As Hare Krishna Temple (KT) neophytes, we and our two dining companions entered the South Berkeley ISKCON temple (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) with trepidation. After dutifully removing our shoes in the lobby, the first thing we observed was a bake sale whose proceeds helped “decorate and dress the deities.” This table was situated directly across from a vast table full of literature by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement. And above all of that were various fund-raising banners, filled in with names next to generous donation amounts, usually ending in a 1 or an 8. The lobby was filled with a cacophony of chanting, emanating from the main temple room.
We were clearly out of our element, and were eventually rescued by Greg Anderson, a past president of the temple, and one of two scientists in the Bhaktivedanta Institute, ISKCON’s academic wing, which focuses mainly on consciousness studies. He regaled us with a detailed history of the Hare Krishna movement, including the seminal role played in the past by the San Francisco temple, which later moved to its current location in Berkeley, after a brief stint in a building in the Mission that had recently been a mortuary (apparently cooking food where cadavers were once cleaved was a bit too much for the staff). He then launched into the finer details of his past chemistry education with Yogi and Karthish, before eventually deciding to give us a tour of the Institute.
On the way to the back of the building, we peeked into the kitchen, observing the massive 2⨉3⨉3’ containers of rice and sugar. We then stepped into the Institute, which looked like a bunker, with a $700, 7”-thick custom-made door designed to keep out the noise. As nervewrackingly bullet-proof as it may have been, the door worked admirably, making for a very peaceful place to peruse a surprisingly up-to-date and relevant selection of academic journals while waiting for dinner, or the “prasadam” (“the mercy of God”) to commence.
Yogi’s past culinary experiences at various temples in India had been just short of miraculous. The food, he said, was always exquisite. Greg offered an explanation: “please Krishna, and everyone is pleased.” That is, if the food pleases Krishna, then it pleases all of those who consume it after he blesses it…just as, said Greg, when one waters the roots of a tree, the leaves become healthy. Deep, man. By then we were really looking forward to dinner.
Eventually, the time came, and at least a dozen 5-gallon “Homer’s All-Purpose Buckets” containing food were schlepped into the room from the kitchen. This place was certainly taking the “All-Purpose” literally, and we were led to wonder, are the buckets BPA free? Why does one of them say “detergent” on the side? Pondering these and other questions, we and the other 50 or 60 eclectic patrons dutifully sat down on the floor behind a paper plate and two cups, and within minutes we were all served steaming piles of food. If there’s one thing Indian temples know how to do, it’s to serve food efficiently.
Krishna was indeed pleased.
The food was incredible, with each bite leaving a lingering flavor on the palate that left us craving the next mouthful. The daal was thick, creamy, and perfectly salted. And the aloo ghobi—the eigendish!—had more flavor than we’ve ever encountered, with a hint of heat, flowery notes of spice, and near-perfect cookitude of both the potatoes and the cauliflower! The unleavened chapati paired nicely with the rest of the dishes, serving as an ample filler.
All of this was paired with a glass of slightly sweet mango juice (clearly the base of most restaurants’ mango lassis), which the friendly assistants decanted just before serving the halva: an exquisite concoction of sweetened cream of wheat with plump golden raisins and pineapple. Just the right sweetness to offset the salt and spice of the other dishes.
In short, the visit was nothing short of spectacular: a good tour guide, no pushy zealots, and food that is absolutely worth writing home about, earning KT the third and final five-samosa (▲▲▲▲▲) rating in our epic quest for Indian excellence in Berkeley. Mark your calendars: 1 p.m. lunch every day, and 8 (?) p.m. dinner on Sundays. And all of this can be yours for…whatever you feel like paying. You know what that means: a literally unbeatable samosa-to-rupee ratio (▲/₨) with an upper limit of ∞. How divine!