Indian Buffet: A Centuries-Old Tradition

A line forms for langar at the Sikh temple in West Sacramento, Calif.

hide captionA line forms for langar at the Sikh temple in West Sacramento, Calif.

Elaine Corn

Get recipes from a Sikh temple's buffet, or langar, below.

If you like Indian food, you're probably familiar with the Indian buffet. The all-you-can-eat attraction shows up at both mom-and-pop and fancy Indian restaurants, but it is more than just a promotional sideshow for Americans. It's a 500-year-old tradition.

Karam Gill, manager of Gaylord's restaurant in Sacramento, Calif., says his restaurant's buffet is a big draw at lunch. But where the lunch crowd sees a good deal on Indian food, Gill sees the long-standing Sikh tradition of langar.

"There is a big history with this," Gill says. "In our temples, if you go there, there's a buffet, which is actually called langar in our language, and anybody can eat whatever they want to eat."

At a Sikh temple in West Sacramento, a langar lunch after prayers will feed more than 1,000 people.

Temple attendee Gurbaksh Kaur, as she makes chapattis for the meal, says there is no special ordering.

"We will eat whatever they serve us," Kaur says. "There's no picking or choosing... Whatever they feel like they want to bring us, we are happy to accept."

In the early 1500s, when early Sikh gurus created the langar, it was a time of class struggle. A communal meal was a revolutionary concept at the time. Priest Wadhawa Singh Gill says the langar killed the caste system.

"In India, they discriminate between rich and the poor, between priest class and others. We do not discriminate between human beings. And we are required to sit at one place and at one level. All are one," he says.

Elaine Corn reports for member station KXJZ. You can find her top buffet picks in Sacramento here.

Vegetarian Indian Recipes from the Langar

Recipes at Sikh Temple Sacramento are made in quantities that serve literally 1,000 people, sometimes more. The following recipes are examples of food typical at the always-vegetarian langar. The following serve about eight people, but make great leftovers with rice and Indian bread. — Elaine Corn

Aloo Matar

(Potatoes and peas)

2 pounds potatoes

2 teaspoons brown mustard seeds

2 tablespoons ghee or unsalted butter

2 medium-sized onions, cut into rings

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 teaspoons fresh ground dried ginger

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon chili powder

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon garam masala

1 cup water

¾ cup frozen peas

Salt and black pepper

Peel the potatoes and cut them into smallish cubes. In a small skillet, heat the mustard seeds on high heat until they pop. In another large skillet over medium-high heat, warm the ghee (or butter). Add the onions and fry until onions are limp but not browned, about 10 minutes. Add the ginger, turmeric, chili powder, cumin, garam masala and the toasted mustard seeds and potatoes. Fry and stir about 3 minutes. Add water, bring to a simmer, and cook, uncovered, about 20 minutes. Potatoes should be soft, and most of the water should cook away. Add the peas, salt and pepper. Cover, reduce heat to low and simmer 10 minutes. Serve with basmati rice. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Lentils

At Sikh Temple Sacramento, many pulses (edible seeds) in the lentil family were used: yellow split peas, black "moth" (pronounced moat) lentils and red lentils.

2 cups lentils

3 ¼ cups water

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons ghee or unsalted butter

1 onion, chopped

1 teaspoon turmeric

2 teaspoons ground cumin

3 cardamom pods

½ teaspoon whole coriander seed

2 tablespoons tomato paste

Sort the lentils and wash several times. Place in a pot with salted water. Bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer, partially covered, 30 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the ghee or butter in a wide skillet. Add onion and fry until pale brown, about 10 minutes. Add turmeric, cumin, cardamom, coriander seed and tomato paste. Fry 30 seconds or so. Mixture should be thick. Transfer spice mixture out of the skillet and into the pot with the lentils. Stir to combine, and simmer about 5 minutes more. Thin with more water if too thick. Lentils should be somewhat soupy. Serve with rice and chapattis. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

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