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At Houses Of Worship, Women Serve Food For A Higher Purpose

Aug 27, 2014
Originally published on August 29, 2014 2:09 pm

Behind the scenes of the feasts and meals at houses of worship, there's almost always an army of women (and a few men) who peel potatoes, stir stews, mash chickpeas, slice onions and make by hand the various breads essential to the central meal. They see this service as their religious calling. Here are a few stories from women in the New York City area.

Buddha's Food Is Simple By Design

As the abbess who oversees the other nuns in residence at Grace Gratitude Buddhist Temple in Manhattan's Chinatown, Jingyi Shi doesn't have to work in the kitchen. But when the temple's kitchen is short-handed, she always steps in to help.

"I enjoy the cooking," she says. "I share [my food] with everyone, and if you like it, I teach you [how to make it]."

Shi and the other Mahayana Buddhist nuns at the temple maintain a pure vegetarian diet with no meat or fish.

But that doesn't mean they don't eat well. At a recent meal, they made a stir-fried bok choy, Chinese cucumber, bitter melon, bean curd, tofu skin, noodles and a soup made of Japanese pumpkin and seaweed to serve to the congregation.

Shi says these dishes are fast and simple to prepare. And that's by design.

"Buddha's teaching says eating is not very important. When we eat ... food, it's not very special or very delicious. It's only tofu or vegetables," she says. "What the Buddha tells us is very important: how to liberate ourselves and others."

American Chili Shines At Mosque Meals

Iftar meals served in mosques to break the Ramadan fast usually reflect the immigrant congregation's home cuisines — perhaps Bangladeshi or Egyptian or Bosnian.

But when Jennette Morgan and her mother and aunt cook the iftar meal at the Jerrahi Order of America, a Turkish Sufi Muslim congregation, their American-style chili is always on the menu.

"My mother has made [chili] almost every single time that we've cooked [in the mosque] over the years," Morgan says. "It's something that everyone here expects."

Morgan's parents, Americans who converted to Islam, are founding members of the Jerrahi mosque in suburban Rockland County, N.Y. Many of the other families there are Turkish, South Asian, Bosnian or Middle Eastern immigrants, but they have come to embrace this most American of dishes.

"[Chili] was just something easy to make for a large group of people in one pot," Morgan says. "Then everyone loved it, and [my mother] couldn't stop [making it]. She gets complaints if we decide to make something else."

The Morgans start their chili the night before a meal at the mosque, allowing the ingredients to slowly simmer and meld. During Ramadan, when they fast during the day, Morgan and her mother finish preparing their chili without even tasting it before the iftar.

Sikhs Pass On Kitchen Skills Through Service

Every weekend at the Nanak Naam Jahaj Gurudwara, a Sikh congregation in Jersey City, 30 or so volunteers transform hundreds of pounds of vegetables, lentils and atta flour into langar, the free meal served to 400 members of the congregation after Sunday morning services.

Kitchen work is one of many ways that Sikhs practice a central tenet of their faith: seva, or selfless volunteer service.

"Sometimes a group of friends will go [into the kitchen] and make rotis together," says Gaganpreet Singh, 22, who has been a member of the congregation since its founding almost a decade ago. "It's a way to give back to the community and connect to God. Everybody takes their little part."

Members of the congregation direct traffic in the parking lot or clean the gurudwara, or place of worship, as part of their seva, but Singh and her family are regulars in the kitchen.

They often spend Saturday nights there, washing and chopping chilies, onions and garlic, or prepping vegetables. On Sunday mornings, Singh's father arrives at 5 a.m. to cook the main dishes with a group of men from the congregation. Singh and other women arrive later in the morning to prepare light snacks and put the finishing touches on the main meal.

"I cook a lot at home, and I know what I'm doing, so [cooking] is something I can easily contribute," Singh says. "I love doing it."

For Sikhs, who typically hail from the North Indian state of Punjab, kitchen seva is also a way of preserving their culture in a new country. Singh notes that many young girls first learn to make roti in the gurudwara kitchen, tutored by the congregation's older women.

"We are Sikhs, but we are also Punjabi, and Punjabis are known for eating," Singh says. "The gurudwara is our religious home, but it's also a community center for Punjabis, and our food brings us together."

This story comes to us from Feet in 2 Worlds, which supports immigrant journalists and brings their stories to the rest of America. Fi2W is a project of the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School.

Ramaa Reddy Raghavan is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism. She is also a classical Indian dancer and has performed for various festivals in the New York metropolitan area.

Anne Noyes Saini writes and produces audio about immigration and global food culture in New York City's outer boroughs — especially Queens, where she lives. She is food editor of Feet in 2 Worlds and features editor of Real Cheap Eats.

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