Fatting It Up at the Langar Hall

Guest blogged by Navdeep Singh Dhillon

My wife’s family is Hindu, with varying degrees of connections to the religion. Some of them have statues of deities like Krishna and Ganesh scattered throughout the house, others have entire rooms sectioned off for bhajans and pujas, and then there are those, who shall remain nameless, that go on random fasts they can’t explain. “It is a potato diet. I will eat potatoes today. Who else wants aloo parantha and aloo pakodas?” is the only explanation given during fasting for the nine days of Navratri. I still don’t get it. Nor do I get why some Sikhs don’t eat certain foods on Thursdays, or why Jains have such a problem with potatoes because living organisms might be killed, but have no qualms about dousing their bland food with ghee, or eating vast quantities of paneer.

Many of my wife’s family live in a concentrated area in Central Jersey a few minutes from each other. In the neighborhood, there is a Hindu temple, which they visited once, and never returned to. No, not because of politics, or religious differences. The reason: they didn’t like the food. It is a Gujarati Hindu Temple, and they are very Punjabi. So they go out of their way, driving through the most industrial and uninspiring landscape New Jersey has to offer, to eat Punjabi food at the Gurdwara.

The irony is not that they are Hindu and attending a Sikh Gurdwara when a Hindu temple is a few minutes away. Sikhism has, from its inception, been welcoming to all religions, and many of the verses in the Guru Granth Sahib were written by Muslims and Hindus. The four openings at the Harimandir Sahib invite people from all directions and walks of life. The irony is that through their food, which Gujaratis and Punjabis take very seriously, both communities have been the hardest hit by ailments like heart disease and diabetes, affectionately known as “sugar.”

My post is an expansion on Brooklynwala’s post “Working for Langar Justice,” which talks about making the move for our Langar Halls to go organic, a move I highly encourage.

In my post, I want to expand upon this idea of spirituality, and place the focus on the role the Langar Hall plays in the spiritual experience of a place of worship. This idea is certainly not restricted to the Gurdwara, and easily applies to the Mandir and the Mosque.  The Gurdwara represents a spiritual place, the reading of the profound poetry of the Guru Granth Sahib is beautifully sung, which even the worst speaker system can’t nullify.

And then there’s the food. Pakodas, samosas, ladoos , jalebiyan, gulabjamans, and massive pots of cha with disturbing quantities of sugar added by sevadars. And that’s just for breakfast. The situation isn’t much better at Mosques or Mandirs. In defense of these places of worship, there are many that have taken steps to offer healthier versions of these foods, but frying food in “healthier” oils is still frying food. My bhua ji in Tarn Taran makes the most delicious aloo vala parathas. She kneads desi ghee into the flour mixture, fries it in desi ghee, and then plonks a shimmering piece of desi ghee onto the top of the paratha. I would love nothing more than to eat healthier versions of these parathas every few days, but I know that relatively healthy is not the same thing as healthy. And baked paratha just sounds stupid. So, it remains an indulgence. As are samosas, pakodas and the all encompassing “moo mithaa.”

But everytime I go to the Gurdwara, I succumb to the lure of khand vali cha, and the plethora of tasty but artery-clogging food laid out right next to the non-biodegradable Styrofoam cups, plates and plasticware. Lunchtime langar is also sometimes made using healthier oils, but the point is, this is still not healthy food. And then there’s the crown jewel of it all: Karah Parshad at the Gurdwara, called Halwa (or Prasad) at the Mandir, which is always made using desi ghee. No ifs, ands, or buts. A diabetic has the option of not eating a samosa, or of not eating the ladoos. They could possibly even get away with not langar shakking. But the symbolic gesture of accepting Karah Parshad transcends its physical nature, which makes it a very un-Sikh choice: choose your health, or choose to accept the blessings of the Guru.

