Some years back (don't ask, won't tell), I was sent by a magazine to cover the opening of a new Ashram in Oakland, California. Gurus (spiritual teachers) were the rock stars of that time, particularly in Northern California, and Swami Muktananda, the founder of Siddha Yoga, was one of the most revered.
The Ashram still stands on the corner of Stanford and San Pablo, kitty corner from the infamous Your Black Muslim Bakery which entered the national news scene a few weeks ago for arrests related to the killing of Oakland based journalist Chauncey Bailey.
The building on the corner of Stanford and San Pablo had originally been a run-down hotel frequented by the prostitutes who flashed their wares up and down San Pablo Blvd. As soon as the papers were signed, devotees got to work. It was truly amazing. Within weeks, the decrepit building was scrubbed clean...physically and spiritually, and people were showing up in throngs to chant, meditate, or just to bask in "Baba's" presence.
So my magazine sent me there....not to cover the amazing transformation happening in a very seedy part of Oakland, not to do some penetrating story about the intersection of Black Muslim vs. White Hippy Hindu. They sent me there to get some cooking tips from Baba Muktananda. The Ashram was opening a cafe called Amrit , and reports told of the fantastic vegetarian food there; word was that Baba provided all the recipes.
I went to the ashram to pitch my request in person....could I hang around the kitchen for a day and pick up some recipes? Take some photos? Rather than talking to some lackey, I was brought directly to Baba. When his interpreter (Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, the current head of Siddha Yoga) relayed my question, Baba laughed and said, "Stay here for a week, and I will teach you to cook. But you must wake up at 4:00 every morning."
Though intrigued by the idea, I was not thrilled about staying a week in that building. The rooms, like all cheap, old fashioned hotel rooms, had thin plank walls with the only convenience being a washbasin. The new paint and thousands of sticks of incense hadn't taken away a musty scent that brought scenes of previous occupants and their nefarious activities into my dreams. Bathrooms were down the hall, communal.
The first morning, and every morning thereafter, I would wake to a knock on my door at precisely 3:50 am. After brushing my teeth, washing my face, throwing on some clothes, I'd tiptoe down the creaky hallway and down the creaky stairs to the kitchen. There were 3 people in the a.m. cooking crew to prepare breakfast for the Ashram residents as well as food to be sold at the cafe. Before Baba showed up at 4:30 a.m., the crew had to clean up anything that'd been left over from the previous evening as well as prepare for Baba....setting out spices, vegetables, fruits, etc. There would already be Chai (spiced tea) bubbling on the stove. The kitchen was a good sized one, newly equipped, shiny.
This was one of the few times when one could be with Baba without his interpreter by his side, which meant that there was a great deal of hand gesturing and laughing involved in the cooking effort. Each morning, he would inspect the available fresh ingredients and immediately decide on the curry he'd make that day. Sometimes, he would make masala dosas, large, crispy crepes usually filled with a potato curry. We'd chop fruits and vegetables for the curries, salads. A daily stream of devotees brought gifts of food....pineapple, mangoes, but also Sees Candy, and imported chocolates....and it all went into the following day's meal. Baba loved the idea of chopping Sees chocolates into smaller bits and adding them to the fruit salad....so good!
There were also samosas (triangular shaped, fried dumplings with a similar filling to the masala dosas) to be made...hundreds of them. One of the 3 morning crew members was a professional baker who worked separately making cornbread, muffins, cookies, and other Western style breads. The smells in the kitchen were unforgettably glorious.
It was difficult to try and capture recipes for the dishes Baba made. He never measured any ingredients....throwing a handful of this, 5 handfuls of that into huge pots. I still can't name some of the spices he used. Baba laughed each time I tried to make notes...teaching me words that I couldn't spell anyway. Any recipes I did capture could feed 200-300 people.
Though I loved all the food made in that kitchen, my favourite was a hot, savory porridge incongruously named "sour cereal" (recipe below). There's nothing sour in the cereal...instead, it's warm, tasty and fulfilling. A bowl of sour cereal and a steaming cup of sweet, spicy chai is just about the best way to start the day.
Although I stayed at the Ashram for a full week, I pretty much ditched the place every morning after cooking with Baba. By the time I was a teenager I'd become a 1-person Unitarian Universalist Movement. Having a Catholic mother and a Protestant father, I'd been baptized into both faiths and had attended services on Saturdays and Sundays through my childhood. Unsatisfied with those teachings, I'd self converted to Judaism, Buddhism, Sufism, Taoism, Pantheism. I thought that my head, heart and soul might burst if I stuffed Hinduism into that overfull bag of tricks.
On my last morning at the Ashram, a Sunday, Baba's interpreter showed up in the kitchen. Pulling me aside, she said, "Baba would like you to attend the Satsang after breakfast." Sigh. I'd sworn off Sunday services.
After sustaining myself with yet another bowl of sour cereal and two or three cups of chai, I made my way to the Shaktinilaya Meditation Hall. The largest room in the Ashram, it was completely empty of furniture except for a tiny stage area for Baba. There were large photos of Baba and his guru, Bhagawan Nityananda, on the wall and the scent of hundreds of flowers and incense filled the room. I sat on the floor near the stage and waited as the room began to fill. Within the next fifteen minutes, the immense room was packed full, and people were sitting out in the hallways.
Baba was to give a talk, then lead the group in chanting and meditation. I wasn't really sure what to expect, but resigned myself to a few hours of physical discomfort.
Baba entered the room, Gurumayi following. They both smiled and nodded, greeting people silently. Once seated, Baba looked around the room, saw me, gave me a big smile, then pointed me out to Gurumayi...another big smile. I smiled back, and then suddenly, inexplicably, tears began flowing from my eyes. Inexplicable because I felt no sadness...in fact, I felt....nothing. For the next three hours, the tears continued to flow as hundreds around me chanted and meditated.
This was not an "out of body experience", nor was it was a sleep state that I had to be awakened from. It was more closely related to Shunyata, a Buddhist state of emptiness. (From Wikipedia: "In the English language the word emptiness suggests the absence of spiritual meaning or a personal feeling of alienation, but in Buddhism the emptiness of phenomena enables liberation from the limitations of form....")
I simply wanted nothing, needed nothing besides breathing. When the Satsang ended, I felt great gratitude, humility, peace.
Not long after this, Swami Muktananda passed away in his ashram in India, and Gurumayi took his place.
This is a version much reduced in size from the one made at the ashram. All ingredients can be adjusted to your taste except for the grain:water ratio. This might make it sound even worse (groan), but it's delicious when served sprinkled liberally with Brewer's Yeast...healthy too! This recipe could serve 2....but can also be doubled, tripled....
3/4 cup any mix of cereal grains like millet, bulgar wheat, quinoa, steel-cut oats.
1 tsp whole cumin seeds
2-3 tbs of fresh grated or dry shredded coconut (not sweetened)
2 tbs finely chopped onion
1 tbs grated ginger
1 tsp salt or to taste
6-8 cups water
2 tbs chopped fresh cilantro leaves
Medium sized pot
Sharp chopping knife
Now do it:
Combine all ingredients (except cilantro and Brewer's Yeast) in the pot. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to simmer until grains are cooked to preferred consistency. Stir in cilantro and serve with Brewer's Yeast to be added to individual taste.