Sikh worshipers dine together each Sunday

This story is part of the Madison Flavors story series, an exploration by Madison Commons of culture-influenced ways of eating.

Sikh worshipers at the Middleton gurdwara cooking together to provide the communal Sunday meal.Sikh worshipers at the Middleton gurdwara cooking together to provide the communal Sunday meal.

Sunday represents a special time for many American families, cultures, and religions.  At their temple, a gurdwara, in Middleton, Wis., the Sikh community gathers at 1 p.m. every Sunday for langar.

Langar, which means community kitchen, is a “special meal, not like a household meal,” according to Satwant Kaur, member of the Middleton Sikh community.  The meal is prepared during the Sunday service by a different family each week, and for the Middleton Sikh community that means the extended family.  Everyone from nieces, cousins and brother-in-laws help prepare some aspect of the meal.

The area where the worshippers sit to eat.The area where the worshippers sit to eat.When someone enters the gurdwara they must remove their shoes in the front hallway immediately and cover their head out of respect.  There is also a large communal sink to wash your hands if necessary.  The first floor of the gurdwara includes a small industrial kitchen and a dining hall where langar is served.  The dining area is large with white walls, tiled floors.  Long carpets are spread across the length of the room because, during langar, everyone sits on the floor together, side-by-side as equals.

The langar dining area is separated from the prayer room, which is on the second floor of the gurdwara.  The room also has white walls, but a red carpet covers the entire floor except for a white strip of carpet leading up to the altar of the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book, where Sikhs bow before taking a seat on the floor of the prayer room.

The meal is vegetarian because the Middleton Sikh community believes meat negatively affects a person mentally and emotionally.

“We don’t believe in eating meat ... your eating affects your thinking, the way you live and the way you think,” said Kaur.  The Sikh community believes that the food a person consumes effects a person psychologically and emotionally, therefore food influences a person's actions.

The meal is composed of lots of lentils, many kinds of vegetables, yogurt, salad lettuce and roti (flat bread), according to Kaur.  Major spices used in the dishes include cumin, ginger, garlic,  turmeric powder, salt, and pepper.

Kaur said the food is supposed to be soothing and “good for the stomach ... not too spicy, not too salty."

Cilantro, which Kaur said is “good for your tummy,” is used as a seasoning on many of the dishes.  Onion, another main component in Sikh cuisine, is fried and used as a base for the lentils and vegetables.

At the Middleton gurdwara, the lentils and vegetables are cooked in industrial-sized pots.  Kaur explained that the meal takes at least 3-4 hours to prepare because the vegetables have to soften.  According to Gurmukh Singh, Kaur’s son, “Everyone has their own technique,” for preparing the different dishes, “and that technique is usually taught and passed down generation to generation.”

The people who prepare the meal pray while they clean and cook the food because then “it becomes a special meal, not like a household meal,” according to Kaur.

For drinking, water and tea with milk and sugar were served during langar.  “No coffee here,” said Kaur, but she explained that it is mostly because tea is the accepted tradition.  The tea, which is usually a common brand like Lipton, was brewed in a large pot like the vegetables and lentils.

Other food served at the Middleton langar includes white rice, rice pudding and sweets.  Kaur explained thatA fried sweet breadA fried sweet bread sweets are essentially fried dough, and they get the sweet taste from a sugar syrup.  On the outside, the sweets look like red, baby potatoes, but have the texture of a sponge cake. 

Another sweet food in the Sikh community is prashad, which is made of equal parts of butter, water and wheat flour.  It has a similar texture to a thick pudding.  Kaur said prashad is very pure because it has been blessed.  In the Middleton gurdwara, the prashad is kept in a covered dish next to the holy book, and after ardas (the last prayer) a member of the Sikh community distributes a small handful of pradash to everyone in the prayer room.

According to Kaur, it is important not to be wasteful during the meal.  

“Take as much as you can eat,” she said.

The sense of community and equality is evident in the Middleton gurdwara.  The supplies for langar, such as plates, utensils, spices and other ingredients are all donated by the families.  

In order to experience authentic Sikh food, Singh recommends two area restaurants, Maharani on West Washington Ave. and Taj on South Park St.

Satwant Kaur (back right) participates in the first morning prayer.Satwant Kaur (back right) participates in the first morning prayer.