Every morning, inside the marbled halls of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, 1.5 tons of lentils are simmered, stewed and spiced to feed its 100,000 daily visitors. Pilgrims and tourists alike find nourishment within the world’s largest communal kitchen — and it’s all free, embodying Sikh ideals of community and inclusion.
On the corner of North Vermont and Finley Avenues, the Vermont Gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) is smaller in scale but not spirit. After Friday and Sunday services around lunchtime, you’ll find families and first-timers seated on the floor, enjoying some of the homiest vegetarian North Indian fare in L.A.
On a recent visit, lunch included hot basmati rice and dhal makhani, silky black lentils simmered with onions and garlic (usually weighed down with cream in stateside Indian restaurants, but blissfully forgone in this version, allowing the flavors to shine through). Rounding out the plate was sabji, a catch-all term for curried vegetables — this particular permutation featuring potatoes, carrots and peas, all glistening in thick tomato gravy. Also being served were handmade roti and a coriander-spiced yogurt raita, which offered a cool complement to the meal.
In the kitchen, volunteers chopped their way through bulk bags of onions and stirred pots of dhal large enough to be featured in a fable. We asked Bhajneet Singh, a former volunteer at the Vermont Gurdwara and current member of the Khalsa Care Foundation Gurdwara, to talk more about langar, or the concept of the communal, come-one-come-all kitchen.
“The idea of it is that there’s equality and universal brotherhood amongst all people, regardless of faith,” he said. “Whether you’re a king or a beggar or a shoemaker, you’re going to sit on the same level and eat the same meal, and interact with your neighbor.” Langar, he explained, is one of the fundamental pillars of Sikhism, and each gurdwara has one. All over the world, meals are mostly served by volunteers and the food is funded by community tithing, which is also a tenet of the religion.
“Everyone is welcome,” Singh said. “When someone comes into the gurdwara and they’re looking to learn … they’re often overwhelmed by the number of people who are asking them: Do you want tea, do you want water, do you want a snack?” This concept of hospitality is pretty radical. It’s not a soup kitchen. It’s a gathering place where everyone can share in the spirit of community and eat, for free.
One can’t help but notice that this idea stands in sharp contrast to the neighboring coffee bars and small-plates restaurants along Los Feliz's main drag. While they are all gathering spaces in their own right, the gurdwara, in its own way, stands apart from the persistent drumbeat of competition and capitalism, continuing to quaintly strive for inclusivity, equality and the abolishment of barriers.
Vermont Gurdwara Sikh, 1966 N, Vermont Ave, Los Feliz; (323) 665-7707.