The culinary art of bhiksha: how to feed a visiting guru

From sai bhaji to makhani paneer, we take a look at Sindhi food in Hong Kong through the culture of bhiksha, a meal prepared with love for a guru

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 6:03am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 5:42pm

For Hindus, there is an ever rotating roster of travelling gurus and swamis whose lectures they can attend, either in or out of India. If you are of a certain social standing, it is customary to invite a holy person to one’s home for a bhiksha, Sanskrit for “alms” – food given as a charitable act. Much respect is given to the visiting spiritual teacher, from the ritual welcoming of the guru into the household with a decorated coconut, a plate of sacred items including lights with wicks soaked in ghee (clarified butter), and mantra chanting. The meal generally becomes an opportunity for satsang, or a casual spiritual gathering where guests can engage in an informal pre-dinner question and answer session with the teacher. Hosts will invite family and friends, or extend the invitation to all of the guru’s students.

Shubhraji is a Vedanta teacher based in Woodstock, New York. Every January, she comes to Hong Kong and holds early morning classes and English language workshops and talks around town, as well as conducting a major puja (ritual worship) for the local Sindhi community. Come February and March, she leads pilgrimages to India, and is planning a retreat in Kyoto, Japan, for next spring.

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Sunil and Bharti Uttamchandani have been hosting Shubhraji in their Magazine Gap Road home, which looks like a Shiva temple in a space station, metallic accents on all white reflective walls, which slide open to reveal doorways. Bharti had wanted to host a bhiksha, but Shubhraji had already told her that it wasn’t necessary since the the family had already been taking care of her during her Hong Kong visit.

“In the end, I didn’t plan on having one as I was feeling a bit under the weather from all the travelling I had been doing,” Uttamchandani said. “But God had other plans.” This writer, interested in insight to the bhiksha culture, had contacted Shubhraji, and knowing that the guru was staying with the Uttamchandanis, had asked if she would be willing to host a small satsang.

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“They say in Sindhi that if you’re hungry, it’ll puff up.” Uttamchandani explains as her cook Sitaram Yadav, from Mumbai, expertly toasts a freshly rolled Sindhi paratha over an open flame. The layered flat bread, folded luxuriously with spoonfuls of ghee, puffs up under the heat. “So we are all hungry!” she exclaims.

Sindhis get their name from the Sindhu, the Indus River. Sindh is now a province of Pakistan, and after the partition in 1947, Sindhi Hindus left their newly-Muslim nation state to settle in other urban areas of India such as Hyderabad and Mumbai, as well as the US, Canada and Europe, and in Asian cities including Jakarta, Manila, Singapore and Hong Kong. For Sindhis living away from their homeland, food provides a vital connection to their roots.

The signature Sindhi dish is sai bhaji (green vegetables),a potpourri of vegetables with some split yellow lentils or chickpeas. Aromatic fenugreek greens were the original vegetable of choice, but nowadays, spinach is the main ingredient. Uttamchandani’s forest green stew includes French beans, carrot, white squash, potato, carrot, tomato and ginger, lightly seasoned with coriander powder, turmeric and lemon.

Daal is the other dish bubbling away on the stove, another Indian staple and an excellent source of protein for vegetarians: dried split pulses (lentils, peas and beans) cooked in a pressure cooker into a comforting mush. The finishing technique of tadka/tarka, or tempering of spices in hot oil, adds another layer of flavour.

In Indian home cooking, a lot of care is used in selecting specific spices for each dish, and blending them properly in particular proportions. This means using just one or two main spices for a single dish, as opposed to a masala mix bought off the shelf. The variation of seasonings changes depending on the household or the region, and usually includes cumin for its toasty, earthy nuttiness, and cardamom and fennel seeds for their bright, herbal sweetness. Some cooks add tamarind or green mango powder for tang, others use pungent fenugreek seeds or curry leaves.

It’s a reason why most Indians in Hong Kong prefer to eat at home. Indian food in restaurants is usually too oily and heavy with a generic mix of spices and overpowering heat, rather than subtle, sophisticated and vibrant flavours.

Uttamchandani’s saffron-coloured daal is minimalist. Her tadka is a simple one of coriander, tomato and green chillies. “Normally I use garlic as well,” she explains. “ But you know, not for Shubhraji.”  

When a guru visits, stricter dietary rules are applied. As with Jain and Buddhist cuisine, garlic and onion are omitted; their pungency believed to agitate the mind and cause stronger emotions. That does not mean that flavour is compromised. Asafoetida, or hing, a yellow resin that smells powerfully of garlic, may be used instead.

This was a simple bhiksha. Larger ones may be catered affairs.

Although simple, it is prepared with great attention to detail, resulting in a gorgeous riot of colour. Uttamchandani’s last dish, makhani paneer, contains cubes of Indian cottage cheese swimming in a creamy sauce of cashew nut paste and tomato.

Another student, Dina Gidwani, brought a bright dish of beetroot cut into long, thin strips, stir-fried with turmeric powder, fenugreek seeds, curry leaves and cumin, with coconut milk. Rashmi Shodhan, Shubhraji’s elder sister, brought fresh turmeric pickled Gujarati-style with lemon juice and salt from Ahmedabad, Gujarat, where she lives.

It takes time to decipher the intricacy of Indian cuisine and to decode individual spices, and the techniques which include dry frying, toasting and grinding into a wet paste. But perhaps the most important ingredients are love and devotion to the guru and the guest.