When the riots broke out across London in 2011, members of the Sikh community—some armed with cricket bats and hockey sticks—took to the streets of Southall to protect local businesses and gurdwaras, or Sikh temples, from potential looters. Community is sacrosanct to Sikhs, a sacred notion that comes into play when defending their patch. They are not to be fucked with. The area these men were defending is home to four gurdwaras of various sizes—including the Havelock Road temple, one of the biggest outside of India—and is the nucleus of West London's Sikh community.
This strong importance Sikhs place on community also contributes to why langar—which roughly translates to 'kitchen' or 'canteen', and is a practice whereby volunteers in the gurdwaras cook bountiful North Indian food for anyone that wants to eat it—is still so abundant. Regardless of your faith, gender, ethnicity, or financial status, from midday to midnight at your local gurdwara, everyone is welcome to sit and eat an enormous free meal. The only condition is that you cover your head and take off your shoes before entering the langar hall.
Community is sacrosanct to Sikhs, a sacred notion that comes into play when defending their patch. They are not to be fucked with.
I visited a couple of Southall gurdwaras not just for an amazing meal, but to get an idea of who comes in for langar, what is served, and who cooks it. The first thing you notice around here is that everyone—bar a few benches for the elderly—is sitting on the floor. Avtar Singh, who has been a volunteer at the Havelock Road gurdwara for over 20 years, explains that the seating arrangement creates harmony. "In the langar hall, everyone is equal," he says. "There are no differences between human beings. A doctor sits on the floor next to a beggar and they are the same. Everyone is welcome here."
Inside, the air is heavy and scented with spices—usually a combination of subji (a Panjabi term which means a blend of vegetables cooked with tomatoes and spices), daal, rice, and roti, along with kheer, a sweet rice pudding—which is served in unlimited quantities. You can stuff yourself with lentils until they're pouring out of your ears. The daal I ate was so good I was tempted to go back for fifths.
Once I'd caught my breath—being presented with an unending river of food can do funny things to a person—I met Satinder Singh and Kam Kaur, who had travelled down from Wolverhampton (for those outside the UK, that's pretty far) to visit the gurdwara. Singh explained the importance of charity within the Sikh faith. "As a baptized Sikh, you have to donate ten percent of your salary to charity each year," he said. "And langar is an act of selflessness. A bird can't fly without two wings and a Sikh can't fly without practicing Simran [reciting God's name] and Sewa [charity] and this is what's happening with langar. We believe that when you do Simran and Sewa in combination, you connect with the almighty."
A short walk from Havelock Road is the Park Avenue gurdwara, where I met an elderly Dutch guy now named Harjinder Singh. After meeting some Sikhs in Amsterdam 20 years ago, he made a trip to India. He stayed there for four years, converted to Sikhism, and "returned looking like this." He explained that, in Sikhism, preaching one's beliefs is frowned upon, especially in the langar hall. From my experience, eating in the temple felt more like eating at an incredibly civilized, gently buzzing restaurant—if that restaurant had all its diners sit cross-legged on the floor. "If you're a good gentleman," said Singh, making it clear that coming to eat langar does not mean you will experience any kind of sermon or gentle religious persuasion.
Andy, a man who, by his own admission, has serious issues with alcohol, walks to the Park Avenue gurdwara from his home in Hammersmith a few times a week. Again, if you're not familiar with London, Hammersmith to Southall is a trek and one that wouldn't be done without the promise of something rewarding at the other end. For him, it's worth it. "I like the journey down here, the food, and the delicious masala tea." This places helps him to avoid drinking, primarily because alcohol is banned from the premises.
Langar—which almost no one I know had ever heard of—creates hidden pockets of benevolence across the UK and offers more than just really incredible free Indian food. Due to the British government's current welfare reforms (there's scant room for debate now that they have sparked such widespread poverty), The Trussell Trust has said that there's been a shocking 51 percent rise in people visiting established food banks, with 913,00 parcels for three day's worth of emergency supplies handed out in the last year—up from 347,00 the year before.
If your benefits have been cut or are delayed, food is often trodden to the bottom of the priority list after keeping your electricity on. I wonder how many people would ever walk past their local gurdwara and even think to poke their head around the door, let alone know that there could be a massive free meal waiting for them inside that would put any of their local curry house's to shame.