The first in the new “Kitchen Religion Series” of cookbooks, Rice: 65 Recipes From Around the World doesn’t just offer an astonishing amount of sumptuous ways to prepare that simplest of staple foods.
It’s also the first ever ISKCON cookbook to focus on how to cook in large quantities, an extremely valuable resource for its target audience of ISKCON devotees.
The recipes are presented in graph form with ingredient quantities and directions on cooking for 10 to 1,000 people. This means they can be used by not only ISKCON catering programs, Food For Life programs, and restaurants, but also temple kitchens and even home gatherings.
“I have long felt the need for recipes of this kind within ISKCON’s arsenal,” says author Sunanda Das.
Sunanda knows what he’s talking about. One of the premier ISKCON cooks for the past forty years, he “became a prasadam addict” when he joined ISKCON in Brooklyn, New York in 1971 at the age of 16 and tasted the sanctified vegetarian food for the first time.
Learning the craft of prasadam cooking from Apurva Das, another celebrated ISKCON chef, he cooked for the presiding Deities of ISKCON New York, Sri Sri Radha-Govinda, and then toured with the Radha-Damodar Traveling Sankirtan Party.
Next, he helped open restaurants in St. Louis, Missouri; Austin, Texas, and finally, in 1982, Kalachandji’s in Dallas.
“Kalachandji’s just exploded,” Sunanda says. “It became the most popular vegetarian restaurant in Dallas. On weekends, 150 people would wait for three or four hours to get in. There would be lines going out the door. Then, in 1988, it was reviewed by Vegetarian Times magazine as one of Top 10 vegetarian restaurants in the U.S.”
During this time Sunanda also provided specialized catering for vegetarian bands and solo musicians on tour with his Magic Lotus Catering. He served prasadam to some of the most celebrated names in music, including Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, R.E.M., The Kinks, Boston, David Bowie, B.B. King and Peter Gabriel.
Moving to New York at the tail end of the 1980s, Sunanda cooked for major street fairs organized by ISKCON guru Romapada Swami, and was one of the official food vendors travelling with the 1994 Lollapalooza music festival to 35 shows across the U.S.
“These were all very good experiences for me to cook and reach out to different types of people through prasadam,” he says.
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, Sunanda took a break from cooking to focus on other means of livelihood for his family. But in 2007 he returned to quantity cooking as head chef for the Krishna Lunch program in Gainesville, serving 1,000 students at the University of Florida every day.
“There was a set weekly menu when I arrived, and I like variety, so I started to expand the recipes,” says Sunanda. “That was when I got the idea to start writing down quantity recipes and putting them in book format for devotees.”
Sunanda drew recipes from not only traditional ISKCON or Indian sources but also from cultures all over the world, modifying them when needed.
The staggering array of rice recipes in his first book include Indonesian coconut rice, Mexican black bean and corn rice, Oriental mixed vegetable rice, Cajun Jambalaya rice from New Orleans, spinach, lentil and pine-nut rice, and spicy ginger lima bean rice. There’s even one rice that gets its unique flavor from orange juice, and another that incorporates peaches.
“Most people we cook for at festivals and other venues are still not aware that there’s so much variety in vegetarian cooking,” says Sunanda. “So to have a wide variety of dishes to prepare will engage people’s tongues in Krishna’s service and attract them to Krishna consciousness. As Srila Prabhupada would often quote, variety is the spice of life.”
Along with his recipes, Sunanda reveals the secrets of how to cook them in quantity. “There’s a real art and science to cooking rice in quantity,” he explains. “For ten people, if you use one cup of rice, you generally double the water, using two cups. But as the amount of rice increases, the amount of water gradually reduces. So for 25 people, it’s slightly less, and anything above a certain point is always just one and a half times the amount of water.”
There are other elements, too. “If you overcook the rice, it breaks apart and turns to mush. If you don’t cook long enough it will have hard bits in it,” Sunanda says. “And there’s a whole art in stirring rice so that you don’t mush it all together.”
For non U.S. cooks, Sunanda includes Metric conversion charts in his book, and promises that future editions will include Metric equivalents in the recipes themselves.
Meanwhile, he also goes into detail about the standards Srila Prabhupada set for ISKCON kitchens, making his book a useful tool for temple managers to train prospective new cooks. For quantity cooking at restaurants or festivals, these standards are a little more flexible, but for temple cooking they’re very specific. Temple cooks, for instance, shouldn’t wear street clothes in the Deities’ kitchen or use canned foods, and should keep conversation limited to Krishna conscious topics.
“Cooking is a meditation,” explains Sunanda.
As well as these kitchen standards, each recipe page in the book includes a quote from Srila Prabhupada about prasadam. And in his introduction, Sunanda offers up more inspiration, talking about how Srila Prabhupada called Krishna consciousness ‘the kitchen religion,’ and giving examples from scriptures that show prasad at the center of Vaishnava relationships.
He also talks about prasadam’s importance in keeping devotees enthusiastic on their path of devotion. “In the early days of the movement, Prabhupada used to keep a bucket of gulabjamuns (sweets) outside his room at the New York temple,” he says. “And every time devotees felt some anxiety or lack of inspiration, they would get a gulab, and that would make them feel better.”
Sunanda hopes to release to more books on quantity cooking by 2015: one on soups and dahls, and another on vegetable dishes. Another book, featuring no less than 108 halava flavors, will follow. And Sunanda hopes to work with Apurva Das and other ISKCON cooks on further volumes on savories, salads, desserts and drinks.
Meanwhile he’s also compiling Prasadamrita, a book of quotes from Srila Prabhupada on the glories of prasadam.
All this seems like a lot of work. But for Sunanda, it’s all part of sharing the joy he gets from preparing prasadam and feeding it to others.
“The satisfaction of seeing prasad distributed to hundreds of people at a time is like chanting Hare Krishna,” he says. “We get a certain spiritual satisfaction from chanting the Holy Names, and there’s a very special feeling of satisfaction from cooking and distributing prasad to thousands of people and seeing them enjoy it. It’s like taking a step closer Back to Godhead.”
For more information on the Kitchen Religion Series, and to buy Rice: 65 Recipes From Around the World, please visit http://www.kitchenreligionbooks.com. To order the book in bulk, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.[ cookbooks ] [ cooking ] [ kitchen ] [ prasadam ]