For many Americans, the common perception of the Hare Krishna faith is young men with shaved heads and saffron robes professing their faith in airports and city centers. Founded in New York City in the 1960s by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the Hare Krishnas, or International Society For Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), formed to encourage the spread of bhakti yoga, a Hindu spiritual practice in which followers devote all actions and intentions to God. In ISKCON, an offshoot of the Gaudiya Vaishnavism tradition, that attention is devoted entirely to Krishna, the movement’s supreme deity.
According to a 2014 piece in the Brookyln Quarterly, in the United States, the movement's rise is often associated with "attracting converts who were inspired by the spiritual experimentation of the 1960s but had become disenchanted with the period's excesses" — notably, white young adults who considered themselves members of the counterculture. The association of Hare Krishnas with cult stereotypes, particularly in the West, is perhaps why the restaurants operated by temples across the globe remain one of the best-kept secrets in dining. Often housed in lush, meticulously maintained temples, Krishna restaurants serve a dual purpose — nourishing the bodies and souls of both devotees and people from the surrounding community who dine there.
Food and the Hare Krishna movement are intrinsically linked. "The Krishna movement has always been interested in food," says Graham M. Schweig, a professor of religion at Virginia's Christopher Newport University. "It's a natural consequence of the temples opening their doors to the public every Sunday for a feast."
In the 1960s, Prabhupada taught his first disciples how to prepare Indian dishes that follow the Krishnas' strict dietary guidelines (including an adherence to a vegetarian diet and use of ingredients considered "sattvic" — those that promote "purity, strength, and clearness of the mind" like fresh fruits, vegetables, rice, legumes, and dairy products). Temples across the globe began opening their doors for "Sunday love feasts," in which people in the community were invited to the temple to enjoy prasadam, or food prepared by devotees in offering to Krishna.
According to Schweig, temples began opening restaurants in the 1970s. "The whole motivation to engage in a rather work-intensive business like a restaurant is grounded in the sense of serving a divinity," he says. "It's not the profits — sometimes those restaurants don't make much of a profit. It really comes down to part of their service to God and to humanity." Now, nearly 30 years later, more than 50 of these restaurants are still operating all over the globe, from San Francisco to São Paulo to Sydney. The restaurants are separate from — though usually adjacent to — the actual temple, and are for the most part staffed exclusively by Krishna devotees.
"It’s important for us to offer the food to Krishna and nourish people spiritually."
Operationally, Krishna restaurants function just like any other eatery. There are cash registers, steam tables, and (of course) plenty of seating. Many, like Kalachandji's in Dallas and Govinda's in Los Angeles, have been open for decades, earning praise from diners and critics alike.
Kalachandji's, operated by the Sri Sri Radha Kalachandji Mandir Hare Krishna Temple in Dallas, TX, is considered to be one of the best Hare Krishna restaurants in the world: Open for lunch and dinner, it serves more than 30 sweet and savory dishes each day, all of which are prepared from scratch by the temple's devotees. Here, no frozen or canned vegetables are allowed inside the kitchen.
Danny Thomas, a Krishna devotee since the late 1970s, manages the kitchen at Kalachandji's. Open since 1982, the original cooks trained under Prabhupada or with his closest disciples. "These recipes are not just concoctions. They're timeless recipes," says Thomas. "Here in Dallas, the wife of the temple president cooked for one of Prabhupada's closest disciples, and she taught a lot of people how to cook. But they all say that she's the best."
As far as the food is concerned, most of the restaurant's dishes are familiar to fans of Indian cuisine — think soft, fluffy chapati and richly spiced lentil dal. At Kalachandji's, a salad bar is piled high with fresh veggies ready to be doused in house-made green goddess or lemon-tahini dressing. A rotating selection of vegetarian dishes, maybe Asian okra braised in coconut milk or potato-eggplant curry, changes every day, even from lunch to dinner. "We just try to make it as fresh as possible. Each preparation is cooked one pan at a time," says Thomas. And it's not uncommon to find veggie burgers and dishes from other cuisines on offer: Kalachandji's also serves vegetarian enchiladas and nachos. On a recent visit to the Hare Krishna temple in Mumbai, Schweig spotted pizza.
