Hurry over to the Hare Krishna temple.
Govinda’s isn’t easy to find. It’s tucked away in the back of a converted stone church on Avenue Road. There’s no sign, other than the occasional sandwich board and a small banner with the restaurant’s name. Even if you have driven by there countless times, as I have for most of my adult life, you probably don’t even know it exists. I discovered it a few months back by total chance: My car stopped in traffic next to the temple for 30 seconds, and I happened to glance out my side window at the sandwich board. “Hold up,” I thought. “Since when is there a restaurant here?”
Govinda’s is a chain of vegetarian restaurants affiliated with the Hare Krishna movement, and the Toronto location, which has been in business for some three decades, is one of more than 60 globally. The soaring cathedral hall that houses the restaurant recently underwent a renovation: Now the gothic arches and windows are draped in crimson and gold fabric, while statues of deities ring the sunlit room.
“The Hare Krishna movement is a lifestyle, a mode of goodness,” said Kishori Batra, an Indian-born follower of the religion and the restaurant’s friendly manager, who also works in technology marketing. Batra explained that Hare Krishna’s principals are based on Indian Vedic culture, which dates back more than 35 centuries, though the movement itself formally organized around 500 years ago in Bengal. It migrated to the West in the late 1960s, under the proselytizing leader Swami Prabhupada, who attracted celebrity followers like George Harrison and encouraged Western devotees to open temples, where they could bring the movement’s message to a new audience. Though known for its most colorful adherents—the tambourine-playing, orange-robed, shaved-headed missionaries who hand out flowers in public—the Krishna faith emphasizes a meditative mindfulness that also forms the core of Govinda’s cuisine.
Batra explained the three types of foods in the Krishna diet. Foods of Ignorance include any food derived from living creatures, like meat, fish, and eggs; they’re taboo. Foods of Passion are also forbidden; chiefly, this descriptor refer to onions and garlic, which are said to root the consciousness too firmly in the body, distracting from the mind. All other foods—vegetables, dairy, legumes—are considered foods in the “mode of goodness,” and are kosher for Krishnas, so to speak. “Our food is sanctified,” Batra said, “because we are cooking for Krishna.”
The food at Govinda’s is largely vegetarian Indian, cooked with a far more delicate touch than the overly spiced curries swimming with oil and ghee that dominate most South Asian restaurants in Toronto. A lunch buffet costs just $10, served from a steam table by volunteers. The menu changes daily, but the cauliflower pakoras I had recently were battered in a thin, crisp coating and as light as little turmeric-scented clouds. The house-baked roti flatbread was dense with whole grains and blistered from the skillet—the perfect utensil for scooping up a bowl of yellow split-chickpea daal with freshly ground cumin, ginger, and coriander.
Coaxing robust flavour out of vegetarian cuisine is never an easy task, especially when you remove the passionate ingredients, so it’s rare to find a dish like Govinda’s koftas. These vegetarian “meatballs” in a rich tomato sauce, made from lentils and other pulses, have the same juiciness and complex texture as their forbidden meaty counterparts. Meanwhile, the potato paneer, a dish of soft-boiled potatoes, green peas, and thick cubes of slightly salty cheese, is a far healthier take on poutine.
More important than what is cooking, Batra explained, is the demeanour of the person cooking. “Food reacts to mood,” she said. “If you give the same ingredients and recipes to 10 different people, you’ll get 10 different dishes based on their state of mind.” If you cook with a clear mind, and kind thoughts, that will translate into how the food tastes. “Your mom’s food tasted good because of the pure love behind it,” Batra said.
Though Govinda’s is located inside the Hare Krishna temple, the restaurant retains its independence as a non-denominational space where the public can enjoy a meal. “We keep the preaching out of Govinda’s,” Batra said. When asked, though, she did suggest a few tips for conscious eating: Eat relaxed, never rushed; enjoy dining with your family; and give yourself time around meals. “We just serve good food here, and that way, we serve up some good consciousness.”
243 Avenue Rd., 1-888-218-1040.
CORRECTION, FEB. 28, 2014: The original version of this article—as it appeared here and in the Feb. 27, 2014 print edition of The Grid—listed an incorrect phone number. The information has since been updated.