Eating out in London's places of worship
Does a meal in a place of worship have to come with a side order of preaching? Not if you know where to dine. Time Out feasts on buffets, bangers and mash, burfi and peanut butter sandwiches on the path to enlightenment
A monk at Buddhapadipa Temple prepares to eat one of his two daily meals
Is there really such a thing as a free lunch? To eat out in London without any money, you once had to trade in something far less disposable: your beliefs. Religious institutions have long offered salvation and a sermon with soup and sandwiches, but I wanted to see whether you’re still required to swallow your pride. I found, while eating my way through London’s temples, churches and gurdwaras, that preaching is rare these days. Instead, food is used as a way of bringing people together regardless of beliefs or background. Many places of worship offer more than just food; they also provide companionship and solace without judgement or soul-searching. Many are sanctuaries, fuelled by the altruistic desire – and some pretty impressive kitchens – to help other people.
Buddhapadipa TempleFor the first in our Time Out guide to free lunches for spirits and stomachs, I visit a holy venue in which Margaret Thatcher and Elvis Presley make guest appearances – they feature on murals painted inside the ornate Buddhapadipa Temple. Just next door, meals are served in the contrastingly small and modest house where the Thai monks live and eat. On a Sunday at 10.30am the place is already humming with the crowd getting ready for the Buddhist ceremony that takes place every day. The mood is frantic, like a house preparing for a massive party.After the initial blessings, the monks settle down to eat at a table laden with a mix of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. From Thai noodle salads to fried fish and curries, all the food is donated and cooked by volunteers and worshippers. Soon an informal procession begins where everyone circles around the table, heaping spoonfuls of rice on to the monks’ plates. Then everyone troops outside to socialise until the monks have had their fill. It feels like a family gathering (about 400 regulars come every week), and could be awkward for a lone visitor but everyone is welcome.
A gong summons monks to breakfast and lunch
At about noon, the monks finish their meal and give everyone their blessings. Sangtong, one of the monks, tells me that this is to thank everyone for their kind offerings. ‘As monks, we don’t work for money and so we get support, and food, from the people,’ he explains, ‘To thank them we wish them happiness and longevity.’ As Chris Ercilla, security guard for the temple’s school, says, karma has a lot to do with the entire ritual: ‘Thai people have a strong belief that if they don’t share, especially with the temple and the monks, they’ll be born as beggars in their next life and go hungry.’
Afterwards, the monks retire to their rooms and everyone else gets stuck into the feast. Even after four monks have had their share, there’s still an impressive amount of food; it’s a buffet with all kinds of home-cooked treats.
I load my plate with pieces of fish, noodles with peanut sauce and chunks of stir-fried veg. The fare is mainly Thai but there are no rules about what is served here, and the monks only eat what they are served; they aren’t allowed to request specific foods or dishes.
However, Sangtong reveals that the monks often sit down to a traditional English breakfast in the mornings. Another monk, Prachyavut, recalls
an excellent meal of bangers and mash he enjoyed a while ago. It’s an example of how different cultures can be brought together by the simplest of culinary pleasures.
Buddhapadipa Temple, 14 Calonne Rd, SW19 5HJ (020 8946 1357) Wimbledon tube/rail then 93 bus.
American Church in LondonFor more than 20 years, the American Church in London has been providing the homeless, the needy and the lonely with food and companionship. The soup kitchen plays a vital role in the lives of hundreds of people by offering the church’s services as a sanctuary. This year – arguably the hardest time of year for anyone who doesn’t have a roof over their heads, a shoulder to cry on, or a good meal in their stomachs – they’ll be holding a big Christmas lunch for more than 250 people.‘Eating together really breaks down barriers,’ says soup kitchen director Miranda Suit. ‘People come to eat, to relax, and interact with others. We can at least brighten their day and be there for them.’At the soup kitchen, everyone who walks in is treated with respect and dignity, and is referred to as a ‘guest’. This is one of the greatest strengths of the church; they respect a homeless person’s right to privacy and never probe into his or her background or status. Two regular chefs cook at the kitchen, aided by a band of volunteers. The meals differ daily; on my visit, apple crumble is on the menu. Most of the food is donated by the public, or restaurants that have extra to give away. As such, the cooks often have to think on their feet each day about what to serve with the ingredients they’ve got available – very ‘Ready Steady Cook’. ‘We get quite a lot of Americans, so there’s always peanut butter in our pantries – for the perennial American favourite, peanut butter and jam sandwiches,’ says Suit. American Church in London, 79a Tottenham Court Rd, W1T 4TD (020 7580 2791) Goodge St, Warren St or Tottenham Court Rd tube.
