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Traditional Sikh kitchen thrives in Richmond Hill

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Ten women gathered around a counter at the Sikh temple on 118th St. in Richmond Hill Sunday morning and like clockwork molded 350 pounds of flour mixed with water into flat, round sections of dough that would be turned into enough bread to feed 2,000 people.

The women who prepared the bread known as roti, and more than 40 others, who cooked stews, chopped vegetables and washed dishes, were volunteers in the community kitchen of the temple.

The free kitchen, which is open to all people regardless of religion, is a Sikh tradition that dates back to the time of Guru Nanak, who founded the faith in the late 15th century in the Punjab region of India. The 400,000 Sikhs living in the United States have transplanted the custom to the temples, called gurdwaras, of their adopted homeland.

On Sunday, the menu included a curried stew of peas, potatoes and cauliflower, lentils and Indian yogurt, all served with roti. For dessert, there was rice pudding and bananas. “It’s all vegetarian,” said Harpreet Singh Toor, a trustee of the temple. The entire process of preparing and serving the food is known as langar, Singh Toor said.

The meal, served to about 75 people at a time, began Sunday with a Sikh prayer. The hungry sat on the floor in lines, known as pangats, and were served langar by volunteers immediately following the prayer. Children walked up and down the lines handing out metal trays and young men ladled food out of large buckets to all who gathered.

“This is our way of telling the world that everyone is equal,” said Singh Toor. “Everyone has to sit together and everyone has to eat together.”

Singh Toor said the langars stem from the Sikh’s rejection of the caste system. “Even kings who went to visit gurus had to sit down with the general public and eat with them,” he said.

Kamaljit Singh, who arrived in the kitchen at 5 a.m. to wash pots and help prepare food, called the kitchen a great equalizer. “When people sit in pungat, everyone is the same, big or small,” he said. Everyone gets the same food, same plates.”

Despite feeding as many as 5,000 people a week, the Richmond Hill kitchen is staffed solely by volunteers. There are no paid chefs or dishwashers and even though the operation runs as smoothly as that of a five-star restaurant, it does so without an operating budget.

Food is purchased with money donated by worshipers, but sometimes it just shows up on the kitchen’s doorstep. Plastic bags containing cartons of milk, beans and flour are often brought by temple goers.

Harpritam Kaur, who volunteered Sunday, said the langar is a magical place. “I’ve never seen anything work so beautifully, with so little organization,” she said. “It’s like a miracle down here. Nobody is assigned, nobody says you have to cook the food or wash the dishes, but there’s never any wont. The beauty is that it all gets done.”

In addition to feeding people at the gurdwara seven days a week, the langar’s volunteers prepare food for the tristate area’s homeless population. “For us it’s important to take part of your earnings to feed someone,” said Amarjit Kaur.

As Kaur spoke, volunteers prepared the kitchen for a new shift of diners. The floor was mopped, trays were washed and buckets were filled with food. A group of 75 people entered the dining area. Men, women and children sat among each other. A young man led the group in prayer. Food was served.

Reach Reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

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