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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

From Rajapur with Love

There are many beautiful and fascinating temples in India with timeless Vedic traditions of worship at the center of a culture of  devotional expression.

The ancient devotional traditions of India e.g. Vaishnavism recognize that God or Krishna chooses to manifest in many ways according to time, place and circumstance. One of these ways is through very specific forms which are described in the Vedic scriptures.

The Vedas explain that the Lord chooses to be present in such a form or deity for the benefit of mankind to give one the opportunity to develop a personal relationship of loving reciprocation with the Lord. To this end, devotees practice offering humble services or offering everything they do in their lives up to the Lord with the intention of pleasing Him. That means putting the Lord into the center of ones life.

This is known as as the practice of Bhakti yoga or devotional service. So in the temple one can observe how the Lord in the form of the deity is treated just like an honored guest i.e offered new outfits regularly, fresh flower garlands, water, meals throughout the day, prayers, music and dance, a bed to rest, and many ceremonies and festivals. Temples are sacred places for reconnecting with the divine and for purification of mundane worldly conditioning which binds one into materialistic pursuits.

One of these temples I had the joy of visiting is the Jagannatha Mandir nestled amongst the jackfruit, mango and banana groves in Rajapur, Bengal. Jagannatha refers to He who is the most merciful Lord of the Universe, and this particular temple houses the extraordinary forms of the Lord known as Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subadhra. These deities are worshiped by the local people of Rajapur and Mayapur and many pilgrims come from all over the world to visit this temple.

There are many stories of miracles which have occurred and continue to occur into the present day experienced by the pilgrims who come to see the Lordships in the temple. Examples include the blind having their sight returned, infertile couples suddenly able to have children, cures from various diseases, people who had giving up ever finding a partner for marriage soon finding a spouse etc after praying to these Deities for help.

I had a the wonderful opportunity to spend some time at this temple watching the cooks preparing sweets for the late noon and evening offerings. The cooks I met are an sweet elderly Bengali lady and her son who team up together to cook. Initially they seemed a little reserved and I felt shy not wanting to intrude in their meditative and devotional cooking process, but by the second day we were chatting away in broken English, sign language and my few words of Bengali and Hindi.

I was quite amazed to see how incredibly resourceful and  creative they are with the least facilities and ingredients. I consider myself to be a very creative person, so thats saying something! :-) The kitchen is minimalistic and by western standards it would be considered a bare unfinished room. But its functional, with a stone floor which can easily be washed down, a washing area with running water on one end, and a counter on the other end. A few sparse shelves hug the walls, several wicker and bamboo baskets holding vegetables, fruits and clay utensils grace the corners, and the big empty floor space in the middle is the main center of activity.

In this kitchen one cooks squatting on the floor or sitting on a small wooden chonki (wooden table) in front of several gas burners holding woks (deep bowl-like pots for stir-frying etc), a basin of water for washing on the side, ingredients and utensils on another side, all within easy reach. One person works at the cookers and another at a counter rolling and shaping various pastries and sweets from dough made with many kinds of spices, nuts etc.

The cooks here have learnt the art of making certain signature sweets of the ancient Jagannatha temple in Puri, Orissa. These recipes have been passed down through the generations of priests and cooks of Lord Jagannatha and also to these cooks who have combined these with their own local specialties. The food they prepare is offered to the Lord where upon it is considered karma free, sanctified food known as prasad or the Lords mercy. It is distributed to eager pilgrims who honor it with great eagerness.

So I will share two of these recipes with you. Have fun! :-)

Kaja - Jagannatha Tongues

White flour - use as much as you feel you will need
A little ghee - clarified butter rubbed into flour to create a fine crumb texture
Water - enough to make a stiff smooth dough
A wok of ghee or oil for deep frying

For the icing, you can either use:

Traditional glaze:
4 parts sugar to 1 part water
Cook down into a syrup - that is it falls off the spatula in thick slow drops

My own preferred glaze:
Icing sugar mixed with enough freshly squeezed orange juice to make a runny icing
Pistachio nuts crushed fine

Knead the dough for a good 10 minutes til dough is stiff yet very smooth. Let it rest for a few minutes. Then on a floured surface roll out the dough til it is approx 1 millimeter thick. Smear soft ghee over the pastry and then sprinkle it with an even dusting of flour. (This is important to create layers later).

On one end of the pastry create a ridge by turning over the side onto itself. Use this ridge to roll up the whole pastry evenly into a snake. Seal the edges by pinching the dough together all the way across and on either side. Then take a sharp knife and cut the dough into even slices approx 1 - 2 inch thick.

Put on the wok of ghee to heat over a medium flame. If you choose to make a traditional sugar glaze now is the time to put it on to cook down.

On a floured surface roll out the slices into long rectangular shapes, rolling on one side once. Turn over, sprinkle with a little flour as needed, and roll again. Repeat this procedure until the pastry is a strip about 3 inches long and the edges will look layered and fluted.

Check to see if the ghee is hot enough for use by throwing a small piece of dough in. If it sinks and immediately rises, sizzling, its ready to go. Gently slide the kaja into the hot ghee. You can fry about 6 at a time in a medium sized wok. When it rises up bob them up and down a little with the back of your spatula to encourage the layers to puff and separate a little. Turn them over when they are golden brown.When done remove from wok and drain in a colander lined with paper towels if you have. Gentle - they are fragile.

Then when cool enough to handle transfer to a tray or if you are using the traditional glaze carefully slide them into the syrup and submerge them. Remove from the syrup as soon as they are covered in it and transfer onto a tray to cool and dry off.

If you are using my preferred glaze, simply dip them into the runny icing and place onto a tray to dry off.

Jagannatha Roses

Use the same dough cut into slices and roll spiral side up into rounds. Turn over on a floured surface on each roll to prevent ghee in the layers from squeezing out. When it is an even round, deep fry the roses using the same method as for the Kaja til golden brown. Drain and follow either of the same procedures above for glazing. Sprinkle crushed Pistachio nuts over the top to garnish.

The secret ingredient to make the food you cook taste extra special is to prepare it with a mood of love, offer it to the Divine/the Lord and enjoy! :-)

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