The preparation of meals plays a major role in the life of the ashram. Every morning when I would get up early and make my way in the dark to the kitchen, I would encounter three people, seated on the floor of the kitchen working. The first is a slender woman in a sari and wearing a black braid; she is very shy. She is always either chopping or sorting. For chopping she uses an instrument that stands upright and has a vertical blade that she presses the vegetable against, so that the slices fall to one side and the other. Next to her on the floor, either on a cloth or in large metal bowls, are the vegetables she is chopping – small white onions with purple stripes, small eggplants – purple or green, a large green vegetable with a ragged skin that tastes like a cucumber, and on and on. Often, Micah, a lovely German volunteer, is seated next to her, chopping green chilis. There is an unending supply of chilis, which feature in every dish. There is also lots of garlic, so that the garlic shells accumulate in a filmy pile at her side. At the other side of the small room, there are always the same two boys – one a teenager and the other smaller but still one of the “big boys”. Their job is to prepare the coconut. The older one cracks the coconut – sometimes with a knife and sometimes against the edge of a stone step. Then they take out the flesh, and the younger one chops it into pieces and then slices with a big knife, while the older one grates it against a rough metal knob. These tasks are usually done in silence, but the sounds of the chopping and scraping create a coordination of rhythms that seem to have the meaning of doing something together.
When the woman is not chopping, she is sorting the herbs. Out of a large flat basket, she takes fresh coriander, a medium sized shiny green leafed herb I did not recognize by smell or taste, ginger, and other spices, and takes off the dead pieces and stems, then chops them. Sometimes the boys speak softly and laugh together. Other times someone, like me, will enter the room, and the woman or Micah, will ask me if I would like coffee. When I say yes, one of them will rise and boil the water for strong, fragrant, organically grown coffee that is as good as I have ever tasted. It occurs to me, as I stand there drinking my coffee, that this is a good way to start the day – connecting with one another through the soothing regular rhythm of the activity. Even though they are doing hard work, it must be calming for the cooks too, to be doing it together in this synchronous way. I ask to help, but they always decline my offer. Perhaps if I had stayed longer they would have allowed me to join them.
There is a small room with a stone sink and a big bowl with a giant blade in it, next to the kitchen. The cooks – including Prajna, who was filling in for the ailing cook for part of the time we were there and in fact was always busy in the kitchen – pour vast quantities of flour and water and other specific ingredients into the bowl and turn on the motor; the blade flaps, stirring the pasty batter for the bread. In the cookhouse, a few stone steps from the kitchen, the wood fire is being prepared. There is room for two huge metal pots on part of the stove and the griddle is on the other. The breads are cooked on the griddle – a wonderful assortment of breads over the days – poured like pancake batter and turned and then piled on a large metal plate ready for the meal. In the pots, either vegetable dishes or grain – not only rice – are prepared. What is remarkable about the boiling pots is the subtle fragrance of their contents as they bubble on the fire. Someone told me that the herbs and spices are added separately to the pots to preserve the distinctness of their flavors. Some of the pots are cooking beans or lentils. Into some of the pots the cooks add chopped tomatoes, carrots, and potatoes. When it is ready, the food is delicious, entirely vegetarian. Instead of the sauce with indistinguishable contents that is characteristic of so much Indian food, even here, at Deenabandhu the vegetables in the sauce have maintained their integrity. One can also taste the individual spices now and then. I don’t think there are any leftovers.
photograph by Ginger Gregory