On a positive note, however, the Langar served at some of our historic Gurdwaras, such as Baba Budha Sahib in Tarn Taran and Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar, still remains true to the spirit of Langar, and offers a simple daal-phulka with a very basic tadka. And only on special occasions do they also offer things like jalebis and kheer. During my father’s days at Khalsa College in the 1960s, he and his classmates, driven by the lure of Parshad, would come to Harmandir Sahib, pay homage, and eat the Parshad while soaking in the spiritual atmosphere. And to this day, he still claims it is the most delicious, a fact I must agree with. But the reason that the Parshad is always incredibly delicious is because it is always incredibly oily and unhealthy.

My Bapuji used to eat a huge amount of ghee every morning, and he lived to ripe old age before passing away peacefully. No heart problems and certainly no diabetes. But he used to bike for miles along bumpy dirt paths in his village. Now Punjabis are eating the same ghee-infused food farmers used to eat, but instead of going to the fields to sweat it out, they get in their cars and go sit in an office for hours on end, taking breaks to waddle over and eat more fried food, washing it all down with sugary cha. And there are a plethora of restaurants all over Punjab (and many parts of India) that pride themselves on their commitment to contributing to unhealthy eating with signs like “We use Pure Desi Ghee” just in case someone was concerned these restaurants were trying to trick them by not using Pure Desi Ghee (oh, teri !).

I’m quite sure our Gurus would encourage making Guru Ka Langar not just healthier (footnote: relatively speaking), but healthy. Our Gurus were all incredibly progressive in their ideas, and in their actions. And yet here we are in 2011 still cooking and eating a rural diet while living largely sedentary city lifestyles.

I have read countless surveys of people speculating on the root cause of the rise of diabetes and heart disease in Punjab, but have yet to see a survey on how the same diet affects the bhaiya who has taken over the manual labor of working the fields from the Punjabi farmer. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the bhaiya is not suffering from diabetes or heart disease the same way (the impact of the pesticides are a topic of a different blog though!). But the same diet, coupled with a lack of exercise, consumed by an office worker in Chandigarh or a computer analyst in Fresno, results in diabetes and heart disease of epidemic proportions. Eating at the Gurdwara, Mandir, or Mosque even twice a month doesn’t help.

It is an incredibly complicated and deep-rooted problem to change the entire culture of the way Punjabis eat. Centuries before it was proven that smoking causes cancer, and alcohol is the root cause of many diseases, our Gurus realized this, and you will not find a legitimate Gurdwara which serves or allows either of those things on its premises. Today, foods that can potentially kill a person should fall in the same category.

Returning to Brooklynwala’s point, we should certainly start making the move towards organic, fresh ingredients, and the use of environmentally friendly dishes, but we should also make a more fundamental move towards preserving the spiritual sanctity of the food being served at the Langar Hall in the name of our Gurus. Or, at the very least, give a healthy (not “healthier”) option for Parshad, so those with diabetes or heart disease can freely take the Guru’s blessings.

What do you think? Is this completely unhealthy and in many cases, dangerous food representative of Guru ka Langar? Can we even affect change, or is this just the way it is?

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29 Responses to “Fatting It Up at the Langar Hall”

  1. It is an interesting post. Places of worship in general and religions in particular for that matter, currently face many challenges posed from many quarters. With increased education and scientific break throughs where much of previously thought unknown, is become known with time, a belief system that has served its devotees in the past for centuries may not necessary be able to do so in the future the sameway. The subject needs a broader discussion and greater research from those who may know more about this. My comments unfortunately do'nt have answers but only questions.

