WESTMINSTER PEOPLE: Govinda’s chef Thirumalai Dhayalan
10 February, 2017 — By Alina Polianskaya
Food with thought: Thirumalai Dhayalan, left, and Jai Nitai Dasa
TUCKED away in a small road between the hustle and bustle of Oxford Street and Soho Square lies Govinda’s vegetarian restaurant.
Opened in 1979, it was one of the earliest purely vegetarian restaurants in London, which was later joined by the neighbouring ISKCON Radha Krishna temple.
“We are sandwiched between one of the busiest shopping streets in the world on one side and, on the other side, Soho,” says temple president Jai Nitai Dasa. “Right in between that is the most unlikely place to find this spiritual oasis” in a “desert of materialism”.
The charitable restaurant specialises in lentil soup, vegetable curry, chilli paneer and special thalis, which offer a combo of dishes. The food served at the restaurant is blessed every day as they are strong believers in the notion of karma. Jai, 44, says: “We don’t just feed people’s bodies, but try to nourish the soul. Every morning there is a little ceremony when the restaurant opens, where we bring some of whatever is going on the menu. We chant some mantras, ring some bells and say some prayers. Then the food is considered blessed. There will be no karmic reaction, it will be beneficial to the spiritual wellbeing of anyone who eats it.”
Manager and chef Thirumalai “Thiru” Dhayalan, 37, who originates from Tamil Nadu in India has been based at the London Govinda’s for 11 years.
But he first started working at the Govinda’s restaurant in Mumbai, India, in 1995.
“The food at Govinda’s, for me, is the top taste that I can have in my life – as well as my mother’s cooking. I learnt to cook in Juhu, Mumbai, the variety there is huge, it is the place you can learn everything.”
As for the Soho restaurant, he adds: “I realised that this is the place I want to stick around in for as long as I can. It was dear to our founder and it is very dear to me.”
As a charitable restaurant, profits go back into the temple and support their charitable work. As well as selling food in the restaurant, Govinda’s go out in a van to provide free meals, to everyone from homeless people to students and workers.
Thiru says: “We cook food here, then go out to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where we serve food from a van. It is all volunteer-based. We serve about 150 meals a day. It’s for anyone, you even get people queueing up with a briefcase.”
Their affiliate organisation, Food for Life, serves thousands more meals on a wider scale.
It all began with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) founder Srila Prabhupada back in the 1970s in Bangalore.
“Our founder saw some children going through a bin looking for food and he said, wherever we have a temple, we should give away free food so that no one goes hungry within a 10-mile radius,” Jai says.
They also do catering for private events, and have provided food for the likes of Vivienne Westwood and numerous Bollywood actors, and have served free food to hungry festival-goers at Glastonbury.
The Hare Krishna devotees can often be seen singing mantras and dancing through the streets of central London.
Jai explains: “The nature of the soul is it is pleasure-seeking, so when we are happy, we sing and dance. So this is a natural expression of the soul. Specifically, we are singing the famous Maha Mantra. We have been doing that since 1966 in the West. It means to free the mind, or to be free from the mind.”
Jai first became involved around 20 years ago when he moved to London from Armenia.
“I was always a bit of a spiritual seeker looking for something different,” he says.
“From a young age I was into yoga and meditation. I came to London, studied music, and found myself working in the financial sector. But there was always an emptiness, like there was something missing. I was always busy chasing after something and I didn’t know what it was.
“I knew that there was a requirement for something spiritual. Once I started to try the chanting and the Maha Mantra, it had such a profound effect on me that I lost the desire to chase after something because I became satisfied.”
The Hare Krishnas have become an integral part of the West End. “A few years ago a film company wanted to make a movie in London, but they couldn’t get the site they wanted so they had to do it elsewhere,” Jai says.
“They did a survey and asked people what they would need to see to know this is happening in London. Answers included black cabs, red buses and the Hare Krishnas. They wrote to us and asked if we can send 10 or 15 Krishna devotees to be dancing somewhere in the scene.”
And while the area changes, they hope to remain as they are for many years to come.
Jai adds: “I would like to say that we are kind of timeless and transcendental to the surroundings and hopefully we will still be here in another 100 years, doing what we do. We’re just happy being who we are, trying to give the good vibes.”