The U.S. Religions Census, a survey conducted every 10 years, consistently shows that New Jersey is one of the most religiously diverse states in the country. Nowhere is that more evident than in Somerset, Middlesex, and nearby counties where scores of Hindu and Sikh temples, representative of the continued influx of immigrants from South Asia, are found.
Food plays a vital role in the ritual and practice of Hinduism and Sikhism, and the temples provide food to sustain their congregants and build community among the faithful.
But these houses of worship are also some of the best places to find soulful and affordable South Asian vegetarian food in the Garden State. (It goes without saying that the locations suggested here are not restaurants, and respect to these spaces should be duly accorded.)
Sri Venkateswara Temple and Community Centers at 1 Balaji Temple Drive, Bridgewater
This no-frills canteen sells delicious South Indian classics— masaladosa, fermented rice crepes ($4.25), idli, steamed, fermented rice cakes ($3.50 for two), and vada, deep-fried, split black lentil fritters ($4.00 for three), accompanied by sambar, tamarind-infused lentil-and-vegetable stew, and coconut chutney, daily.
But the canteen offers an expanded menu on weekends, which includes regional South Indian specialties such as bisibelabath, spicy lentil rice from Karnataka ($4.00), and pesarattu, mung bean crepes from Andhra Pradesh ($4.50).
The eatery is open to anyone, but is mostly patronized by temple devotees. However, it is not uncommon to see students from nearby Rutgers University and employees of New Jersey’s many nearby pharmaceutical and telecommunication companies at the canteen, especially on weekday evenings (when the temple is generally less crowded). The canteen is open weekdays from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. and on weekends from 9:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
The Garden State Sikh Association and Gurudwara at 977 Washington Valley Road in Basking Ridge
Here, langar, a communal, vegetarian meal, is served to all visitors, without distinction of religion or background, for free on Fridays (9:30 p.m.) and Sundays (1:30 p.m.), after prayers. The Sikh tradition of langar is as old as the religion itself, and embodies the faith’s commitment to universal equality and service to humanity.
At the gurudwara (which has a Basking Ridge mailing address but is on the Bridgewater/Bernards border), congregation members cook the entire meal, either at home or in the gurudwara’s kitchen, for everyone who comes in that day. Langar usually includes rice, roti (unleavened whole wheat flatbread), dhal (lentils), yogurt, one vegetarian curry, and spicy pickled chutney.
While it is customary to sit on the floor while dining, the elderly or those with disabilities are welcome to sit at tables placed along the perimeter of the dining room. Diners are also required to cover their heads with a scarf or handkerchief during the meal service.
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in at 2500 Woodbridge Ave., Edison
At this location you can find a mini-mart that carries an impressive range of delicious mithai (Indian desserts) and savory Guajarati delicacies, beautifully packaged for takeaway. Of note: anjir pak, a fudge-like confectionary made of dried figs, sugar, and milk solids, and saffron penda, a saffron-infused semi-solid sweet made of sugar and milk solids, (both $6.99 to $8.99 per pound), and khaman, steamed gram-flour cakes garnished with mustard seeds, green chilies and coriander leaves, and handvo, baked, spicy, fermented lentil-and-rice cakes (each $3.99 a box).
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir at 112 N. Main St., Robbinsville
Further afield, in Robbinsville Township, a second sits as part of the largest Hindu temple complex in the United States. Inside, its Shonaya Cafe serves a plethora of Gujarati and Punjabi street foods, including perfectly-pillowy dahi vada, yogurt-soaked lentil fritters ($2.99 for three), and tangy-and-spicy pav bhaji, thick vegetable curry served with small, rounded bread buns smeared with hot, melted butter ($4.99), in addition to the sweet and savory snacks sold in the Edison location.
The Robbinsville Township cafe also has a cozy outdoor patio, but it can be very crowded.
Both BAPS Shri Swaminarayan temples are very welcoming to non-Hindus; the spectacular Robbinsville Township location has become a tourist attraction unto itself and offers volunteer-guided tours for small groups and an audio guide for individuals.
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Edison’s and BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Robinsville’s sweet and snack shops are open on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and on weekends from 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. The Shonaya Cafe is open on weekends from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Shri Krishna Vrundavana at 215 May St., Edison
This temple once housed Saint Nicholas Byzantine Catholic Church, and its Eastern Catholic architecture is still on display: a dome structure and incredible interior design. The soaring spaces now house gorgeous idols of Krishna, Durga, and Ganesh, and their beauty is only enhanced by the former church’s resplendent (non-representational) stained glass windows.
Prasada, food that is first offered to the deity and then distributed to worshippers for free, is prepared by volunteers and served daily at 12:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.
Temple visitors are invited to sit on the floor and partake in a simple, vegetarian Kannada meal. Dishes vary, depending on what is available in markets; on a recent visit, this reporter ate rice, potato-and-squash sambar, chayote squash curry, and huggi (cardamom-flecked rice pudding). Utensils are not used to eat prasada, and all participants are asked to help clean up after the meal.