When you’re five years old, your priorities in life are simple: 1) wreak havoc, and 2) eat sugar. While my parents were generally wary of my consuming obscene amounts of sugar, they conveniently turned a blind eye when it came to the holy karah prasad — a staple dish for Sikhs in places of worship and made at home as well. In my childhood, it was an enabler of sugar-induced frenzies. In this regard, our family’s monthly trips to the gurdwara to offer prayers were a combination of dread (two young children high on sugar, what could go wrong?) and delight.
The gurdwara (literally meaning “God’s gates”) is characterized by its wide, open halls; the Paathi, whose sole duty is to read from the scripture Guru Granth Sahib; and the sweet offering of the karah prasad made at the end of the ardas, or the prayer service. As a child, this dish was my only incentive to put on a kurta-pajama, cover my head with a scarf, and wear the garb (both literally and figuratively) of understanding religion for an hour. While my parents devoted their time and energy to the service, I daydreamed about the forthcoming sweetmeat, a symphony of tabla and harmonium scoring my reverie.
Karah prasad is a variation of the wheat-based halwa often found in Gujarati, Tamilian, Israeli, and North African cuisines, to name a few. Made with equal measurements of ghee, sugar, and whole-wheat flour, it signifies the equality between people from different sexes, castes, classes, and religions. Even the seating arrangement in the gurdwara attempts to reflect this belief, as we all occupy the floor — no one higher or lower. Although its exact origin remains a mystery, the dish is symbolic of God’s grace, for several oral histories dictate the benevolence of the Gurus who prepared it: It is a benefaction upon His devotees.
The word “karah” comes from the Sanskrit term “kataha,” for a boiling pan. Over high heat with crackling ghee, the Sewadars, or volunteers, begin the preparation of the dish in the kitchen of the gurdwara, keeping in mind two basic principles: hygiene and religious sanctity. As a result, the prasad can only be cooked if the kitchen and the cook are both spotless. Every step that goes into the intricate process of preparing the prasad is synchronized with the chanting of the five banis, or hymns. It is first offered to the Granth after the ardas, the bowl carried on the head of the volunteer. Upon reaching the darbar where the Granth sits, it is blessed by the blade-end of the kirpan (one of the significant Ks in Sikhism). Following this, the Granthi, a religious official of the gurdwara, serves it to the Panj Pyaare, or the Five Amritdhari Sikhs. They are the first to consume the prasad at the end of the service and before it is offered to the attendees. Everyone must remain seated during this distribution. The whole process of preparing and parosna, or serving the dish, is steeped in faith in humanity and kindness for all.
At home, the preparation of the prasad would be an early morning affair, especially if we were celebrating a religious festival. On these occasions, mother would shake my brother and me awake so that, from an early age, we could partake in the rituals. She would shower, put on her salwar-kameez, and cover her head with a scarf (we were expected to do the same) before she started the preparation. My father would stand guard by her side as he recited from the pocket-sized Granth we kept at home. In a similar fashion to the gurdwaras, my parents would make the first offering to the scripture while I stood there salivating.
As a child (and honestly, even as an adult), I counted down the seconds for a Sewadar to jaunt towards me and place the ghee-soaked, sugary heaven in my cupped hands. With its heat scorching my palms, I would wait for instructions from my mother before diving in. My mother, whose piety renewed at the gurdwara, would make me bow my head towards the food in gratitude so that its spiritual contents would envelop me — a blessing in a morsel.
The Sikh community is widely revered for its social service. The daily langar service that takes place in the dining halls of gurdwaras, where free food is served to anyone that attends, is testament to that. Consequently, wastage in my community is a cardinal sin. Keeping these sentiments in our hearts and minds, my mother would not let us wipe away the remnant ghee from our hands with a tissue. Sheepishly, under her commanding gaze, I would rub this ghee over my arms and legs (a handy moisturizer in all its glory).
Growing up, visiting friends and family in other parts of the country meant confronting variations of the prasad. When it was made for occasions other than religious ones, several liberties could be taken with the ingredients: In some houses, the prasad is made with a combination of semolina and whole-wheat flour; while in some others, water is completely replaced with milk. My best friend’s mother would add an assortment of chopped nuts and dry fruits such as almonds, cashews, walnuts, and raisins while the prasad was still cooking. Some even add dried melon seeds.
Over generations, this recipe has become synonymous with micro and macro celebrations alike. At home, whenever we celebrate Diwali or Guru Nanak Jayanti, my mother whips out the kataha and we wait in anticipation. Several of my (and my brother’s) past birthdays are dogeared by the offering of a big bowl of karah prasad at the local gurdwara. In my life, it is no longer just a symbol of religion, but of unity in celebration and the assimilation of goodwill. When I moved to Brussels this year, I made a point to introduce this seminal memory of my childhood to my friends in this foreign land. Even as winter knocks on my doors and my fingers go pale from the frost, karah prasad brings warmth to my belly. I may be 6872 kilometers away from home, but my skin still glistens from leftover ghee on my palms.