Normally, there’s only one reason to visit the most northwestern point of London: Wembley Stadium. Home to England’s national football team, the arena houses 90,000 fans for each match, its giant, white celestial arch seen for miles around.
But just a mile away from Wembley in the mainly residential area of Neasden, there stands another huge, all-white building attracting a similar number of devotees. While some might regard football as a religion, this venue actually is a sacred space: the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan mandir, Europe’s largest Hindu temple.
Built in 1992 using Bulgarian limestone and 2,000 tonnes of imported Italian marble, the building is carved with intricate Hindu symbols and centres on a huge fluted dome. One of the first temples in Britian to be built in this traditional Indian architectural style, Shri Swaminarayan was dubbed “one of the Seven Wonders of London” by Time Out magazine.
In the 20 years since it opened, London’s Hindu population has grown to 450,000—many of whom come to worship at “Neasden Temple.” And with such vast numbers heading down the North Circular Road in the direction of its domes, somebody had to feed them all.
So, among the topiary-bedecked gardens (in the carpark, actually) sits Shayona, a restaurant with a reputation for serving some of the capital’s best vegetarian Indian food.
Inspired by the flavours of the Gujarati region with a few Mumbai or Kerala dishes thrown in, the Shayona serves Indian cuisine, but more specifically, this is Sattvic food.
A “pure” way of eating that ties into the Hindu religion, along with Ayurveda and yoga practises, Sattvic balances the mind and the body, operating under belief that what you eat has a huge effect on wellbeing.
I met up with food blogger and cook Urvashi Roe—a.k.a Gujarati Girl—to talk through the Sattvic cuisine over lunch in Shayona.
“Sattvic is a system of eating,” she explains. “In the Hindu religion, there are three different states: Sattvic, Rajas, and Tamas. When you apply it to food, Sattvic foods are easily digested and pure in the sense of non-complicated starches, so things like fruits, vegetable, and grains. Rajasic foods are foods that will ignite certain reactions in your body and are harder to ingest. And then Tamasic are inflammatory foods—things that haven’t been made freshly and will almost give you an element of toxicity in your body. Sattvic food is the food closest to nature and what we aspire to eat most of.”
So, sort of like “clean eating” then?
“Ugh, I hate that word!” says Roe.
I can see where she’s coming from. Legions of Twiglet-limbed bloggers pontificating about the “healing benefits” of turmeric tea or a cleansing asana in their £95 Lululemon yoga pants could be seen as mild cultural appropriation.
Roe tells me more about how Shayona’s menu ties in with her religion.
“It’s healthy because it’s food consumed in the way that’s as unprocessed as possible—like leafy greens cooked quickly,” she explains. “It’s like a connection with nature—all Sattvic foods are relatively fertile, grown well, and close to the ground because root vegetables are harder to digest.”
Roe shows me to the £7.99 lunch time buffet at Shayona and tells me to get stuck in. Well, not exactly. Another part of Sattvic eating involves only enough to sate hunger, stopping before you reach food coma-level.
“We never eat to the point of being stuffed,” she says. “And that’s what goes back to the Ayurvedic and yoga parts of the religion—it’s about having what is just enough. In your life, work, food money—they’re all interlinked, it’s not just food.”
With that in mind, I take a metal thali dish and put on a (small) chapati, a lentil ball, and what looks like a savoury cake. Then it’s a small cup of dhal, some cucumber raita, and a selection of pickles and chutneys. Roe picks up the yellow, mustard-seed studded cake, known as dhokla.
“This is one of my favourite things ever,” she says. “It’s semolina cake made with rice flour and chick pea flour and made into a batter with sour yogurt, salt, green chillies, and ginger. People pour a hot oil with mustard seeds over the top. It’s so good dipped in some of the chutney.”
I take a bite—it’s similar to a Southern-style cornbread in texture and tastes a little like a savoury muffin.
Then it’s on to the small lentil balls called katchori, which I dip into the cooling raita.
“It’s all about the density of foods,” explains Roe. “For example, someone might look at a plate of Sattvic food and think, ‘That’s not going to fill me up!’ But the density of a lot of things are filling.”
She’s right but I still reach for another piece of the naan bread, which just happens to lie perfectly in the middle of the crispy/doughy Venn diagram.
Hinduism teaches that to eat meat is to effectively consume the pain and the suffering of an animal, meaning that Gujarati and Sattvic cuisine is all vegetarian. It’s another draw for Shayona as even in a city with a dining scene as diverse as London’s, there’s still a lack of decent meat-free restaurants.
“We opened in the temple in about 2008 or 2009. First, the intention was just to make food for people who were visiting the temple, then it just got bigger,” explains one of the owners of Shayona, who comes over to talk to Roe and I as we eat our katchori. “Saturdays and Sundays are our most popular days and our biggest day is probably is Annakut, the day after Diwali. People come to give offerings of food to the Gods in the temple—there are thousands of people and rows and rows of food. If you want to even make it in to the temple you need to come at about 3 AM to get in.”
As we move onto the curry dishes, I try a ridiculously tasty chickpea dish plus a paneer masala. Onion and garlic aren’t used in this cuisine as not only are they seen as too pungent to eat, they might irritate your body.
“If you go to a traditional Indian curry house and have a curry, generally it will spark a negative reaction,” explains Roe. “Our food doesn’t do that. It’s freshly made and freshly cooked.”
Unlike the lamb rogan josh of your standard curry house, Sattvic food uses very light spices. A typical masala dish might contain mustard seeds, salt, chilies, and coriander or cumin powder mixed together.
“These are the basics,” says Roe. “Everything else would be additional. It’s all about the right blend and balance and eating what your body needs that day. We don’t use garam masala a lot, as it’s not good for your body to be eating all these hot spices every single day. Cinnamon is the same, it’s quite heavy and warming on your body. But if you’re feeling ill, you could warm some milk with cinnamon and turmeric—it’s the right food for the state your body is in.”
We might think of chilies purely as food fire-starters but they can be cooling too. Roe gives the example of Masala tea, a spicy brew drunk across India despite the country’s hot clime. As I drink a large bottle of chilled sparkling water, she also tells me that room-temperature water is always better, as the body has to work to warm up cold water.
Most Sattvic eating principles are just common sense—like the importance of chewing your food carefully in a stress-free environment. As many of us spend our lunchtimes wolfing down a shop-bought sandwich in from of a computer, it’s no wonder that 40 percent of people in the UK have a digestive problem at any one time. Roe says that we could all do with looking to the Sattvic way of eating to help our guts a bit more.
“You need take time to eat and time to chew—people don’t seem to do that anymore. When you eat quickly like that, you feel sluggish because you’ve gulped it,” she says. “My grandpa would eat two chapatis in the time I would eat six. He would chew and chew and be there chewing forever, which makes things so much easier on your digestive system.”
As Roe and I finish our own chewing, we leave the restaurant and head to take a look around the temple next door.
As I walk around the warm and tranquil space, I feel light, nourished, and contented. Sattvic food might just be the closest I’ll get to an evangelical experience.