Massive kitchens, unique tastes: India’s ancient temple cuisine sits in a class of its own

Across India, temples have long served not just a spiritual need but a social one as well.
Many of the country’s temples have adopted a long-standing tradition of feeding the masses, allowing pilgrims and travelers alike to enjoy wholesome, delicious meals every day.
Any typical Indian temple, whether in a city or village, will have its own kitchen where these meals are cooked, sanctified and served, and offered free of charge or for a small token price.
But these are no ordinary meals. What sets temple cuisine apart is the taste, which is unique to each location and notoriously hard to replicate.
In fact, many established chefs have tried to offer temple cuisine in their high-end restaurants, but ultimately failed to generate the same magic.
“Temple food is very ancient and has been prepared by special cooks, known as Maharajas or Khanshamas, who belong to just one family,” explains Sandeep Pande, executive chef of New Delhi’s J W Marriot Hotel.
“Therefore, it is impossible to recreate the same taste in restaurants, even by trained chefs,” he adds.
Indeed, it’s tough to match the flavor of the puttu — made up of steamed rice flour, coconut and jaggery (cane sugar) — served at Meenakshi Temple in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, to name but one of the many incredible dishes on offer in the country’s places of worship.
Puttu, a traditional South Indian dish, is among the foods served at Tamil Nadu’s Meenakshi Temple.
Puttu, a traditional South Indian dish, is among the foods served at Tamil Nadu’s Meenakshi Temple.
EyesWideOpen/Getty Images
India’s temple foods are prepared following traditional cooking methods, including the use of “chulha” — wood and charcoal stoves — and clay pots.
Only local ingredients are used, while the recipes are based on Ayurvedic principles. This makes temple cuisine a live repository of traditional crops and spices.
Some temples even use water from a spring or well on the premises, while farms located nearby traditionally offer part of their harvest to the temple’s presiding deity.
The scale is also remarkable, with some temples serving thousands of visitors in a single day. The Shri Saibaba temple in Shirdi, for instance, dishes out as many as 40,000 meals per day, every day, all year long. (See above video.)
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Temple food’s origins
The tradition is rooted in an ancient Indian mythological story in which Lord Vishnu the preserver — a god of the holy Hindu trinity — set out on a long pilgrimage.
As part of his journey he took a dip in the waters of seaside temple Rameshwaram in southern India, meditated at Badrinath Temple in the north, visited Dwarka Temple in the west and dined at the Jagannath Temple on the eastern coast.
The food he ate was cooked by his consort, Hindu goddess Lakshmi, and thus deemed divine, setting the stage for a ritual that continues to this day in which offerings known as prasad are made to a temple’s presiding deity and distributed to devotees.
Here’s a look at a few of most famous temples dishing out tasty, nutritious food to the masses.

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