Guys and Dals

By Michaele Weissman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 19, 2005

They call themselves Nala Paka after the mythological tale of an Indian king who was famed for his cooking. The dozen-plus accountants, engineers, consultants and managers have come together to cook for nearly two decades.

Six or eight times a year they serve the spicy, aromatic vegetarian foods of their homeland in south India to hundreds -- thousands when they cook at the Hindu temple -- on a single day. Their cuisine is built around dals, or lentils, rice, split peas, vegetables, nuts and yogurt. It is infused with the bite of red and green chili peppers, coriander and mustard seeds, coconut, cardamom, tamarind, fresh curry leaves and sweetly fragrant browned butter. They never prepare ahead, insisting that the food, notably labor-intensive, be served fresh.

Known in their community as talented cooks, they turn down requests to cater. Going pro, they say, would take away the enjoyment. "Cooking is not our profession, it's a refuge from our professions," said Gundu Rau, an international development consultant. Cooking together, he added, binds the team to their culture and to each other. "Most of us live thousands of miles from our extended families," he said. "The cooking team has become our extended family."

The Nala team's foray into large-scale cooking has precedent in India. "One of my people in India, one of his male kin, was part of team that cooked for 5,000 at a wedding. Eight or 10 guys made all the food," reported Krishna Murthy, a manager at Washington Gas, one of the team's two main chefs.

The Nalas do their cooking at the Olney home of founder A.R. Char, who runs an operations research consulting business, and -- when they feed the temple devotees -- in the industrial kitchen at the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple in Lanham. The temple is a white cement structure studded with carvings of Indian deities that towers like a palace over a modest suburban neighborhood. No one knows the exact number who regularly visit the temple but its monthly newsletter goes to about 13,000 households.

Several Saturdays a year, the Nalas take over the temple's kitchen, helping to cook a hot lunch for the thousands of adults and children who come to the temple to worship. Other teams, some male, some female, cook on other weekends.

"We fed 2,000 devotees on the first Saturday in October," Murthy said. Those who eat donate a dollar or two, he said, so the team cleared more than $4,000 for the temple. The Nalas also cook for the Carnatic Music festival held at the temple each April. Carnatic is the style of Indian classical music that Char's wife, Usha, a statistician and music teacher, and her students perform.

"The whole idea is to keep the Hindu culture alive" here, said Char, explaining why each year he and his wife celebrate the fall Navarathri festival at their home by staging an elaborate musical performance dedicated to Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and learning. They recently expanded their home to accommodate entertaining on a grand scale.

This year the Navarathri celebration took place in wet and windy weather on Oct. 8, a Saturday. The day began with a near catastrophe: A leaking new skylight caused a major flood. The stalwart Nala Paka team pumped out water before taking their stations in the kitchen about 9:30 a.m. One of the team members usually runs the show, but this year a visiting chef from Mumbai (formerly Bombay), wearing a traditional white cotton sarong wrapped at his waist, volunteered. Murthy served as sous chef. Char coordinated. Because of the weather, the Nalas could not work outside. So they set their powerful propane- fueled burners on the kitchen floor after laying down protective planks of wood.

The menu featured bisi bele bath , which calls for the slow cooking of yellow lentils, rice and vegetables with aromatic spices. Dahi vada -- lentil "doughnuts" deep-fried in oil -- were served in a spicy yogurt sauce. There was tamarind rice, yogurt rice, potato curry, spicy shredded carrot salad, spinach raita, spicy pickle, deep-fried chips and two sweet desserts.

Watching visiting chef S. Ramakrishna adding ghee -- a kind of clarified butter -- to a pot, Raju Murthy, Krishna Murthy's wife, commented that men's cooking tastes good because they don't worry about the amount of ghee.

None of the dishes was flavored with onions or garlic, spices that some Hindus say excite the senses and are unsuitable to religious observances. Three were sauced with yogurt and a variety of aromatic spices.

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