Today, forget cooking at home. Take the family and head for Juhu, to Govinda's Restaurant at the Harerama Harekrishna Temple complex, for a 56 (repeat 56) course meal, pure vegetarian and blessed by Lord Krishna. And the 56 (chappan bhog) items do not include papads and chutneys as some restaurants do. That's cheating, and there is no cheating in this ethereal restaurant where waiters smile benignly and the soft music played over the public address system is bhajans.
Sundays, they serve 56 items, lunch and dinner, weekdays 35 to 36. Service is buffet and there is no limit, eat as much as you like, anything, everything. The meal costs Rs. 175 on weekdays, Rs. 225 on Sundays, no extras. Lunch is 12.30 to 3.30 , dinner 7.30 to 10.45. But the restaurant does not call them lunch and dinner, they call them prasadam.
I was there earlier in the week, past Centaur, past Holiday Inn, round a sharp bend, and there I was at the gates of ISKON. A signboard said:"Welcome. Chant and be happy." Govinda, the restaurant is in the main building. A large glass wall shows the temple in the background, silent lifts take the guest rooms upstairs. The restaurant is off the foyer, a large air-conditioned room with wood paneling and Gujarati lacquered chairs and tables. The maitre d'hotel takes you to a vacant table. The extensive buffet is spread out at one end, the dishes neatly labeled. The music is playing 'Hare Rama, Hare Krishna', taking you back to Dev Anand's most successful film. Also Zeenat's. A notice on the wall states: "Krishna Prasadam is not different from Krishna. Please do not waste Krishna Prasadam." Eat heartily, but don't over-serve yourself and waste the food. Sensible. So there I was sitting, very comfortable, tapping my foot to the music, the manager's young son, next to me. The cooks and the waiter were, of course paid. But there were strict rules about them, no smoking, no drinking, no drugs, vegetarians. No, they were not devotees, but slowly they got inculcated into becoming devotees of the temple. There were some foreigners sitting around at other tables and eating. Foreigners undoubtedly, but because of the Hare Rama clothes they were wearing, I could not make out their nationality. There were some Indians also in the large 80-seat restaurant, plus mezzanine. Anybody can visit the restaurant, you don't have to be a devotee, you don't have to be Krishna conscious. And everybody does. Sundays, with all Juhu crowding in, you have to wait for a table. Other days it is easier.
Yes, the food. Bisleri water is served, free. And juices, butter-milk, as welcome drinks, but no cola drinks. No Coke, no Pepsi, sorry Shah Rukh, sorry Sachin. Tea is served during the snack hours, but only herbal tea, no coffee. And instead of chocolate in the pudding, they use carrots. You would know the difference. And no onions and garlic in your food. But make no mistake, the food is tasty, and even spicy, better than most vegetarian food I have eaten. The variety is amazing, and the cuisine is Indian, Chinese, Thai, Italian and Mexican. Naturally, all the cuisine are available at the same meal, you help yourself to a little of this and a little of that. And the menu changes every day. But first, there was the welcome drink. A waiter came with a tray with glasses of buttermilk, lichee, pineapple and watermelon. I selected buttermilk, seasoned with jeera and pepper a nice little tang to it.
We then moved to the buffet area. Instead of thalis, there were large porcelain plates, and each one had three porcelain bowls. Then we made a slow tour of the buffet. Every day there are three types of rice available, pulaos, biryanis, Chinese fried rice, Thai pineapple rice, spinach biryani, Mexican pepper rice, Italian capsicum rice, risotto, rice with cheese balls, plain steamed rice. On Sundays, there are eight to ten rice dishes, which include pasta such as flat noodles. And everyday there are three dals, which range from tur and moong to dahi kadi, dal makhani and dal bati churna. Plus, ten vegetables. Govinda makes its own bread, and there are rotis, parathas, bhakri cheese naan, croissant. Everything is, of course, cooked in pure ghee.
I had a Thai salad (cabbage, capsicum, baby corn, dry whole chilies, vinegar, salt and sugar) and a little bit of Chinese spicy vegetable fruit salad. There were several other salads, but I was paying heed to the notice saying waste not. And I had basket chaat, which was canapés, shaped like baskets and filled with potatoes, paneer, peas. They were small, each one a mouthful, and disappeared fast. They were starters, along with the Gujarati dhoklas, made with besan and black rye, my favourites, soft and yielding, and matka samosas, rounder than the normal samosas, plus spring rolls, crisp, and thankfully without onion, and cream corn, as good as our much harassed Nelson Wang makes.
There was a table filled with chaats: dahiwada, an aromatic pudhina raita, leaving an after-taste of the pudhina, which I had never eaten before and would like to eat again, sev puri. I understand they make a strawberry raita also, in season. Unfortunately, it was not my day or season. All possible vegetables were on display, in a happy marriage of Italian spinach dumpling, Hyderabadi bhindi, the bhindis long and juicy, and Kashmiri dum aloo. Desserts included caramel custard and Thai jelly, plus ice-creams and kulfis.
ISKCON, I am told, has 80 such restaurants spread across the world, and in India there is one at Brindavan and another opening in Delhi. The cooks, led by Dinesh Pujari, the head cook, are all the time experimenting and exchanging recipes with other restaurants. And they cook with a great deal of love and devotion. The music, bhajans, etc., which we were listening to in the restaurant, was also playing in the kitchen to put them in the right frame of mind, I have no doubt about that.
And the most important aspect, I almost forgot. A portion of each dish that is cooked, twice a day, is placed in separate dishes, then taken into a room where there is an altar to Lord Krishna and placed in front of him. It is covered and kept there for20 to 30 minutes, while a pujari chants mantras. Then it is brought back and replaced in the main vessels. Thus all the food gets blessed and becomes a prasad. I returned home, stomach full, soul holy.