The kitchen of love

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JOHAN DE SMIDT is a journalist and photographer from Cape Town, South Africa, who visited the Heartfulness Headquarters at Kanha Shanti Vanam before COVID-19 struck, and documented some of the activities. Here he showcases the kitchen, which since March has been supplying meals to up to 50,000 disadvantaged people per day in the wake of COVID-19.


To find the secret ingredient in the kitchens of the Kanha Shanti Vanam ashram, you have to start your hunt before dawn. That is when the cooks are adding spice to their day with a Yoga wake-up routine. “They are a bit dull when they arrive, so we are boosting them, waking them up,” says the kitchen manager, Mr. Moganty Adinarayan.

On the morning that we visit the kitchen, a Russian volunteer Yoga instructor is guiding the cooks through their asanas at 5 a.m. This dose of waking up will certainly come in handy, because the kitchen has suddenly been informed that they have to cater for many more than the 2,500 people they expected for Sunday meditation. But this is par for the course for Adinarayan and his team of workers – every day brings its own surprises and they are used to changing plans at short notice. To be effective, they have to remain flexible, and the meal planning has to be spot-on. It is also of utmost importance to have close communication with the main gate officials who constantly update them with the latest attendance figures.

It is no mean feat to cook three meals a day for over 78,000 people, as the kitchen staff did for the inauguration of the Kanha Shanti Vanam meditation hall in February 2020, and still be able to hit the ground running when work starts at 4 a.m. every morning. In one stretch, the kitchen can provide food for 30,000 people. On this Sunday, after most of the people have left, they are still cooking for more than 2,500 people. “We always cook for 100 more than expected,” Adinarayan says. On the breakfast menu today there is idli, sambar, rice and banana chips, and if the scale of the cooking is awe inspiring, the quantities of ingredients used is even more mind boggling. Just for today, a total of 100 kgs of raw rice will be required to satisfy the visitors’ appetites. Apart from planning for the large quantities of ingredients, there is the added challenge of getting the menu right to please the diverse palates of people from all over India, as well as from abroad. This is enough to give any kitchen boss a case of indigestion. “We have the difference between north and south of India. People from the north prefer wheat, they will have roti for breakfast, lunch and dinner if they can help it, while those from the south eat more rice,” Adinarayan says.


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Divine Food for Thought

As far as approach is concerned, the biggest difference between this ashram kitchen and others catering to big numbers is that food here is made in constant divine thought, and handled by devoted practitioners. “It is mandatory for kitchen staff to attend the 7 a.m. group meditation and have weekly individual sessions too,” says Adinarayan. “Only Heartfulness practitioners work here. They come to work praying and leave praying. There is a lot of love and devotion, and willingness too. They put their hearts into their service, so the results are good. That is the main reason we are eating in divine thought. While cooking, they have the thought, ‘This is divine food.’”

Adinarayan takes pride in their work, and such is his confidence in the quality of the food, that some of it is sent daily to the house of Kamlesh Patel, the Heartfulness Guide, who is fondly known as Daaji. “We expect it to be good enough for our Guide,” he says. Offering Yoga classes is not the only way in which other volunteers can contribute to the kitchen work. Daaji has invited all visiting international practitioners who attend training programs to cook in the kitchen, too. He has suggested that they be taught one dish of Indian cuisine and, in turn, they teach one dish of their cuisine to the kitchen staff.

After digesting all these magic ingredients that go into making the ashram food, we part with a 5 a.m. invitation from Adinarayan to be at the kitchen the next day to witness the almost alchemical making of 12,000 idlis, the steamed, soft pillows made from rice and dal, and eaten with coconut chutney. The batter for this is ground the day before and left to ferment overnight before being scooped onto huge stainless steel moulded pans and cooked in a massive steam oven. But of course, the magic ingredient is Yoga. And for that you have to rise before dawn.


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Cool as a Cucumber

The kitchen floor area is an impressive 46 m x 24 m. To keep the kitchen staff comfortable, happy and cool in an otherwise hot situation, much thought has been given to the layout and ventilation of the huge space, which is 8° to 10° C cooler than the outside environment. This is accomplished through cross-ventilation provided by the side windows, elevated work stations, double-walled pots and an 8 metre high ceiling with a 2 metre wide canopy extension right at the top. Each row of six pots is positioned on a concrete slab that is about 1 metre above the floor, which ensures that steam from the pots rises from above head-height straight up to the roof, where it evaporates through the canopy. “That way the cooks don’t sweat,” Adinarayan says, and that is evident as they coolly go about their business.

Steaming Hot

To speed up cooking time, a diesel-powered plant outside the kitchen generates and delivers steam at 80° to 90° C to the double-walled stainless steel pots, in which the temperature is increased to 130° to 150° C. The preheating of the steam maintains a constant temperature in the cooking pots and reduces the cooking time of rice from half an hour to just 10 minutes; lentil dal is cooked in 30 minutes and vegetables in 15 minutes. The closed nature of the system ensures reduced heat loss, and therefore, efficient energy consumption. The double-walled structure ensures very little heat is lost from the sides of the pots; indeed, we stand right next to it and feel very little heat radiating.

When frying is required, to make a curry or sambar, it is done at floor level in moveable 800-liter pots, which can be easily wheeled onto gas cookers, and to the base of the doublewalled pots, from which the liquids are tipped into the frying pots. Vegetables boiled in the pots are mixed together to make curry, and lentils are added to the curry to make sambar. With the ongoing current threat of the coronavirus in the air, the focus is on boosting people’s immune systems. “We add jeera (cumin), white pepper and turmeric to boost the immune system and keep people healthy,” Adinarayan says. “Food is medicine.”


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Leftovers

At Kanha, special efforts are made to ensure minimal food wastage by reusing leftover food, feeding the rotis to the ashram cows, or making compost with it as a last resort. On the day we visited, leftover idli from the previous day was chopped up and fried with spices to make idli upma for breakfast. Leftover rice is added to milk to make curd rice, while leftover curry is immediately put in the fridge at night for making other dishes in the morning. While they make every effort to reuse leftovers, food that was made for breakfast or lunch is easy to manage, however, leftover food after dinner is problematic, according to Adinarayan. That is when the leftovers end up being fed to the cows, or put in the state-of-theart compost maker.



Article and photographs by JOHAN DE SMIDT



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Comments

  1. This is an amazing kitchen. I can’t even imagine how such big pots are there. Applaud all people who are there. Amazing. Congratulations.

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