Preparing food for the pleasure of the Supreme Personality of Godhead is a wonderful way to express creativity. Combining colors, flavors, and textures in various dishes (and not going over your budget) develops the skill of a true artist. Cooking for Kṛṣṇa calls for a personal touch, and the cook should desire not only to feed but also to delight.
Vedic cooking is practical because it means making the best dishes in the shortest time. One who cooks to please the Supreme Lord cooks efficiently, without haste or waste. Śrīla Prabhupāda showed us how to make a complete meal in less than an hour.
Use time to your best advantage by being organized. For example, plan the sequence in which you’ll cook the dishes. Start the meal the night before. It takes only a few minutes to start a yogurt culture, make paneer and hang it to drain, or put beans to soak. Almost all Indian sweets can be made a day in advance and kept in the refrigerator until needed. Also, on the day the meal is served, you can make and chill the beverage several hours ahead.
If you’re new at Indian cooking, it may be useful to arrange all the ingredients before you start, since the cooking will call for your uninterrupted attention. Start with the dishes that need to cook the longest, such as dal and cooked chutney. Make the bread dough next so you’ll have enough time for it to stand. If you haven’t made fresh cheese the night before, you can make it now and press it under a weight. If you’re making rice or halavā, put a pot of water over heat. Now start on the vegetables, savories, and side dishes. If one dish in the menu requires a great deal of preparation, see that others are quick and easy. Cook the breads and savories at the end, so you can serve them hot.
You’ll keep your mind clear and reduce the cleaning at the end if you clean as you cook. “Cooking means cleaning,” Śrīla Prabhupāda said. Take the time to sponge off working surfaces, and wash pots as you go along. Once you realize that half the pleasure of the cooking is in the cleaning, you’ll always leave the kitchen cleaner than it was when you began.
The same care that goes into preparing the meal should go into presenting it. In India, where there is no table setting as in the West, food is generally served in katoris, little bowls of silver, brass, or stainless steel, placed on a thali, a round, rimmed tray of the same metal. Rice, breads, and other dry foods are served directly on the thali. Cooked vegetables, chutneys, dal, yogurt, and other liquid or semiliquid foods go in the katoris. In the absence of thalis and katoris, ordinary plates and bowls will do. All the courses are served together, to be eaten in whatever order one likes.
An Indian meal should seduce first the eyes, then the nose, and finally the tongue. The home-cooked bread, the sweets of various shapes and colors, and the soup and vegetables garnished with lemon slices and fresh coriander leaves delight the eyes. The aromas of the seasonings and fresh ingredients please the nose, and the balance of spicy and bland foods pleases the tongue.
If you would like to try eating Indian-style, make a seat on the floor with a carpet, mat, or cushion, and put the thali on a low table before you. Indian music (or, better yet, Vaiṣṇava chanting) will create a pleasant atmosphere.
Alcoholic beverages have no place in Vedic dining. The taste of prasāda enlivens the soul and purifies the senses; intoxicants have the opposite effect. If intoxicants were at all conducive to elevating our consciousness, true yogis would drink and smoke, but they don’t. Alcohol dulls the consciousness and obscures the delicate taste of vegetarian food, so it’s better to drink water or one of the beverages from this book. Normally, no tea or coffee is served after an Indian meal. Instead one chews a little anise seed and crushed cardamom to refresh the mouth and please the stomach.
Silverware is optional. Indians eat with the fingers of the right hand (the left hand cleans the body; the right one feeds it). Fingers and Indian food, it seems, were meant for each other. How else could you tear off a piece of chapati, wrap it around a bit of saucecovered vegetable, and convey it to your mouth without losing any on the way? You can, of course, use silverware if you prefer.
A well-prepared meal served hot, on time, and in abundance is an even greater pleasure when the person serving it is eager to please his guest. The person eating the meal may choose to eat moderately, but the person serving the meal should simply be concerned with feeding his guests to their hearts’ content. A Vaiṣṇava song glorifying the spiritual master says, “When the spiritual master sees that the devotees are satisfied by eating Kṛṣṇa-prasāda, then he is satisfied.”
We can get a glimpse of this spirit from Planting the Seed, Volume Two of the biography of Śrīla Prabhupāda by His Holiness Satsvarūpa dāsa Gosvami. Here, a devotee recalls the early days of the Hare Kṛṣṇa movement: “Prabhupāda’s open decree that everyone should eat as much prasāda as possible created a humorous mood and a family feeling. No one was allowed to sit, picking at his food, nibbling politely. They ate with a gusto Swamiji [Śrīla Prabhupāda] almost insisted upon. If he saw someone not eating heartily, he would call the person’s name and smilingly protest, ‘Why are you not eating? Take prasāda.’ And he would laugh. ‘When I was coming to your country on the boat,’ he said, ‘I thought, ‘How will the Americans ever eat this food?’ And as the boys pushed their plates forward for more, Keith [now His Divine Grace Kirtanananda Swami] would serve seconds-more rice, dal, chapatis, and sabji.”
Even Lord Kṛṣṇa Himself, in His incarnation 500 years ago as Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu, derived great pleasure from serving prasāda to His devotees. The Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta, the Bengali devotional classic about the pastimes of this most magnaminous incarnation of Godhead says: “Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu was not accustomed to taking prasāda in small quantities. He therefore put on each plate what at least five men could eat. Everyone was filled up to the neck because Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu kept telling the distributors, ‘Give them more! Give them more!”‘ And since Lord Caitanya was the omniscient Lord Himself, He astonished everyone by knowing exactly what each person wanted. In this way He fed all the devotees until they were fully satisfied.
You and your guests will also be fully satisfied. Whether you sit on the floor or at a table, whether you eat with your fingers or with silverware, whether you serve or are served, whether you have a meal of one dish or 130, you’ll find your home-cooked Indian meal a true feast for the senses, the mind, and the soul.