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Restaurant Tours: karma-free fare

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Ascetic monks may be the least likely folks to whip up a feast, but for nearly eight years the Hare Krishnas have been running a vegetarian restaurant called Govinda's in the basement of their temple in Rogers Park. The setting is hardly monastic. A half block east of Clark Street, across from a bank and a Catholic church, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness is housed in a former Masonic lodge. Walk in the front door of the temple, past a line of worshipers' shoes (you can leave yours on), and head downstairs. You'll be greeted by Sarvopama Das, a 50-year-old Vaishnava monk wearing Levi's and the traditional bald pate punctuated with a ponytail, or sikha. Sarvo buys the produce, answers the phone, and mans the cash register, overseeing the day-to-day operations of the restaurant. On this night he's playing music meant to bring on the monsoon season. "I'm hoping for snow," Sarvo says. "I want to go skiing."

Before becoming a follower of Swami Prabhupada (who founded the Hare Krishna movement in 1966), Sarvo was employed in a machine-parts factory in Providence, Rhode Island, and going by the name Elton Anders Hansell. The son of "devout atheist" parents, Sarvo was introduced to the tenets of Hare Krishna through reading the Bhagavad Gita. He started chanting while working on the assembly line. When he was spotted doing it by a group of plant supervisors, they were impressed by his powers of concentration and unexpectedly promoted him to their engineering department. But more money and fewer working hours did nothing to assuage his underlying dissatisfaction. "I was disenchanted," Sarvo says. "I wanted to do more with my life than filling buckets with nuts, bolts, and screws."

He joined the Hare Krishnas in 1971 and took his new name, which means "equal servant." Sarvo became part of a traveling band of devotees promoting vegetarianism on college campuses. "In those days we put kitchens in our buses," he says. These mobile eateries gradually grew into an international chain of more than 50 vegetarian restaurants. "We opened a restaurant in Moscow before McDonald's did," Sarvo boasts. "Right after perestroika opened things up."

Though the Hare Krishnas have been criticized for aggressive proselytizing, Sarvo says the purpose of the restaurants is not to win religious converts but "to show people they can have a delicious meal without eating dead animals." The Rogers Park Govinda's doesn't make a profit ("We just about break even," Sarvo says), yet it helps to educate people in the benefits of a nonviolent diet without scaring them away. "We don't want people to feel intimidated," Sarvo explains. "Only when people ask a question do we tell them our philosophy."

For Hare Krishnas, the slaughter of animals violates the all-encompassing law of karma, which ensures that those who cause violence and suffering in this life will have it visited back on them in the future. Meat eaters may face the misfortune of being reincarnated as an animal or bird and ending up on someone's dinner table. Krishna Consciousness maintains that all living things are sacred--even plants--but plant eating is permitted because the nervous systems of vegetation are less developed than those of animals. To offset the karmic implications, cooks are required to first offer food to Krishna; then they may serve the leftovers. "Nothing is consumed until it's first offered to God," Sarvo says. Kitchens are kept scrupulously clean, and cooks must be free of all animosity when preparing the meal. "The mentality of the cook is especially absorbed into the grains. So if someone is very angry or upset, those feelings will be absorbed by whoever eats it."

All Hare Krishna restaurants are named after Govinda, an appellation for Krishna that can be translated either as "pleaser of the senses" or "protector of cows." Prices vary from one town to the next, but most offer all-you-can-eat buffets for $6.50 (kids under ten eat free when accompanied by a parent). The Rogers Park Govinda's features a rotating menu with one main dish (occasionally dairy-free vegan), a salad bar, soup, side dishes, homemade bread, and dessert. Diners serve themselves on stainless steel plates about the size of a hubcap. On a typical night the salad bar is stocked with fresh spinach and red leaf lettuce, shredded beets and coconut, sprouted green peas, and creamy, nondairy almond dressing. Most of the main dishes are not Indian. Gouranga potatoes seem Betty Crocker-like, with a creamy texture. Lentil shepherd's pie has a comforting layer of mashed potatoes on the bottom, topped off with beans instead of meat. The Buddha Delight is a bland mix of tofu, chayote, mung bean sprouts, and water chestnuts. Soups are usually Indian dals, which can double as a main course when spooned over rice. Peppery Indian popadam chips are frequently served. Veggies are organic whenever the price isn't too high.

You won't find a hint of onions or garlic anywhere. Why not? "Because they stimulate the lowest chakras," Sarvo says. Which chakras are those? "You're not going to make me say it, are you?" Sarvo replies, blushing. The Hindu diet has found a more easily digested substitute in the spice hing, or asafetida.

Govinda's, 1716 W. Lunt, is open for dinner Wednesday through Saturday 5 to 8:30. The temple also puts out a free Indian feast every Sunday night at 7 following the worship service at 6. Sarvo says, "Nobody will look at you cross-eyed if you don't come to the service first." For information, call 973-0900.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.

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