  2. brooklynwala says:

    it's certainly a tough issue because we're talking about deeply ingrained things in punjabi culture. butter/ghee and sugar are as punjabi as wheat fields it seems…
    but i think navdeep you really nail it: "Centuries before it was proven that smoking causes cancer, and alcohol is the root cause of many diseases, our Gurus realized this, and you will not find a legitimate Gurdwara which serves or allows either of those things on its premises. Today, foods that can potentially kill a person should fall in the same category."
    a change in the culture is desperately needed, and people's lives depend on it. it doesn't have to mean giving up on some of our favorite decadent punjabi foods all together, but shouldn't the gurdwara of all places be a place that is modeling healthy, ethical living — setting an example for the community?
    more from sundari on the topic from awhile back: http://thelangarhall.com/sikhi/a-simple-langar/

  3. Varun C. says:

    The argument against this is the obvious “well, you can’t just got and change tradition” but tradition doesn’t always make sense. It reminds me of the story where this guy always cuts off the edges of the meat prior to cooking it because that’s what his grandmother did and his mother taught him to do the same. He eventually questions this tradition and asks his grandmother who tells him she only did that because she didn’t have a big enough pot then.

    Going about change and against tradition isn’t easy for a lot of people and requires a lot of time and patience. I think a better way to encourage a healthier lifestyle in religious communities is to have a communal gym and regular sporting events. You start with sporting events to raise money and slowly buy all the work out equipment or even have community marathon runs and if someone doesn’t show up they’re looked down upon with shame.

  4. H Kaur says:

    I completely agree! Healthier food needs to be introduced to the langar hall. The Gurduara is not just a place of warship… it is also place for community education (as well as many other things). In being a place of common education, the Gurduara should be tackling issues of the local sangat. If the local issue is heart disease and diabetes, then the Gurduaras should be taking the steps to educate and encourage a healthier life style.
    Unfortunately, I believe that before such change can take place in the Guduara, there needs to be a larger reform of the institution. I fear that the Gurduara has drifted to far from its initial function.
    Another topic for another day!
    Great post.

  5. Litte Miss Me says:

    Looove this post. I always fretted eating the Parshad at the Gurdwara afterward because I knew what it turned into inside my stomach and digestive system. I always felt so sleepy after a visit to the Gurdwara because of sugar-induced lethargy (after the sugar rush, of course). Fortunately, my mom is a staunch non-believer in ghee. We rarely use it, if ever. I think this was a great post that highlighted the importance of the Gurdwara in helping its attendees make healthy choices.

    It will not only affect the people who eat there, but seeing the Gurdwara serve healthy food instead of ghee-laden goodies will certainly influence the general populous to make a change for the better. Perhaps including pamphlets about diabetes, hypertension, and hyperlipidemia would be another step in the right direction… and maybe even holding a monthly discussion on the importance of healthy eating and maintaining a consistent exercise regimen would be cool, too.

    It's not that hard to change tradition… Because after all, traditions keep changing all the time. 😉

  6. Navdeep Singh Dhillon says:

    Little Miss Me, you make some marvellous suggestions. I especially like the idea of the pamphlets and talks on healthy eating. Funnily enough, my mum is also heavily into healthy cooking, even once substituting tofu for paneer in mutter paneer claiming it tasted just the same (it did NOT). But she draws the line at Parshad, where she still uses a small amount of ghee on the rare occasions that she makes them. I think it would be a wonderful gesture for Gurdwaras to even offer fruits and other healthy options because it would at least make people think, rather than diving straight for the unhealthy food since that's the only option.

  7. nnkn says:

    Thank you for this blog.

    I would love to see gurdwaras serve healthy langar and parshad. And in my dream gurdwaras we would also offer healthy cooking classes…where langar preparation is a product of learning and spirtual reconnection with food making. This kind of set up could also be used as a intergenerational activity in gurdwaras. While we are at it we could also explore options for employment supports like food handling certification within nutritional training.

    Tumeric, Ginger, garlic, and onion (the basis of so much Punjabi cooking) have phenomenal medicinal properties when crushed, cut and cooked properly. As well as

  8. Mr. Singh says:

    Dear Sir,

    First, who are you to be telling people what our Gurus would or wouldn’t do?

    Second, what gives you the right to claim that our Gurus were “progressive” – aka left wing/ socialists?

