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.
The team didn't have much time. Guests would arrive for the concert in mid-afternoon. Dinner would be served at 6. Working at two sinks and at every available inch of counter space, the men set about washing, scraping, cutting, peeling and chopping. A kind of controlled frenzy took over. Chef Ramakrishna insisted that each of the vegetables in the bisi bele bath -- carrots, green peppers, tomatoes and cayote squash -- be sauteed separately in ghee. Batches of spices released their pungency into the warm air of the kitchen.
As the men worked they bantered in Kannada, the language of Karnataka, their home state, leveling mildly ribald insults at one another. This fellow had gained a bit of weight and must be pregnant. That one's performance was "weak-livered," his staying power not adequate, he must be getting old. Waves of laughter rolled through the kitchen.
Ramakrishna squatted on the floor in front of a large kettle of hot oil, making the dahi vada. In his hand he rolled balls of lentil dough, punched out their centers and tossed them into the hot oil to fry. Then he turned his attention to the bisi bele bath.
The team conferred and decided to use one and a half -- not two -- packages of hot curry and spice in the dish. American-born Indian children have a limited tolerance for hot food, they decided. The musicians, dressed in bright silks, began arriving and quickly descended the stairs to the music room where a stage, carpeted in red, had been set up next to a flower- decked altar. Soon the sound of singing could be heard.
By 3 p.m., the kitchen was nearly clean -- "not as clean as Usha likes it," Murthy said, "but clean enough." Members of the team went off to shower and change.
Women wrapped in saris, girls in traditional dress and men and little boys in silk tunics floated through the kitchen. Downstairs, the musical performance built to a crescendo. Soon 60 performers, young and old, male and female, were chanting as drums beat and a violin trilled.
Then it was time to remember the goddess with puja aarati, worship with light. Candles were passed before the image of the goddess. Devotees gave thanks for knowledge and for music and art.
Upstairs, the Nala Paka team peeled the aluminum covers off their dishes. The men stood behind the buffet table, their faces intent. They watched as performers and members of the audience filled their plates. Only when the room filled with the appreciative buzz of happy diners did their shoulders relax and their faces break out in smiles.
"All the team feels very strongly that everyone who comes should have a full meal, a good meal," Char said. "To provide this gives us the greatest pleasure."
Freelance writer Michaele Weissman last wrote for Food about the new YWCA chocolate chip cookies.