I really went for the cooking lessons, though the free food helped when I spent all my money on my poetry portfolio, and the midday incense-laden chanting was an invaluably soothing counterpoint to sitting wild-eyed in the computer labs writing about hypertext fiction. They're the least judgemental religion I've ever found - most religions do end up judgemental, whether or not the adherents want to be, because they belive that if you don't agree with them / do as they say, you are actually going to hell. But for this lot - they didn't need to judge you, follow or not follow, you'd just get another spin on the wheel. (To anyone more au fait with the details of the religion, feel free to adjust my views in the comments; these are my 21-year-old impressions, based largely around delight in their approach to food and terror at the thought of waking up at three in the morning.) And in a very specific way, they bowled me over: they taught me the nature of true generosity.
The first bowling-over experience was after the cooking-lesson-cum-meditation-session, when a whole bunch of other students poured through the door to line up for food. I was taken aback. Didn't they have to - you know, do the religious thing, to get their food? Wasn't it a bit... well, off, frankly... to just turn up when the plates were ladled out? No, one of the adherents patiently explained to me. The food is made to give to people. It's made by very specific religious rules (the hygine-driven religious rules of most religions pale into comparison, even if you go to the loo you have to take a full shower afterwards and say multiple prayers), and then a portion of the food, representing the whole, is offered up to Krishna, and as I recall his wife who may also be sort-of-him, by which means all the food becomes prana, holy food, so just by eating it you become more holy. Okay... You can put whatever judgement you like on the process of thought, but it ends up with the totally unjudgmental desire to give people free food. This I like.
Part two of the bowling-over was when I volunteered to go with them to the townships to give out food there. For those who don't know, these are vast shanty-towns on the outskirts of Cape Town, a hangover from apartheid, where many people live in extreme poverty. As a little white girl, I had almost no experience of them beyond driving past them on the highway, and one missionary-style outing with my evangelical church. (I no longer belonged to the evangelical church, at this point. And they wouldn't have looked kindly on my flirtation with the Bhakti Yoga society.) Several minivans were loaded up with vast buckets of food - the size of an average bin, just huge, which the real believers had been up since way before dawn (did I mention their thing about 3 am?) cooking. As we drove into the townships, hot sun beating through the windows and trees evaporating into dirty and the sharp shiny reflections of corrugated-steel makeshift roofs, I was, yes, struck dumb by the poverty compared to my own affluent life, but most of all, I remember, I realised I was white. I tried to pull my short sleeves further down, the way I'd try to tug my skirt down or my blouse up if I were inconveniently reminded of being a woman. Of course, they wouldn't cover it. I should've worn something else... but my face would still show. There was absolutely no way that I could hide that I was white.
It seems a strange realisation, when my whole privileged existence was based on my whiteness, to suddenly realise I was white, but that's what privilege is: the default, the norm, the position where you don't have to think about it all the damn time. I already know what one aspect of non-privilege is like, through being a woman; I hadn't yet done Dorothy Driver's semester on Post-colonial feminism, which would introduce me to the concept of intersectionality. I was just shocked, to find myself white, and unable to hide it.
I tried to take refuge in being amongst the Hare Krishnas. As they danced and sang and leapt through street after street - raw, dusty passages of earth between shanty houses and a few brick houses - I danced and sang and leapt with them. If I was being Hare Krisnha, I could escape my whiteness, I reasoned. I asked why the dancing and singing, and was told it was to let everyone know they were there. And round and round we went, through beating sun, until an hour later we were back at the vans, in the paltry shade of bluegum trees, ready to serve the food.
I was stationed behind a giant drum of rice, with a ladle. The woman next to me had a giant drum of stew, heavy on the aubergines and tomato to give it a more meaty flavour. (Meat is highly valued in South Africa, but the Hare Krishnas are vegetarian. They went for the most umami flavour they could conjure, for these outings, though the word umami wasn't used then.) People were lining up.
"How much do I give?" I asked.
"Half-fill it with rice, and then she'll half fill it with stew."
"But..." I looked down the queue. "That guy's got a margerine tub, but that woman's got a massive pot!" It seemed unfair.
Patiently, they explained to me, that I had no idea of how many people they might be taking food to, how much they wanted to set by, how much they needed, and gradually I heard what their words were saying: I had no right to judge. I was here to give, not to judge.
The Christian church, with which I grew up, was fond of such metaphors about "God will give you as much as you ask for" and so on, but when I'd briefly visited the townships with them, some ten years before, it had been all about a church service and then everyone who'd obediently attended was given a Vienna sausage in a bun, one per person, with an obligatory "God bless you". No obligatory God-bless-you, or Krishna-bless you, here. No making people nod, bow their heads, mouth the words, and smile. No one-per-person. No judgement.
So I dished up. Half-fill the margerine tub, half-fill the stock pot, half-fill the bowl, half-fill the can, half-fill everything they bring me with rice, and the person next to me will half-fill it with stew. Are people allowed to rejoin the queue...? The question died on my lips. I was starting to get it, now. Finally.
For three hours, in that dusty blue-gum-smelling heat, I dished up rice until my arms ached, until no-one returned to the queue, and all around was rest and satiation, and the heat burnt stronger than ever. The mountain in whose shade I lived shimmered in the distance. There was food left over.
"We always make more than enough, just in case; we'll eat the rest at the temple." Of course they do. Of course they will.
