When Punjab Grill closed its dining room in March due to the COVID-19 crisis, management at the luxurious modern Indian restaurant in Penn Quarter quickly realized the kitchen would not be operating at full capacity for awhile. As the team discussed what it could do with the resources available, the idea of creating langar, a community meal offered in Sikh temples, came to mind even before the decision to start offering takeout and delivery.
For Chef Jassi Bindra, it was an obvious and meaningful idea. The pandemic is devastating to different people in many ways. “If we can help with something as important as hunger, it’s a blessing for everyone,” he says.
Langar, an essential aspect of the Sikh community, is the free meal shared by everyone who comes to the gurdwara, the Sikh place of worship. Traditionally, attendees sit at an equal level on the floor and eat the same meal. Beyond a free meal, the ritual represents equality. It’s rooted in a rejection of the caste system in India. In a gurdwara, the kitchen is typically supported by volunteers, who also take part in serving the meal, irrespective of whether they are Sikh or not.
As a Sikh person, Bindra says that the “langar tradition is truly in my veins.” He has been involved in many langar meals at Sikh temples in his hometown of Kanpur, India, since childhood.
“Wherever there are difficult times, Sikh people try to reach [out] and provide langar to the needful,” Bindra says. ”Now when things are tough with the pandemic, the team is very passionate about providing an essential service to those in need.”
Since March 14th, Chef Bindra and team have taken fresh meals to Franklin Park downtown nearly every day to serve lunch to 25 to 30 people experiencing homelessness. Since the opulent North Indian restaurant opened for takeout and delivery, preparing the langar meal has been the kitchen’s first order of business each day. That’s still the case now that the Penn Quarter dining room is open for limited indoor seating. They continue to provide langar meals 5 days a week, usually Wednesday through Sunday.
The langar meal dishes change every day. Some popular items have been butter chicken and rice, chicken naan wraps, vegetable curry and naan, and chicken tikka sandwiches. Occasionally the team also serves non-Indian dishes such as pasta and noodles, keeping in mind the diverse community they serve. Staff members show up in masks and gloves to distribute dishes that are individually wrapped in takeout containers and offered with plastic cutlery.
Bindra says people receiving meals in the park have gotten to know the staff, identifying favorite meals and making requests.
“Most people are familiar with us now and everyone is courteous and kind,” he says. “They also know to maintain 6 feet within the line.”
The chef says that there have been times when passersby have seen them serving meals and spontaneously volunteered to join and help.
Punjab Grill first prepared langar meals over a year ago, when it was preparing to open. The restaurant recently decided to make it a permanent fixture.
“It’s the most rewarding part of our day to provide this aid to these kind people, and wonderful to receive their thanks and blessings for the meals served to them,” Bindra says.