Before the coronavirus pandemic, Vicki Mayo went almost every weekend to one of Phoenix’s gurdwaras, a Sikh temple where she prayed and helped cook for langar, the community kitchen that serves free food.
She’s volunteered at different gurdwaras in the Valley and the kitchen scene is almost always the same, she described: Aunties chattering in Punjabi and drinking hot chai, the clinking sound of stainless steel plates and cutlery, the smell of masala and fresh roti flatbread and daal intermingling in the air.
“You always smell the frying too — that’s the best, a batch of fresh pakora about to come out… you smell these things, you hear the noise and it’s almost meditative for me,” Mayo said.
Mayo, who grew up in the Sikh faith, said langar is about more than just free food, it’s an act of service that invites anyone in the community to come as they are, regardless of whether they’re Sikh.
She and her family have paused their langar volunteering, cautious of their health during the pandemic. But langar continues across the Valley as gurdwaras adjust to COVID-19.
At Guru Nanak Dwara, langar is now available for takeout instead of a meal inside the temple. One group has even put together AZ Langar on Wheels, a food truck that takes the free community kitchen to the streets and connects with people experiencing homelessness.
“I was so excited about it, I love the mission,” Mayo said about the food truck. “It’s true to who we are… Unfortunately due to geographical constraints, people can’t make it to one of our gurdwara locations. I can’t think of a better way to serve people who need to be served than a truck to go to them.”
What is langar?
Sikhism was founded in the mid-1400s in Punjab by Guru Nanak, the first Sikh Guru, or spiritual master of the faith. Sikhs believe there is only one God, without gender or form, who is the same God for people of all religions.
The Punjab region, heartland of the Sikh faith, encompasses a northwestern state in India and a bordering province in Pakistan. But the South Asian diaspora has formed Sikh communities outside the Indian subcontinent, including in Arizona.
Every gurdwara offers a free community kitchen called langar, said Suminder Sodhi.
Sodhi sometimes volunteers in the kitchen at Guru Nanak Dwara, a gurdwara in Phoenix near the northwest corner of Ninth and Oak streets.
On Fridays and Sundays volunteers serve a hot vegetarian meal as part of langar after prayer services. The meal usually consists of a lentils dish, vegetable curry, Basmati rice, salad with yogurt, roti and some kind of sweet, such as kheer, a sweet rice pudding, Sodhi said.
Langar is entirely volunteer-run because seva, or selfless service, is an important aspect of the Sikh faith, Sodhi said.
In line with the sacred scripture Guru Granth Sahib, which rejects caste distinctions, everyone who is physically able must eat on the floor in rows.
He only asks that people remove their shoes and cover their hair when they enter the gurdwara. Tables and chairs are available for people with physical limitations, Sodhi said.
“There’s no discrimination who can come and who can eat,” he said. “Everyone, regardless of religion, can come… everyone who comes is the same. When you sit on the line on the floor, it makes you equal to everyone.”
‘It’s blessed food, it’s divine food’
As a teenager, Mayo could be found at her usual spot in the kitchen of Guru Nanak Dwara — the back of the roti assembly line, where the group of aunties put “the people that are terrible at rolling.”
While there’s always a flurry of conversations in Punjabi, Mayo preferred to work quietly and marvel at the organization.
“You almost get into a rhythm doing it, almost like how people say it’s a walking meditation,” Mayo said. “It’s so harmonious. You bring together a group of 10 to 30, they all coordinate and split off quite naturally. One makes the roti, this one makes this. It’s one of the most amazing processes in a well-run langar kitchen.”
They are not allowed to taste the food while cooking because the food has not been blessed yet, so seasoning comes down to sight, smell and experience, Mayo said. The blessing usually takes place later with Ardas, a prayer recital.
To fund the meals, a different family each week will typically sponsor langar, usually for a special occasion such as a birthday or the anniversary of a loved one’s death, Mayo said.
Bulk groceries are a necessity — she remembered Costco runs to buy gallons of corn oil and trips to the Indian grocery store to buy 10 sacks of rice.
The biggest langar in the world is open 24 hours a day at Golden Temple in India. On the average day, 75,000 people eat a free meal there, National Geographic Traveller reported.
Mayo has visited Golden Temple and described langar there as a “beautiful orchestra.” She remembered people stirring vats the size of hot tubs, roti cooking on skillets the size of dining tables, volunteers flinging dirty plates like frisbees across the room to other volunteers, who would nimbly catch, clean and stack them.
“You walk into a langar kitchen and you’re like, ‘I’m home,'” Mayo said. “It’s such a familiar feel when you’re thousands of miles away from home in another country.”
“There’s something about it,” she added. “It’s blessed food, it’s divine food, it’s always one of the best meals you have all week.”
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Guru Nanak Dwara in Phoenix served around 300 to 400 people for each langar, Sodhi estimated. The average is now about less than 100 people in the pandemic, and the gurdwara has made adjustments to make langar safer, he said.
Attendees at Guru Nanak Dwara are required to wear masks. Singing and prayer services are streamed on Facebook so people can join from home. Volunteers prepare langar meals in Styrofoam takeout containers, packaged in paper bags, which are set on a table outside.
People take the food home, though sometimes people eat outside on the temple’s lawn or in their cars, Sodhi said.
How a new project is taking langar to the streets
Last year a nine-member group led by Sodhi started a colorful food truck called AZ Langar on Wheels to help people facing food insecurity during the pandemic. Sodhi felt that langar missed out on some of the most vulnerable communities in Phoenix, who may lack access to transportation.
On Saturdays around lunch time, volunteers follow the food truck from Guru Nanak Dwara to the neighborhood around Central Arizona Shelter Services in Phoenix and hand out food and drinks to people on the streets. The area, lined with tent encampments, is home to many people experiencing homelessness.
For now, because of COVID-19 concerns, AZ Langar on Wheels is limiting volunteers to a small group. Volunteers typically distribute purchased vegetarian food, such as pizza, burritos and sandwiches. In the future, the group would also like to cook meals in the food truck, Sodhi said.
Working with AZ Langar on Wheels reminds Sodhi of when he first moved to Arizona in 1991, when he was 19. He started working as a day laborer unloading boxes at warehouses before getting a part-time job at a gas station in Phoenix. At the time, he felt he didn’t have much to offer people who came in asking for food.
“I had nothing and I am here now where I have the ability to serve my community,” Sodhi said. “We are working people and we are here to serve.”
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