The sweet Sikh ritual of karah prasad

When you’re five, your priorities in life are simple: 1) wreak havoc and 2) eat sugar. While my parents were generally suspicious of my consumption of obscene amounts of sugar, they conveniently turned a blind eye to holy karah prasad – a staple dish for Sikhs in places of worship and also prepared at home. In my childhood, it was a catalyst for sugar-induced binges. In this regard, our family’s monthly trips to the gurdwara to offer prayers were a combination of dread (two young children stuffed with sugar, what could go wrong?) and joy.

The gurdwara (literally meaning “gates of God”) is characterized by its wide open halls; the Paathi, whose sole duty is to read the Guru Granth Sahib scripture; and the sweet offering of karah prasad made at the end of the ardas, or 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 habit (literally and figuratively) of understanding religion for an hour. While my parents devoted their time and energy to the service, I daydreamed of the treat to come, a symphony of tabla and harmonium marking my reverie.

Karah prasad is a wheat-based variation of halwa often found in Gujarati, Tamilian, Israeli, and North African cuisines, to name a few. Made with equal measures of ghee, sugar and whole wheat flour, it signifies equality between people of different genders, castes, classes and religions. Even the seating arrangement in the gurdwara attempts to reflect this belief, as we all occupy the floor – no one above or below. Although its exact origin remains a mystery, the dish is symbolic of God’s grace, as several oral histories dictate the benevolence of the Gurus who prepared it: It is a boon to His devotees.

The word “karah” comes from the Sanskrit term “kataha”, for a boiling pot. Over high heat with crackling ghee, the Sewadars, or volunteers, begin preparing the dish in the gurdwara kitchen, keeping two basic principles in mind: hygiene and religious sanctity. As a result, prasad can only be cooked if both the kitchen and the cook are impeccable. Every step that goes into the complex process of preparing 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 is located, he is blessed with the end of the blade of the kirpan (one of the important Ks in Sikhism). Following this, the Granthi, a religious official in 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 participants. Everyone must remain seated during this distribution. The whole process of preparing and parosna, or serving the dish, is rooted in faith in humanity and kindness to all.

At home, the preparation of prasad would be done early in the morning, especially if we were celebrating a religious holiday. On these occasions, Mom woke my brother and me up so that, from an early age, we could participate in the rituals. She would take a shower, put on her salwar-kameez and cover her head with a scarf (we were supposed to do the same) before starting the preparation. My father stood guard by his side as he recited the pocket Granth we kept at home. Similar to the gurdwaras, my parents made the first offering to the scripture while I sat there salivating.

As a child (and honestly, even as an adult), I was counting the seconds before a Sewadar walked up to me and placed the ghee-soaked sweet heaven in my cupped hands. With her heat burning my palms, I waited for my mother’s instructions before diving. My mother, whose piety was renewed at the gurdwara, made me bow my head towards the food in gratitude so that its spiritual content enveloped me – a blessing in one piece.

The Sikh community is widely revered for its social service. The daily langar service that takes place in the dining halls of the gurdwaras, where free food is served to all who attend, testifies to this. Therefore, waste in my community is a cardinal sin. Keeping these feelings in our hearts and minds, my mother wouldn’t let us wipe the leftover ghee from our hands with a handkerchief. Timidly, under his authoritative gaze, I would rub this ghee on my arms and legs (a handy moisturizer in all its glory).

Growing up, visiting friends and family in other parts of the country meant dealing with variations of prasad. When made for non-religious occasions, several liberties could be taken with the ingredients: In some homes, prasad is made with a combination of semolina and whole-wheat flour; while in others the water is completely replaced by milk. My best friend’s mother would add an assortment of chopped nuts and dried fruits such as almonds, cashews, walnuts and raisins while the prasad was still cooking. Some even add dried melon seeds.

Over the generations, this recipe has become synonymous with micro and macro celebrations. At home, whenever we celebrate Diwali or Guru Nanak Jayanti, my mother pulls out the kataha and we look forward to it. Several of my past birthdays (and my brother’s) are rewarded with the offering of a large bowl of karah prasad to the local gurdwara. In my life, it is no longer just a symbol of religion, but of unity in celebration and assimilation of goodwill. When I moved to Brussels this year, I wanted to show this seminal memory of my childhood to my friends from this foreign land. Even as winter knocks on my door and my fingers turn pale from frost, karah prasad brings warmth to my stomach. I may be 6872 kilometers from home, but my skin is still glistening from remnants of ghee on my palms.