I first ate at the Hare Krishna Centre in Rondebosch when I was a schoolboy. A close friend had decided to become a devotee, much to the consternation of our Calvinist school authorities, who saw it as some sort of satanic cult. After all, the gentle philosophy he had embraced was a threat to a state that required violence and military service from its privileged citizens in order to maintain itself.
I was and remain deeply sceptical of all religious movements — and as attractive as my friend’s newfound spirituality seemed, it was, to be honest, the delicious food that made the greatest impression on me.
I had never tasted Indian-style vegan food. There was such variety. It was aromatic, light and elevating. Dried split peas had become something altogether more esculent; boring old lentils were transformed into delectable dhal; and there were delicious meatballs made without any meat.
At Govinda’s, tucked away next to the Hare Krishna Centre opposite Rondebosch railway station, they have been serving “karma-free delights since 1972”. Open to the public, it is a pleasant, calming space with polished wooden tables and floors. The walls are decorated with characteristic, brightly coloured illustrations of Krishna. There is some outside seating as well.
Non-violence starts in the kitchen. Cook Gaura Shakti Das, who has 14 years’ experience in Hare Krishna cuisine, explains: “What really makes Hare Krishna cooking special is not only the ingredients and spices, but also the principles of purity behind it … That means that the cook has to follow certain principles of cleanliness and purity of consciousness before he is allowed to cook.
“We abstain from meat-eating, intoxication, gambling and illicit sex, which helps us to focus better on our practice of meditation, which primarily is the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra.
“We first offer the food to God before we eat it. That means that the cook does not taste or even think of tasting anything while cooking. It helps if the cook is well fed before he starts. It also helps if the cook has taken a bath and wears clean clothes. But most importantly it helps if the cook has blissfully chanted his prescribed number of rounds of the Hare Krishna mantra.
“The offering of the food is simple. We recite mantras glorifying the guru and the Supreme Lord. The food is then left on the altar for a few minutes so it can be blessed. Once it is removed from the altar it is known as prasadam, which literally means the mercy of God. This offering of vegetarian food to God makes the food karma-free.”
You don’t have to make an offering yourself to eat at the centre.
The menu also includes some lacto-vegetarian items using cow dairy. Onions and garlic, however, are not used as they are believed to agitate the mind. Instead Hare Krishna cuisine uses asafoetida, also known as hing, which has a similar taste, but is not as intense. It comes from the roots of a plant indigenous to Iran, Afghanistan and the north of India. You will find it in Indian food shops in bright yellow tubs.
Many of the recipes at Govinda’s were thought up by the founder-guru of the institution, AC Bhaktivedanta Swami, himself a great cook. His disciples compiled several cookbooks.
From a bains-marie display one has a daily choice of basmati rice, dhal soup made from mung or split mung beans, kofta (those vegetarian meatballs), two vegetable dishes and a bean dish. There is also the option of vegetarian lasagne, samoosas, roti (unleavened flat bread), sometimes turnip cakes and rice balls, and, on weekends, paneer and spinach.
A soya burger with French fries will be made on request.
The food is mild and straightforward. It is a little cool, but that is better than it drying out or deteriorating nutritionally while waiting in the bain-marie.
Prices are low. You can have a full meal consisting of rice, dhal, koftas and two vegetable dishes for just R40. Rotis can be added at R3 each.
For dessert there are scrumptious carob brownies and rich fudge made from chickpea flour.
There are no credit card facilities, so bring cash. Instead of, or in addition to leaving a tip, you might make a donation to the Hare Krishna Food for Life Organisation.
Govinda’s, 17 St Andrews Road, Rondebosch, Cape Town. Tel: 021 685 8384. Open Thursday to Sunday, noon to 6pm
This article first appearedin the Mail & Guardian 8 March 2013.