Gujarati Thali – Feeding body and soul

Photograph - Gujarati - DhokraLast week I had a great time creating a Gujarati feast with a large group of students. While I love most Indian food, it is the cuisine of this incredible region which most nourishes me. This is why:

On the winding path of self discovery, meandering down a busy street in Delhi, I met an old friend who knew a place which he said transformed lives. He was leaving on the evening train and invited me to join him. Putting my faith in the serendipity of the road, and with no other information but the name of a town in a far off Western state, I went directly to the train station to procure a ticket. We travelled for two days through dusty villages, scrubby deserts and industrial wastelands and arrived with the sunrise on the shores of the Arabian Gulf. We hitched a lift on the back of a truck which deposited us at the gates of very large compound surrounded by high whitewashed walls festooned with Bougainvillea. The scent of chilli and sandalwood perfumed the air as the dawn unfolded

The gatekeeper, ushered us inside, plied us with strong buffalo milk chai sweetened with jaggery and scooted off to find Mataji, the mother of this ashram. The compound, roughly the size of a football pitch was orientated around a huge Bodi tree, entwined with creepers and harbouring in its buttresses, an ancient statue of the ape god Hanuman. In its shadow, a cobbled terrace led to an open sided hall and a large outdoor kitchen bustling with activity as a brigade of 6 young women cooked and sang with equal fervour. A powerfully built woman, covered in ash, clothed in homespun cotton, sporting a crown of dreadlocks piled high upon her head, strode down to the kitchen, delegating tasks in 3 languages to a small entourage of men who followed in her wake. Mataji welcomed us briskly and immediately set me to work chopping vegetables under the Bodi tree.

Mataji came to India from France in the 60’s and never left. She founded the ashram on the site of an ancient temple in the 80’s and has looked after the spiritual and material needs of the local community since then. Every morning hundreds of people turned up at the ashram seeking help. She would listen to them, offer council, treat minor wounds and administer Ayervedic and western medicines. At midday, ashram residents and day visitors would sit in the hall and share lunch, served on leaf plates. Twice a week hundreds of low caste families came from miles around to a feast which was laid out all around the compound. Feeding people was the bedrock of the ashram – Mataji would say “it is hard to believe in god when your stomach is empty” The food was without exception, the most exquisite I’ve ever eaten. Cooked with love and devotion, it fed both body and soul.

The time I spent in this incredible sanctuary inexorably shaped my life’s course. I saw the potential one person has to help others transform their lives. I experienced the profound effects good food has on individuals and the way it seamlessly binds communities. I came to the realization that food which is prepared and shared with loving energy and offered for spiritual or social benefits rather than commercial aims, creates a synergy which provides deep and lasting nourishment. I feel safe, content and valued when I’m fed in this way. When I share food with others with this intention, I feel aligned with my true self. Feeding others actively affirms and celebrates the lives we share, it also helps make friends and influence people . . .

Community Chef  is another step in the actualization of dreams which set seed while living in Mataji’s ashram. Jai Hanuman

Enjoy these Gujarati Recipes

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