Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Greed in the Temple (sung to the tune of the Prince song)

As you may now have gathered the last few weeks has seen Grandad becoming ever more lithe and sprightly, as he starts to zip about again after his recent broken hip, whilst we become ever poorer and fatter as we eat our way around Middlesex on route to visiting him.

On this occasion I decided it would be nice to try and fit in a dose of culture before lunch, and where better than the magnificent Neasden Temple, a beautiful burst of the exotic in humdrum North London.

The temple - or Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, to give it its full name - was, at the time of building, the largest ever constructed outside India. Constructed by Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (or, the more manageable, BAPS) - a major organization within the Swaminarayan sect of Hinduism - the majestic structure is made of 2,828 tonnes of Bulgarian limestone and 2,000 tonnes of Italian marble, which was first shipped to India to be carved by a team of 1,526 sculptors. The foundations saw the biggest ever concrete pour on these shores when 4,500 tons was put down in 24 hours to create a foundation 6 ft thick. The temple cost over £12 million to build and was opened in 1995.

History lesson over, it’s well worth having a look around the inside of the building, especially to see the interior of the shrine which is constructed mainly from hand-carved Italian Carrara marble and Bulgarian limestone and is quite a sight to behold.

On our visit the mandir was also heated to a temperature not too dissimilar to the surface of the sun. This fact, coupled with the fact you have to remove your shoes on entry to the complex and the floors are covered with the fluffiest carpets I have ever walked upon, sent my poor toes in to some sort of swollen sausage like discomfort. For all strange souls who, like me, find even the idea of walking barefoot brings you out in a cold sweat, you can appreciate how this beautiful heaven quickly became a clammy kind of hell (I missed the whole of the largest wooden temple in Kyoto due to my aversion to the mix of tatami matting and stockinged feet. *shudder* - (Like chalk to her cheese, I can't wait to release my monster munch style trotters and experience these surfaces sans socks! - TE). 

The Ewing was in far less a hurry to leave, so whilst she looked at a roster of famous politicians who have visited the temple – most recently David and Sam Cam, but also Blair, Brown, Clegg and Kennedy, this is obviously a MP hot spot – before going to the shop to buy ‘special’ flax seed ‘for my porridge’, (and they gave me a free pocket calendar - TE) I hobbled back to my shoes and scarpered to examine the outside a little more closely.

After we had reconvened in the car park we made our way to the squat building, rather forlorn in contrast to the temple, which houses the Shayona Restaurant, dessert parlour and shop. Thankfully the inside is a little jazzier, although the cuisine offered in the restaurant is simple, straightforward vegetarian fare.  Not just that but, being based on Satvic principles, the food offered here is prepared with no garlic and no onions.

Now I know, allegedly, food can taste good without liberal amounts of these stinky staples (and chilli sauce, of course) but why would you want to risk it. But, even after years of slowly destroying my taste buds by drinking Tabasco straight out the bottle and garlic pickle by the spoonful I completely forgot about the absence of alliums until I was back home again and went to have another look at their website.

Not only was the food top notch but they also have an all you can eat buffet at lunchtimes, for the bargain price of £7.99, including a drink. Fear not though, this is no Pizza Hut grease fest (although I do miss those days of being able to eat a cartwheel of deep pan pepperoni pizza, topped with garlic bread and chased down with a ‘healthy’ side of tinned sweetcorn slathered in blue cheese dressing), instead you can stuff yourself on a small array of freshly cooked curries and breads, supplemented by fresh pickles and salads.

Top picks were the cubes of mustardy spiced potato, an earthy kidney bean curry and a rich, oily chilli paneer. They also have a deft hand with the fryer too; the kachories - spiced mushy peas stuffed inside a pastry shell - and baskets of freshly cooked puri breads, which are bought fresh to your table, both being particularly good.

Those with a sweet tooth will probably appreciate their, very fine, mango lassi and the dishes of Shrikhand, a sweetened strained yogurt with cardamom and saffron. Not to my tastes, but the Ewing more than ably made up for my lack of interest.

I was, however, unable to resist the lure of the Indian sweetmeats that line the glass counters of the dessert parlour - there's also a small selection of savoury morsels and a freezer filled with swirls of brightly coloured Italian gelato swirled with fruit syrups and studded with biscuits and nuts. 

Normally I find burfi, halwa and the like - no matter how beautiful they look - too sugary, too rich, too 'cheesy' tasting to be enjoyable. Indeed the first time I tried it, from a gaudy sweet shop on Brick Lane, ended in me depositing each, half-masticated, piece into every bin on the way to Whitechapel.

Thankfully these, just like the temple, were as fabulous on the inside as their silver leaf and pistachio adorned exteriors suggested. The lurid marzipan fruit type things didn't really do it for me, but the pistachio barfi, the sticky square of compressed date and nuts and, my favourite, the yellow golf ball-like chickpea flour ladoo, were a beautiful way towards type two diabetes.

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