Visitors enjoying their free feast at Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara in Southall
Sri Guru Singh Sabha GurdwaraI trek to Southall to dine with Dr Parminder Singh Garcha – GP by day, sewarder, or volunteer, by night – in the Sikh gurdwara’s langar (community kitchen, also known as Guru-ka-langar; literally ‘the Guru’s kitchen’). The concept of the langar is simple: no matter what your religion, colour, caste, creed or status, you are served the same vegetarian food with the same dollop of respect; and the kitchen is open all day, every day. A Sikh gurdwara without a langar is inconceivable.‘Before, it was a revolutionary idea to have everyone eating together. In those days, if anyone of a lower class cast a shadow over your food you would have had to throw it away,’ explains Garcha. Now, there is no such caste distinction among Sikhs. At the langar, everyone can take a helping as large or as small as they like. ‘You’ll never find a Sikh who does not finish their food,’ says Garcha. ‘We don’t like to waste food. This is very important because it is from our Guru that we get everything; we are just sharing what he has given us.’ We are handed metal trays with compartments and move down the line. One man hands us roti (Indian flatbread), another spoons a helping of tarka dhal (a soup-like, vegetarian lentil dish) and kadhi (a yoghurt and chickpea-flour curry). Finally there’s the burfi station – a tray full of Indian sweets. There’s also chai (tea) if you ask for it.What’s most impressive is that the entirety of this cornucopia is donated, prepared, cooked, served and cleaned by volunteers. And, if you want to become more involved, you can even help out in the kitchen – provided you’ve bathed and are not intoxicated by anything… other than the desire to cook.Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara, Havelock Rd, Southall, UB2 4NP (020 8574 8901) Southall rail.
Sri Chaitanya Saraswat MathThis Hare Krishna temple is inside a converted house in east London. It’s open from 5am-9pm every day, and anyone is welcome (as long as they’re not in a ‘drunken state’) to join them for lunch or dinner, an invitation which attracts ten-15 people a day. It was Ekadashi when I went – a day of fasting from grains and pulses that takes place on the eleventh day of every fortnight. It’s believed that sin hides in grains on this day, and only three spices are exempt – salt, black pepper and cumin. As the food served on Ekadashi is far simpler than what would usually be eaten, the devotees seem rather apologetic. ‘It’s a day when we minimise all that doesn’t relate to meditation,’ explains Nyasi Maharaj. ‘We like food that is gently prepared and not too hot; foods that are sweet and milky, to stimulate a certain kind of consciousness and mellowness, called sattvick.’ It’s also the reason why they don’t use garlic or onions in their food. Not only does Krishna not like it but they’re also believed to evoke a kind of hyper-energy (called rajas) that’s counterproductive to meditation.All Hare Krishna food is vegetarian, and is offered up on the Hindu altar to Krishna before every meal, with a tulsi leaf from the ‘holy basil’ plant. We sit down to a mild, almost lukewarm, meal of pumpkin soup, vegetables, and apple chutney. There’s also silky mash and own-made paneer cheese, perfect in texture and flavour. ‘There are people who join the Hare Krishnas just for the cheese,’ jokes Jayagovinda Das, an Irish devotee who declares everything as being ‘very sumptuous’. They send me off with a small bag of burfi (Indian sweets). Admittedly, I’m not quite enlightened but I’m feeling pretty full.Sri Chaitanya Saraswat Math, 466 Green St, E13 9DB (020 8552 3551) Upton Park tube.
Holy ordersYour body is a temple, so feed it well at religious restaurants
Aziziye Halal RestaurantExcellent Turkish food next to the Aziziye mosque. 117-119 Stoke Newington Rd, N16 8BU (020 7254 7475).
BabalouBrixton-based bar, restaurant and club in St Matthew’s church crypt. St Matthew’s Church, Brixton Hill, SW2 1JF (020 7738 3366).
Bevis MarksKosher restaurant built alongside an eighteenth-century synagogue.Bevis Marks, Henage Lane, EC3A 5DQ (020 7283 2220).
Café in the CryptUnderground dining next to Trafalgar Square. St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, WC2N 4JJ (020 7766 1158).
The Place BelowVegetarian food in a church crypt. St Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside, EC2B 6AU (020 7329 0789).
Wild CherryVegetarian Buddhist fare at a café in Bethnal Green. Wild Cherry, 241-245 Globe Rd, E2 0JD (020 8980 6678).