How tradition and Indian foods connect some communities in NYC

by Kanishk Karan and Pragya Krishna

For any immigrant community, food, religion and spirituality are intensely personal links to home. For the Indian community in New York, these connections span offerings to ritual fires to the restaurant business to feeding those less fortunate. Here’s a look at some of them.

Prasad — Offerings to the Gods

In Queens, at a temple dedicated to the Hindu elephant-headed god Ganesha, volunteers were hard at work making thousands upon thousands of rice-dough balls. These modaka are fried and later offered to be burned in a ritualistic fire that takes place over the nine-day festival of Navratri.

These foods originated in India and are part of their homeland culture. But the Indian community New York City found a way to import their traditions to a new land.

Once the dough balls are fried, they are arranged into trays of 1,008, said Mohan Ramaswamy, secretary and treasurer of the Hindu Temple Society of North America. Every morning and evening, a tray is offered, so that over the nine days, more than 18,000 individual pieces are sacrificed to the fire.

Ayurveda-based Cuisine

On the Lower East Side, a restaurant takes the principles of Ayurveda, an ancient Indian alternate system of medicine, and applies them to cuisine.

Divya Alter, a naturalized American citizen originally from Bulgaria, operates an Ayurvedic restaurant as part of her spiritual practice. She follows the Bhakti Yoga tradition, a subdivision within Hinduism, and spent five years in India training with a guru prior coming to the US.

Alter says if a meal has all six tastes categorized in Ayurveda — sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, astringent — it is by definition balanced, or to use the Ayurveda term, “tridoshic.”

For example, a cilantro chutney with coconut, ginger, cumin seeds and lime juice is a complete tridoshic food.

The teas on the menu at Divya’s Kitchen, including ones it says will help with digestion, with cooling and with controlling your acid and sugar levels.

The Hindu Community in Queens

As the clock ticks nine, everyone wakes up to start their daily chores. Whether it’s doing their morning yoga or rushing to make the NYC subway, everyone has their morning routine.

While majority of us are concerned with completing our personal tasks, the Shaivism, Hinduism and Sikhism communities prepare a variety of foods to serve the hungry.

Langar (food) ceremony by Sikh community

Tirath Singh, a person of Sikh community, wakes up everyday around 4 a.m. to make langar (food) for over 400 homeless and hungry people daily. He has been doing this service for years and has never failed to keep a smile as her served those in need. The Sikh community has a very active team of people who happen to celebrate this ritual of langar all over the world.

In addition to the usual two rotis with dal (pulses) and raita (yogurt), they also serve white sauce pasta and kadha parshad. Queens, being a much dynamic place for cultures, has its core for Hindu temples.

The moment you walk into the Hindu Center Temple on Kissena Boulevard, you can hear sound of pandits (priests) worshipping that resonates in your ears. The temple’s main chef, Suraj Yadav, said, “God gave me to do this job, So I love to do this job.” The food offered here follows after a small ceremony, where people participate to pay their respect to Hindu gods and then gather for Parshad.

Institutions like these are partly sponsored by their community groups, or by people that fund them because of their faith.

The one thing all these places have in common is the Indian tradition of hospitality. If you’re curious or hungry and would like to try traditional Indian cuisines at any of these places for free, you just have to walk in.