Food of the gods

The Hindu god Krishna has one healthy appetite. And a heck of a sweet tooth too.

At the Hare Krishna temple in West Los Angeles, offerings are made to him seven times a day and include bountiful plates of fruits, vegetables, samosas, rice, lentils, sweet milk and a variety of confections.

Cooks in the temple's Deity Kitchen are trained in the art of ayurveda, a 5,000-year-old holistic healing method consisting of meditation and nutrition.

Starting out as kitchen assistants for at least a year, food handlers learn what spices mix well with others, the antiseptic properties of turmeric, the foods not to offer to Krishna, such as onions, mushrooms, garlic and eggs, and to always include either chili, ginger or lemon in a recipe.

"Some vegetarians may not know this, but vegetables create mucus in the body," said head cook Maha Madhusudan Das.

"If you mix vegetables with either chili, lemon or ginger, then it will balance out your system. These are things we must know to maintain a healthy and strong body. It's a science. Food is not prepared whimsically."

Das, 40, has been cooking for Krishna for 11 years. His day begins at 4 a.m., when he rises to chant mantras and meditate for two hours before entering the Deity Kitchen.

Bathed, purified and clad in the traditional kurta and dhoti--the white cotton shirt and pants that are prerequisites for food handling--Das and his two assistants prepare about 20 dishes for the main offering at 11:30 a.m.

The offering is placed on the altar for 25 minutes, followed by a worship service. Once the ceremony is completed, the foods are placed back into the deity pots and taken to Maha Room, a small dining facility on the temple grounds.

Devotees and the public are welcome to purchase the food for a donation of $5 per plate. About 100 people dine at Maha Room each day.

While the fare changes daily, standards include rice, dal (lentil soup), batter-fried vegetables, puffed bread, fruits, borfi (sweet milk) and halava (sweetened farina).

Throughout the chopping, straining, peeling and mixing, cooks constantly pray to Krishna while listening to devotional music.

"The kitchen is like an extension of the altar," Das said. "Cooking is a way of paying your respects to God. While you cook, you humble yourself to the Lord and ask him to please help you prepare the food. It's like cooking for someone you love."

The healthy food appeals to L.A. tastes.

"This is the key place to get wholesome, nutritional, ayurvedically balanced food," said Craig Robinson, 34, a first-grade teacher from West Los Angeles who frequents the Maha Room but is not a Krishna devotee.

"It's cooked with lots of love and care. It's a very high vibrational food. I always feel very satiated and peaceful after eating here."

The Hare Krishna community center's main dining cafeteria is called Govinda. While much of the food is Indian, there also is a salad bar, pastas, pizza, enchiladas and tacos to satisfy the Western diet.

The all-you-can-eat buffet is $5.50 or $2 per pound. About 300 people eat at the dining hall each day, said Krsna Gauranga Dominguez, who has been cooking there for 20 years.

On Sundays, following their largest ceremonial service, the 500 or so attendees are invited to a complimentary feast of rice, three vegetable dishes, rice milk, dal , breads and sweets.

"I love cooking for the Sunday feast," said Jaya Deva, a Sunday cook for the last three years.

"It's the best because we offer the food to God first and then we give the remains to the people. It's a very holy experience."

For Das, cooking is his way of serving God in the best way he knows how.

"It's nice to say I love God, but you have to do something to show that love," he said of his six-hour cooking duties, a contribution to the community where he lives.

"Cooking is a very personal thing you do for someone. Our philosophy is that God is a person. So as you would take care of yourself with food, so should God."