Cape Town, and the whole of South Africa, is a vastly unequal place. People come to your door, asking for food, because they need food. As a student, I learnt to save and wash out every jar that passed through my hands, and cook vast quantities of the delicious recipes the Bhakti Yoga society taught me, which were cheap enough that even I could afford to throw in more lentils, more rice, buy an extra bag of green beans off the side of the road, so when people came knocking at the door, I would always have food to offer, and a jar to put it in. If someone is hungry, feed them.
Ingredients (in cooking order)
Dry whole spice:
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon black mustard seeds
½ tablespoon finely chopped ginger (2 inches)
1 green chilli, finely chopped
¼ teaspoon hing (also called asafoetida)
¼ teaspoon turmeric (recipe says 1 teaspoon but I’m not a huge fan)
To make dahl:
1 cup lentils
Tin of tomatoes
1 courgette, chopped
To make dahl into kedgeree:
3 medium potatoes, chopped into 1inch pieces
1 cup basmati rice
About ½ lb of green veg – eg. green beans, spinach, kale, etc. Any green veg or mixture will do. If you're here from the cooking-for-one week 2, you're using green beans and 2/3 of the spinach.
To finish and serve
(it's a counsel of perfection to have all of these - whatever you can manage)
fresh spinach as a bed
a squeeze of lemon juice
a dollop of yoghurt
a sprinkling of chopped spring onion
fresh coriander leaves
optional: roasted seeds - pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds
In a large pot, heat the oil on ¾ heat, and add the dry whole spice. As soon as the mustard seeds start to pop, throw in the wet spice, stir well, and turn the heat down to ½. When the ginger and chilli just start to crinkle at the edges, add the powdered spice, stir for a couple of seconds, and then add the dry lentils. (Powdered spices tend to stick, but lentils release oil and stop that – they never stick until you add water.) Add the potatoes now as well, so they can fry and crisp up a bit. Boil the kettle. After 2–3 minutes, add the tomatoes and courgette, and stir them in until they start to release their fragrance. Add about 1.5 litres of boiling water, stir well, turn the heat down, and let it simmer for half an hour. Add the dry rice, stir, and simmer for another 20 minutes. Add the green beans, stir, and simmer for another 20 minutes. (In such a thick liquid, things cook more slowly.) Stir in the leafy veg at the end.
lentils & potatoes
And in pictures...
All the lovely ingredients! I'm cooking double quantities... naturally! Which makes six litres of kedgree. (I have big pots.)
Hair up; the less hair in the food the better, I feel. Should've powdered my nose, too.
Cut the peel off the ginger - I try not to lose too much ginger, but let's not be perfectionist.
Cut it in half lengthways, and then against the ginger-grain shortways. (That makes it easier to dice up small.)
Reasonably finely chopped. I do have a mezzaluna, but really a knife with a curved blade is easy enough for rapid fine-chopping. Chopping hand holds the handle, other hand rests on the far end of the blade, and then uppity-downity back-and-forth like a pro.
Chilli sliced, seeds and all. The only reason to remove the seeds is if you don't like the heat, and if you don't like the heat, what are you doing with a chilli?
Wet spices are a go.
Ghee. For years I read this ingredient in books and dismissed it. As soon as I actually bought some and tried it, I realised it is heavenly! Absolute bliss to fry with, butter-flavour but unlike butter it doesn't burn.
Heat the ghee nice and hot in the giant pot...
Get the spices ready: cumin and mustard seeds, one tablespoon each (or 2 tablespoons, for double quantities)
Fry them until the mustard seeds make popping sounds. (The high pot sides keeps them from escaping.)
Filtering some water to boil...
Seeds are popping; toss in the wet spices and stir briskly.
The powders come out to play: turmeric and hing, measured in teaspoons. Quarter teaspoons, actually. Cup of lentils at the ready, because the powders only want a few seconds before they'll start to stick, and the lentils sort that right out.
Powders stirred in...
Swiftly followed by the magic non-sticky lentils.
Rapidly grating a courgette - ooh bugger, forgot the potatoes.
Smallish pieces, bit less than an inch here.
Throw the potatoes in to fry a bit.
Boil the kettle...
Potatoes are smelling good, so throw in the courgette. Heat's on halfway now.
Sever the tomato box's head and prepare for...
Throw in the boiling water (1.5 litres for single quantities) and set an alarm for 30 minutes.
Good moment to wash some of the dishes, before a wee sit-down.
Pot on a lower heat, to simmer.
After half an hour, measure a cup of rice, and...
Stir it in. Set the alarm for another 20 minutes.
Next, top and tail the beans. If they come in a packet, this is super-easy:
Cut the packet open on one end.
Use the packet to align the beans.
Bam, all the tails gone in one go. Repeat on the other side if you so desire.
Slice the beans in half, at an angle to be more rakish.
Beans stirred in, set the alarm for another 20 minutes.
After 20 minutes, stir in most of the spinach, and then serve it on a bed of some of the spinach you held back.
In an ideal world, top this with a dollop of yoghurt, chopped spring onion, fresh coriander leaves, and roasted seeds.
Put the rest of the pot outside / somewhere appropriate to cool, and the next day....
Portion the rest up for the freezer. 500ml serves one person, so I've got 4 meals for 2 here and 2 meals for one, for my lunches.
And in true Bhakti Yoga style, give some of it away.