Eating in Houses of Worship

John Surico | Photos: yana Paskova

In this city, food can feel like it’s everywhere: on your street, on your corner, on your way to work, on subway ads, online, and on your table. But for approximately 1.4 million New Yorkers, it’s not. According to a 2016 report, that was the total number of residents living in what are known as “food-insecure households,” where food isn’t always an affordable commodity. Record-high levels of homelessness on top of that only compound the city’s inability to feed its hungry.

For this forgotten population, religious institutions, especially in a city where there’s one for every 1,353 residents, perform a vital function that many do not know or think about: feeding people. More recently, eateries connected to places of worship have attracted a newfound attention beyond helping just those who can barely afford food. They have increasingly become destinations where you can not only “break bread” for a good cause – as many of the proceeds go to the institution itself – but also enjoy some of the most community-focused food this city has to offer.

South Richmond Hill, Queens, is home to the Gurdwara Sikh Cultural Society, one of the largest Sikh places of worship outside of India, its gleaming towers visible from the aboveground A train at Lefferts Boulevard nearby. When I arrived on a recent afternoon, I stashed my shoes, phone, and backpack in a cubby near the entrance. As three men sang the day’s verses from the Guru Granth Sahib in the massive prayer hall, I was greeted by Amandeep Singh, a young man who had stopped by for lunch on his work break. As we left, we were both handed a delicious glob of karah-prashad, a sweet semolina ball of flour, ghee, and sugar.

Langar – the name of the community kitchen in every Gurdwara [Sikh temple] that offers free food to the community, regardless of any color or creed – is sacrosanct to Sikhs, Amandeep told me. “We believe that everyone should eat, no matter what,” he said. It underlines the thread of nondiscrimination that runs through Sikh culture, one that recognizes each of its members with the last name “Singh” (for men) or "Kaur" (for women), and feeds tens of thousands of people around the globe each day.

He told me that volunteers at the Sikh Cultural Society, which include many women who work in the home, start cooking before dawn, preparing food for hungry crowds that arrive at 5:00 AM, and leave around 11:00 PM. On weekdays, the 100,000-square-foot temple feeds about 500 people. On Sunday, the most popular prayer day here, that number can jump to over 1,000. “There are always people here,” Amandeep said.

In the langar below the prayer hall, patrons wash their hands before accepting a silver tray, with different slots for food. When I visited, those were soon filled with melted paneer cheese, dhal, and yogurt, with rice and roti flatbread to soak it all up. (Gurdwaras only serve food that is lacto-vegetarian..) The savor of the food here is in its simplicity, as Amandeep and I sat, cross-legged, eating from our trays, before handing them over to a volunteer for cleaning, and washing it all down with a chai. We talked about his visits to Harmandir Sahib, the Sikh pilgrimage site in Punjab (a massive replica lies in the temple’s basement), his struggles with English, and the donations Sikhs give to those in need; in this case, a man missing both hands was greeted by many neighbors, and dollars. “The community is here to help out anyone,” he said. And then he was off, back to work – another lunch at the Gurdwara finished.

About a half hour away, in Flushing, lies another temple where things work a bit differently. Temple Canteen, as it’s called, is located in the basement of the Hindu Temple Society of North America, known to most here as the Ganesha Temple. As the oldest Hindu temple in the Western Hemisphere, the stunning building is conspicuous on this quiet road in Queens. Meanwhile, the eatery a few floors down functions as the popular meal-after for those who come to worship; alongside a donation box, a statuette of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god of wisdom, watches over patrons as they wait to pick up their orders.

With 300 seats to fill, the food is served cafeteria-style, and paid for (albeit affordably). The menu is full of dosas that can cover half a table. Sweets, like jangiri and badushas, are on display. There are weekend specials, and a pot of masala tea sits steaming behind the counter. Employees announce orders by numbers, and sometimes, add their own pick-up line if the tray doesn’t find an owner in time. “Who’s going to pick up this delicious dosa today?” asked the manager, K. Santhanam, over the microphone.

During a weekend lunch rush there earlier this month, a volunteer named Kumar manned the attached gift shop, which sells items like small statues of Hindu gods and language pamphlets. He told me that all proceeds go to the temple upstairs. “Everything we do here is for the temple,” he explained. The cooks at Temple Canteen are paid employees, yet a fraction of food sales are accompanied by donations, too. (They take debit and credit.) Each week sees 4,000 meals served, but during Diwali, Temple Canteen shifts into high-gear, feeding some 10,000 a week.

And then, finally, there’s Streecha. The “A” rating plastered on the window is one of the few giveaways to passersby that this Ukrainian restaurant, which is located on East 7th Street in a basement underneath a chiropractor’s office, even exists. Yet Streecha has been around for as long as this small section of East Village blocks has been deemed “Little Ukraine.” It was formed as a way to fundraise for the St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church across the street – in 2007, it reportedly raised $80,000 a year – and to this day, the majority of customers are churchgoers.

Before a recent lunch there, I called in advance to speak with management. Dmytro Kovalenko, the head chef, came on the line. “All of us, we’re all volunteers,” he told me. In the morning, the borscht and vareniki, or potato and cheese dumplings, are made, often by older Ukrainian women. Aside from daily specials, the menu itself – which hasn’t changed since the place opened four decades ago – sn’t much longer, including delicacies like kovbasa (sausage), holubtsi (stuffed cabbage), and pampushki (jam-lined donuts) for dessert. The most expensive thing on the menu – the sausage with cabbage – is $7.

In Ukranian, “Streecha” translates to “meeting,” a dutifully apt name. In more recent months, the eatery announced on Instagram – of all places – that Streecha would now be open daily, presumably in an effort to accommodate a growing audience after it won praise in The New Yorker and other local media outlets. But here, even for a church in New York city, a sign of changing times can sometimes be a good thing.

Yana Paskova (@yanapaskova) is a Bulgarian-born, Chicago-bred, NYC-based photojournalist. Her camera defines her geography – from the minutiae of life across the States, to that in Eastern Europe, Russia, Africa and Asia  with The New York Times, Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, National Geographic, Bloomberg and Getty Images as her most frequent clients.

John Surico (@johnsurico) is a contributing editor for Newest York and freelance journalist and researcher, based in Queens, New York. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, and leads coverage of New York City transit for VICE.com. He is also a founding editor of Potluck Magazine.