Food For Thought: Sharing a Sikh meal | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Food For Thought: Sharing a Sikh meal

It's 1:30 on this sunny Sunday afternoon, unusually warm for late winter. With their weekly religious service over, 150 barefoot men and women begin laying out cloth mats and plastic sheets for langar, their post-prayer meal. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, they eat with plastic spoons from Styrofoam plates and cups. The men wear bandannas and turbans, the women long robes and head scarves. The language is largely Punjabi, the bill of fare strictly vegetarian.

Open to seekers of all stripes, regardless of religious doctrine or dietary restrictions, langar is at the heart of Sikh belief -- a society where all people can share a common meal in the spirit of unity.

"It's all about equality and simplicity," offers Chitratan Singh, the group's secretary. "The religion as a whole has a high stress on eating simple food."

The meal is served in a gurdwara, the Sikh worship space on Monroeville's McKenzie Drive. Just off the Orange Belt, the modest white brick building sits on a quiet suburban street overlooking wooded hillsides. A gurdwara is, literally, a "gateway to the guru," though it is often incorrectly called a temple (a word Sikhs reject, feeling it is better used for Hindu or Buddhist houses of worship). Sikhs are strict monotheists, and their worship involves sitting on the floor -- in the present case, a soft, wall-to-wall carpet -- chanting, and singing. Although in more populous Sikh areas there are religious services all day, every day, here they meet only on Sundays and festival days. The service lasts an hour, followed by langar.

There are some 26 million Sikhs (the word is Punjabi, and means "disciple" or "student"), making their faith the world's fifth-largest. But most are in India, and few Sikhs lived in the Pittsburgh region before the 1980s. Then, some 30 years ago, 10 Sikh families -- all from India, all physicians and engineers -- began meeting monthly, sharing facilities with their fellow Indians, Southern and Northern Hindus and Jains. By mid-decade, the Sikhs had founded their own gurdwara. Now the local congregation runs to some 175 families from Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.

The worship space is unadorned, even Spartan: an open room with a platform for the Sikh holy book, Shri Guru Granth Sahib. Prominent, too, is the curvaceous, omnipresent Sikh symbol, Ek Onkar, meaning that there is one God. A large quote in the corner reads, in Punjabi, "Do not rely on human beings. God gives you everything."

According to Sikhism, God is manifest through practical living, serving human beings and promoting tolerance. While they favor a natural life -- as symbolized in the Sikh prohibition against cutting hair or shaving -- Sikh gurus teach that any person can achieve salvation who makes a living honestly and helps the needy.

Clothing styles seem to vary accordingly. While for women it seems that traditional dress is de rigueur -- all translucent robes in pink and gold, blue and tan -- clothing for men is more diverse. Some are dressed in Punjabi garb, including loose trousers and long over-jackets; others wear Western suits. The new breed prefers deep casual, like Singh himself, who wears blue jeans and a decidedly non-traditional Sikh shirt: a bright red, three-button California Surf Classic.

Sitting on the floor before a pink plastic sheet, he digs into today's table d'hôte, including fresh garden salad, kheer (rice cooked in milk and sugar), parshad (wheat flour, clarified butter, and sugar), yogurt, lentils and other toothsome tidbits. Everything is prepared on the premises, in a spotless stainless-steel kitchen. Liberally dosed with coriander, garlic and turmeric, the food is spicy and rich, easy to chew or drink. "It's made that way," Singh says, "so that everybody can eat it."

Keeping things smooth and straightforward, egalitarian and all-encompassing, Sikhs check their egos at the door, along with their shoes. Everyone sits on the floor, so that no one is higher than anyone else. They all serve each other, demonstrating humility. While a few families handle the chores each week, every family takes at least one turn during the year. 

"It's all voluntary," Singh says. "We never go without food."

An elderly man all in white -- turban, beard and shirt -- offers Singh another helping of kheer, which he gladly accepts. "It is all about equality," Singh says, between spoonfuls of the sweet, thick liquid, "cooking the meal, serving the meal, having the meal."

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