home in Philadelphia. You can also follow him here.