Soul food has its origins in the traditional cuisine of African Americans in the Southern States of America – with most of the ingredients based on those fed by the plantation owners to the slaves, a combination (meagre) of greens and pork and cornmeal. It gradually accrued elements of Native American ingredients and gradually moved north when the population moved in that direction. It was first designated as ‘soul’ food in the 1960s when the Black Power movement began forging its own identity, and gradually Soul Food spread throughout the country and wider shores.
Its own original ‘soul’ was a reminder of the food from home and the comfort it brought with it, and subsequently became synonymous with many cultures and cuisines. Most of us have a dish or two, often from our childhood, that we return to, time and time again, when we are looking for comfort. The mere smell and taste of it cheers us up, soothes our worries until we are ready to face the world again.
Such was the thinking behind one of the great publishing success stories of all time when in 1993, two motivational speakers – Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hanson – published their first book of inspirational stories which they called ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’. Almost 30 years later and 11 million copies of the book sold, with 250 further titles and a food company to boot, Soul Food has definitely entered not just the language but also our psyches.
But what about another aspect of Soul Food, food given, prepared, cooked and served to those in need. This happens every day of the year in many of our cities and in many of the poorer nations of the world, but to my mind nothing more encapsulates Soul Food than the daily occurrence at the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the holiest site in Sikhdom.
And it is here that 50, 000 people (more on high days and holidays) are fed every day in one of the two Langars (dining halls) and all is free. The food is donated, most of the helpers are volunteers and all who visit are invited to the feast – be they travellers, worshippers, witnesses or the simply gobsmacked.
The food is prepared and cooked throughout the day and miraculously it never runs out and no one is ever turned away
Diners sit on the floor, there is no hierarchy, all are equal and men, women and children sit and eat together. The meal consists of roti, rice, dahl, vegetables and dessert. There was a time when all the bread was made by hand but a devotee donated a roti machine which now churns out 25,000 rotis in an hour! Until recently all the cooking was carried out through gas cylinders, but recently, a solar energy system has been donated to the temple to assist in this version of mass catering.
However the clearing away and washing up still has to be done by hand – again there is no shortage of volunteers who are divided into teams to clear and wash everything five times before the next serving! It is an astonishing feat and a great floorshow and a welcome unlike any other