Preparation at Kalachandji's begins early in the morning, once meditation and prayer has been completed. A devotee comes into the temple first thing to bake whole wheat and cinnamon raisin bread. Pappadams are prepared, rolled out, and dried in the sun. Raw milk sourced from local dairy farms is transformed into fresh paneer.
Though similar to a traditional Indian curry house or buffet, the fundamental difference at restaurants like Kalachandji's is that food is prepared first and foremost for Krishna. Thus, it reflects a strict set of dietary and preparation standards, including the adherence to a strict vegetarian diet. Krishnas believe that animals, like humans, are children of Krishna and born with a soul, thus killing them for consumption is considered an affront to the deity. "We're interested in propagating vegetarianism," Thomas says of the vegetarian menu at Kalachandji's, "but it's much more important for us to offer the food to Krishna and nourish people spiritually."
Devotees also only cook (and eat) foods classified as "sattvic," which means that unlike many Indian dishes, food prepared by Krishnas do not contain any onions or garlic. Alliums are considered unfit for offering to the deity and are believed to have a "toxic" influence on the body.
Strict rules for preparation are followed: Though outside help is sometimes brought in to handle some kitchen tasks, only Krishnas devotees do the cooking. This has much to do with the idea that food — and thereby, the person who eats it — takes on the emotions or energies of the person who prepared it. In order to prepare food at the restaurant, cooks must be members who have reached the second level of initiation, which requires a rigorous course of study. Newer members are taught by the restaurant's more experienced cooks, and typically start out in the kitchen doing prep work or cleaning.
Cleanliness is a crucial component, and devotees wash their hands frequently throughout the cooking process and keep meticulously clean work stations. Uniquely, cooks in ISKCON kitchens also avoid eating — and smelling — bhaga, or un-offered food, while it is being prepared. "They don't taste it at all during the cooking process, they don't figure out if there's enough salt," says Schweig of the kitchen practice. "Everything is done as an aesthetic judgement, and food is only tasted after it has been seen as offered to divinity."
"Cooking is initially intended for the offering; in some sense, the food is a remnant of that."
Once the food has been prepared, it is covered and then brought out into the restaurant for a sacred ritual offering to Krishna before the restaurant opens for the day. Devotees will chant mantras and pray around a shrine or sacred image of Krishna and Radha (Krishna's feminine counterpart) and arrange small portions of each dish into platters and bowls in front of the sacred image. "Cooking is initially intended for the offering, and then it's thought that the food is, in some sense, a remnant of that sacred offering," Schweig says. "Everyone who partakes in the prasadam is participating in that offering."
In keeping with the Krishna principle of feeding those in need, the restaurants are generally very affordable. At Govinda's in Los Angeles, an all-you-can eat buffet with dozens of dishes costs only around $10. Prices are often listed as "suggested donations," and the organization does run large-scale feeding operations for homeless and disadvantaged communities across the globe. In India, Hare Krishna temples feed millions of people each year.
In terms of profitability, all funds are reinvested back into Hare Krishna programs, or, in the vast majority of cases, used to keep the temple afloat. In cities like London, where the Hare Krishna temple is located in a very popular area of SoHo, operating costs like rent and utilities can be exceedingly high. "The free Sunday feasts, paying the bills, those things cost money. The restaurants are there to support the temple's projects," Schweig says. "They keep the doors open. There's a lot of sacrifice involved, and it works out ecclesiastically as well as economically."
Devotees who work full-time at Kalachandji's are paid a living wage, though they only take what they need, and some, like Thomas, decline to be paid (outside of tips for waiting tables) altogether. "We don't think of it as a job. Really, thinking of it as a job is the worst way to look at it," he says. "We're doing this work in service to Kalachandji, the money is really incidental."
In addition to a commitment to spiritual growth, the intention of Krishna restaurants is ultimately to provide pleasure to those who dine there. "It's just delicious, it really is. There's an ethical stance that you don't just avoid harming living beings, you give them pleasure," says Schweig. "You make them happy, and diet is one of the best ways to do that. The food is very healthy, very nourishing, very clean. It's a gift they give."
All photos taken at Kalachandji's in Dallas by Kathy Tran.
Amy McCarthy is a writer and editor in Texas, from where she serves as editor of Eater Dallas and Eater Houston. She enjoys lipstick, cocktails, cooking, and fighting with celebrities on Twitter.
Editor: Erin DeJesus