Fill your plate with South Indian vegetarian specialties, like dosai layered with chili and coriander chutney and served with a mash of seasoned potatoes.
June 11, 2012
When I was growing up, my family and I made an annual trek to the Ganesha Temple (Šri Mahã Vallabha Ganapati Devasthãnam) in Flushing, Queens, from our home in the suburbs of Rockland County.
These childhood trips to the temple were big adventures. I remember following my mother around, repeating whatever she did. We’d leave our shoes outside and walk barefoot to the main deity, the elephant-headed Ganesha. There a priest clad only with a white loongi draped around his waist would chant a special service for us in Sanskrit. My mother would recite all our names and our astrological star birthdays, and the priest would bless the offerings of fruit and flowers that we had brought. Bells chimed as the priest chanted, and I placed my small hands over the flame of an oil lamp and then touched my eyes. I remember the warmth on my fingers. The priest would serve a spoon of holy coconut water into the cup of our hands. I’d sip from my hand and then wipe the remaining drops on my head, like my mother did.
Afterwards, my brother and I would follow our parents and prostrate ourselves in front of all the gods and goddesses. We walked in clockwise motion around Ganesha three times, then nine times around a display representing the planets. We tried our best not to get dizzy. The big treat at the end of this experience was a big South Indian meal.
More than two decades later, the temple serves also as a community center, offering classes in religion, yoga, music, dance, and even SAT prep—but the excitement of eating is still the main draw. The temple is just as much a destination to eat as it is a place to worship.
Located in the basement of the temple, with a separate entrance on Holly Avenue, Temple Canteen is open daily and serves temple goers and non-goers alike. The canteen offers a wide variety of South Indian vegetarian specialties: think dosai (crispy crepes/pancakes made from rice and lentils). On a recent visit with my aunt and uncle, we ordered the special Hyderabad Spicy Masala dosa, layered with chili and coriander chutney and served with a mash of seasoned potatoes, an order of idlies, rice cakes, served with a moderately spiced sambar and coconut chutney, rasa vada, fried lentil donuts drenched in a spicy peppercorn and tamarind soup, and tomato utthapums, an oily thick vegetable pancake. Other specialties, like puliyodharai tamarind rice and bisi bele bath, a hot, lentil rice dish are also available. Most items vary from $3 to $6.50 and generous portions are served.
(Unfortunately the canteen uses a large number of disposable plates and utensils. It would be nice if the Temple could move away from plastics and Styrofoam toward reusable, washable plates for the large majority of visitors dining in the canteen.)
After feasting, we washed our oiled and spiced fingers and picked up some fried pakoras and bhajis to take home. I can picture my aunt with her hand over her belly, saying pate puja—a day of stomach worship.
Temple Canteen is located in the basement of Ganesha Temple with a separate entrance at 143-09 Holly Avenue in Queens.