“What’s your favorite song in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham?’ one small boy asked his friends, referring to a popular Bollywood movie. The three boys were sitting at a table at the Ganesha Temple’s canteen, their faces deep into Game Boys, chattering at each other without looking up. “Shah Rukh is in that, right?” his friend asked. A few moments of silence passed, the boys’ fingers clicking manically over the buttons. “Harry Potter!” one of them shrieked, apropos of nothing. “The boy who lived!”
The canteen is in the basement of the Sri Maha Vallabha Ganapati Devasthãnam temple (known as the Ganesha Temple) in Flushing, Queens. It is an eatery open to anyone, but it’s also a de facto community center where kids play video games while their parents pray upstairs, temple volunteers man the cash registers, and a cartoon version of the Ramayana plays on three televisions. The gift shop does a brisk business in statues of gods and goddesses; sale-priced saris are piled on a table along one wall.
On Saturdays and Sundays, a line snakes from the food counter all the way across the room. The food, all vegetarian, is good in the manner of home-cooked food—some dishes are sublime, some aren’t fried quite as skillfully as the ideal, but somehow it all tastes really good.
The majority of the temple’s members are South Indian, and the food follows suit. South Indians have a way with pancakes, which are here in various forms. Dosas—thin, lentil-flour pancakes—show up in many incarnations: plain, stuffed, spiced, and buttered. There are uttapam, thicker lentil-and-rice pancakes usually topped with onions and chilies or tomatoes, and idli, steamed-rice patties eaten dipped in sambar.
The mini-tiffin, a Saturday special, is a godsend (heh) for the indecisive. For about $7, this included a vadai (a lentil-flour doughnut), kichiri (a spiced rice-and-lentil mishmash) a mini–masala dosa, mini–idli sambar, coconut chutney, and warm kesari (sweet semolina pudding).
The vadai was stone-cold, seemingly fried hours ago, but everything else was great, especially the silver-dollar-sized idli bobbing in a spicy sambar. The masala dosa, stuffed with potatoes spiced with mustard seed, green chile, and turmeric, had a nice tang and delicate crunch. The temple’s version of kichiri—there are many—featured short pieces of vermicelli mixed with the rice, making it pleasantly slippery.
On another visit, I tried the onion-chile uttapam. Shot through with air bubbles, the pancake was chewy and mild, enlivened with bits of onion and searingly hot green chilies cooked into the top. Then I sat and sipped milky Madras coffee and watched cartoon sharks dance to a bhangra beat on the television.
Most Hindu temples need a kitchen to prepare prasad—food items, usually sweets, that are first offered to the gods, then eaten by devotees as part of worship. The Ganesha Temple hired cooks from South India who had experience preparing prasad, and, gradually, the cooks started preparing snacks for the temple-goers. In 1993, the temple opened the canteen to the public.
You can get dosa, idli, and uttapam everyday, but the best time to go is any Saturday, Sunday, or festival day, when there are all sorts of specials and a lively crowd. “Many devotees come from Connecticut, New Jersey, or upstate, and they spend the whole day here,” says Ganapathy. “This canteen is a very useful place for them.”
Just a few blocks down the road, there’s a Hindu temple of the Swaminarayan denomination, which caters to the Gujarati community. Enter the temple, swing a left, and you’ll find an excellent sweets-and-snacks shop. The mustachioed man behind the counter told me that the sweets are made at their temple in New Jersey, but volunteers who attend this temple—”the ladies,” as he put it—make many of the snacks.
The temple’s kesar pedas—dense, milky, saffron-flavored sweets—were some of the best I’ve ever had. I’m sorry to say that I ate four of them in the car on the way home. They were aromatic with saffron and not too sweet, with a fluffiness from the addition of ricotta—unorthodox but delicious. Kaju burfi (cashew-paste sweets) were less successful, leaden and dry.
The “ladies’ ” snacks, though, are worth the trip—especially shankurpali, crunchy little nuggets of fried dough flavored with spinach and spiced with chile powder, fenugreek, and cumin.
If you’re up for a longer trip to get your temple-food fix, head out to New Jersey. I was driving along a country road in Bridgewater when the elaborately carved turrets of the Sri Venkateswara Temple poked up through the trees. This is one of the largest temples in New Jersey, with a roomy sanctuary, a gift shop and community center, and, most importantly, a canteen in the basement.
“Whatever my baby wants, my baby gets,” joked a young man heading back up to the canteen counter to get his young daughter another fried chile bhaji. I ordered one too, but sadly, it was not freshly fried, the green chile soggy and laden with heavy batter. It’s probably better to stay away from the deep-fried items in general, as they’ve often been sitting around too long. That’s fine, because there’s a large array of more delicious options.
There are many items on offer that I’ve never seen on restaurant menus or on my Indian in-laws’ table, a reminder of the tremendous diversity of Indian cooking—finding these rare, regional dishes is reason enough to seek out temple eats. As an added bonus, nothing I ate was more than $7, and all the proceeds go to temple projects.
Pongal is a good bet: a comforting stew of rice, yellow split-peas, plenty of butter, and whole peppercorns. There was bobbatlu, a flatbread stuffed with a sweet lentil mixture, sometimes served with milk poured over it, and pesarattu, a dosa from the state of Andhra Pradesh, made with yellow or green split-peas, which you can order stuffed with upma, a kind of spicy cream-of-wheat pilaf.
More familiarly, there are all manner of dosas—plain, spicy, mysore, masala—and uttapam. The sambal and coconut chutneys are self-serve, available from several vats in the center of the room. Almost everything is made to order; each dosa comes hot from the griddle, skinny, crisp, and teetering on its plate.
Sitting at the linoleum table, ripping off pieces of my dosa, surrounded by the hubbub of parents wrangling children and couples bickering about what to order, I found it all oddly comforting—like hanging out with the family without actually having to hang out with the family . . . and with better food.