    Third, why should Gurdwaras follow the latest enviro-fanatic trends such as going, ‘organic’, etc..? Where has it been shown that ‘organic’ is healthier? Someone already pointed out that the recipe for degh has been in place with Guru Ji’s blessing. There is no room to change the recipe for degh because you claim to know the will of Guru Ji. Instead of making heretical statements you should do some research first.

    Fourth, why are you making relativist arguments and equating Guru ka langar and karah parshad with what may/ may not happen at mosques or mandirs? It is only at Gurdwara that these can be obtained. Guru Ji advises us against falling prey to the misdirection of pandits and qazis and you go and equate the Gurdwara Sahib with the places they frequent. I’m curious to know if you are even a Sikh? No one forces anyone to eat out of proportion at Gurdwara Sahib. People can eat in moderation using their own best judgement.

    Instead of criticizing langar and degh at the Gurdwara, perhaps you should advocate people moderate their diet and start exercising. No one forces anyone to eat jalebis and ladoos to excess. Instead of limiting people’s choice at Gurdwara, they should be shown how to make healthier ones.

  9. M.C. says:

    true dat! i feel my arteries clogging as I read this…

  10. Harinder says:

    I would never trade of the Kara -Prasad for any scientific diet.
    It is just to tasty and spiritually elevating
    especially the after oil scrub is also good.
    I dont mind taking a pill of “SIMIVASTATIN ” to get rid of the cholestrol.

  11. Excellent article, thanks.

    Someone has to be the CHANGE and WE can be that change. We have tried a simple change that everyone liked but it takes persistence to keep people motivated. People need to be empowered and educated. No one wants to be the 1st to do anything, everyone seems to be WAITING … for what I ask? Our Gurdwara's need to go back to the basics. KISS – Keep It Simply Simple.

    Black cholay salad, with veggies and olive oil dressing is a good alternative for starter, full of protein which is needed by our bodies.
    Mixed diced fresh fruit is a good replacement for sweets.
    OR .. Flaxseed pini's

    As for waste, we must educate sangat : http://www.50waystohelp.com

  12. Mr. Singh says:

    Dear Sir,

    You say, “I’m quite sure our Gurus would encourage making Guru Ka Langar not just healthier (footnote: relatively speaking), but healthy. Our Gurus were all incredibly progressive in their ideas, and in their actions. ”

    How do you know what our Gurus would or wouldn’t do? Are you claiming that you receive visions or talk to the Gurus?

    Second, what makes you believe they were “progressive” – aka left wing or socialists?

    Third, you recommend changing the degh which was specified by Guru Ji. Do you realize that is heretical. Guru Ji gave specific instructions in preparation of degh, how is it that you give yourself the right to propose to change it?

    Fourth, you seem to feel people can’t think for themselves. Why shouldn’t someone who wants to eat unhealthy give themselves diabetes and heart disease if they want to risk it.

    Fifth, if you are so concerned about people’s health and eating, wouldn’t it make more sense to treat them as adults and teach them how to make healthier food choices or to eat certain foods such as ladoos, jalebis etc… in moderation rather than removing them as options?

  13. Aryeh Leib says:

    "Healthy" according to whose definition? Dean Ornish? Robert Atkins? This alone would seem to be an issue for the Sangat to, "weigh in" on!

  14. Whose definition? Good question. At the end, I think by your own definition. If you listen to yourself close enough, it wii tell you what is not healthy. But read all dfinitions by all means. ?? ??? ??? ???? ??? ???? ??? ???? !

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  16. […] not unique to us, either. On the poignantly-named blog, The Langar Hall, Navdeep Singh Dhillon writes: But everytime I go to the Gurdwara, I succumb to the lure of khand vali cha [sugar tea], and the […]

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  19. "Healthy" according to whose definition? Dean Ornish? Robert Atkins? This alone would seem to be an issue for the Sangat to, "weigh in" on!