As a young child, tagging behind my grandmother, I would ask why her puliyogare and chakkara pongal tasted different from that made in the temple she visited. “Because it was made with devotion and blessed by the god,” she would say.
But Shoba Narayan, whose latest book Food and Faith was recently published by HarperCollins, offers another perspective. “As humans, I think that we depend on certain objects and experience for sustenance and indeed life and living. Both food and faith nurture us. Food nurtures us in a very obvious physical way. Faith nurtures the psyche, the spirit, the soul,” she says. According to her, prasadam is “food as a connection to the human experience and to the divine.”
In her new book, while exploring the connection between food and faith, Shoba also uncovers larger questions about “faith and its place in our lives and society.” While the majority of her chosen shrines are Hindu temples, the Ajmer dargah, the Golden Temple, a Rosh Hashanah celebration and Christmas at Goa also get their due. She describes finalising her list as both fun and nerve racking. Her strategy was to include temples from across India and those that worshipped a multitude of gods and goddesses. Keen to have prasadam from the temple of a female goddess, she went to Madurai and found that “the thing that people talked about was the Azhagar Kovil dosa. I decided to make a trip almost as an afterthought. It ended up being the centerpiece of the story.” Puri Jagannath temple was also fascinating not just for the bhog but also the confluence of history, she says.
In each chapter, Shoba talks not just about the prasadam and temple history but narrates legends, asks questions of herself and her faith, records her discomfort at practices like caste segregation and invites the reader to share her journey. There are lovely little vignettes like the mechanisation of Palani panchamritam, how onions were sneaked into the Udupi masala dosa, and why copious amounts of ghee is used in the food at the Kashi Annapurna temple.
Accessibility was one of the criteria in finalising her list. Shobha also lists “geography, history and the seasons. Going to these temples at the right time, being able to speak to priests and scholars about the food, having some sort of connection with the food so that I could actually write about it, and also ensuring that the multitudes of faiths present in the land that we call Bharat or India” as the other factors she considered. She had wanted to include temples from the Northeast but “ended up not being able to, because accessing those temples and interviewing the priests proved to be very difficult.”
Transferring the taste, smell and colour into text, she says, has to be approached tangentially, “almost like the sprinkling of some garnish instead of hitting one over the head with a ladle. Descriptions of food need to include memory, nostalgia, history, provenance, and context. Every place of worship had very specific stories, tastes and myths associated with the food that was offered to the gods and the faith that was epitomised in the sacred food offerings.” An aspiring food writer, according to her, needs to link the food with the larger context of family, community, connection, mythology, faith, and above all, identity apart from descriptions of what he/she ate.
Of all the temples she visited, she found the smaller ones to be more satisfying. The best “have to do not just with taste but also memory.” The Golden Temple’s langar for the service mentality that was behind its taste; the ecology, history and geography that went into the Palani panchamritam and Kashi was as richly layered as its halwas. She also lists the Ambalapuzha payasam and Azhagar Kovil dosa among her favourites.
Shoba Narayan is an author, journalist and columnist. Besides writing, she is interested in nature, wine, gadgets and Sanskrit. Her lifelong mission is to get fit without exercising and lose weight without dieting.