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Flushing temple dishes Indian entrees to masses

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The distinctive tower of the Ganesh Temple in Flushing rises like a beacon for worshipers seeking spiritual nourishment, but in a subterranean cafeteria below, Hindu devotees can also recharge their batteries with expertly prepared southern Indian dishes.

After descending one level into the bowels of the temple, at 45-57 Bowne St., the aroma of chutney and sambar begins to fill the stairwell.

The temple canteen and gift shop is on another floor down, where devotees and hungry neighborhood residents sit hunched over Styrofoam plates and cooks preside over steaming pots in the open kitchen deep below the street.

“It can get very, very busy,” said Uma Mysorekar, president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America. “They have to go by numbers on the weekends.”

Many Indian restaurants in the borough serve curries and naan bread that are characteristic of the northern part of India, but the Ganesh temple specializes in dishes from the south, which are more vegetable-oriented.

For instance, the canteen has 17 varieties of dosas, a large pancake-like pastry wrapped around different fillings or made with different ingredients mixed into the batter. The Pondicherry dosa or the Mysore dosa bear the mark, both in name and flavor, of southern Indian cities.

They are typically eaten with the hands and dipped into chutneys, which are hearty vegetable purees, or sambars, which resemble the Indian take on tomato soup.

Idli is another southern Indian stalwart and is a smaller, spongier and slightly more pungent cousin to the dosa.

A large statue of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of knowledge, looks out over the windowless basement where diners eat off the kind of plastic trays often found in mall food courts.

The no-frills canteen was born more out of necessity than as a way to raise some funds for the temple, according to Mysorekar.

In the temple’s infancy in the 1980s, Mysorekar decided that she needed to find cooks who knew how to prepare special foods that functioned as offerings to certain gods.

Once temple-goers had a taste, they demanded seconds.

Gradually, as demand for southern Indian fare increased, Mysorekar hired more cooks. Now eight cooks manage the temple’s large kitchen and even prepare meals on a large scale for wedding banquets that take place in a hall above.

The canteen is open to anyone with an appetite, and Mysorekar said that people from all over the neighborhood and even the tri-state area come to grab lunch deep below the streets of Flushing.

Celebrity restaurant critic Anthony Bourdain, who hosts the television show “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel even filmed a segment in the restaurant.

But it also serves an important function. The temple has grown from simply a place of worship to a community center, where some people spend their entire day helping seniors or attending classes and lectures.

They need to eat, Mysorekar said, and the temple subsequently found a way to satisfy another need of that community — by satisfying its appetite.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

Posted 7:56 pm, October 19, 2011
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