Hey Steph,
We were just discussing what we’re going to be doing this evening. We were thinking that maybe we could meet for something to eat (if you’re cool with that?) at about 6:45 (if you’re in town) and we’ll show you a little secret. But, for this secret some rules apply:
– Shoulders & most of arms to be covered.
– Legs must be covered (at least past the knee).
– Must bring something to wrap & cover all your head hair.
So without giving the game away too much, what do you think?
Ciao,
Dale Davies

If you only have room in your brain to know three things about me, let them be this:

1) I love costumes
2) I love surprises—and secrets!—but am terrible at keeping them myself
3) I love food

Given these facts, you can only imagine how excited I was to receive the above message from our friend Dale, the Anglo portion of AngloItalian, Follow Us! Quite honestly, the only thing that could get me more excited about reuniting with him & his partner Franca while in Melaka would be to couch that reunion in a dinner swirling with mystery and a stringent dress code. Ok, having to dress chastely isn’t exactly the same as forcing friends to dress up like a spy or their favorite literary character (both themes for parties I have thrown, by the way), but travel teaches us to be flexible and given that there isn’t enough room in my backpack for flamboyant wigs or wizard robes, I will take what I can get!

When we arrived in Melaka, it had only been a few weeks since we had last seen Dale & Franca, but time moves differently on the road and time away from friends always seems too long, so it honestly felt like a lifetime had passed since we had bid one another farewell in Taiwan. As Tony & I walked towards our designated meeting point, a picturesque bridge just on the outskirts of the city’s Indian district, I was positively buzzing with excitement, the jaunty, jangling notes of Bollywood pop doing little to mitigate that.

P1051198

If I were to add a fourth thing to my original list of important things you should know about me, it would probably be that I am horribly impatient. Perhaps this is somehow related to why I am so terrible at keeping secrets, but pretty much, whenever I get it into my mind that I want to do something, I like to get it done right then and there. What can I say—the heart wants what the heart wants.

Thankfully, it seemed like the universe was in complete agreement with me, because we didn’t even make it all the way to the pretty little bridge serving as our rendezvous spot before muffled giggles from behind us caught our attention. Turning around, we caught Dale & Franca, twin impish smirks plastered across their faces, slinking towards us clearly intent on sneaking up and startling us. Gleaming grins to match theirs blossomed across our own faces, and we quickly pounced, capturing them in a big hug as a cacophony of enthusiastic greetings filled the air around us.

If not for our hunger, we might have stayed laughing and excitedly chattering at one another all night, so excited were we to be reunited and to catch one another up on all the adventures we’d had in the wake of our last meeting. But stomachs rumbling like thunder reminded us of our purpose, and our merry band of four set out through Melaka’s cramped streets. Dale & Franca had already been in the city for a few days and had a head start on us in terms of uncovering its secrets, so they confidently led the way, steering us through pastel-hued breezeways and a crisscrossing network of lanes that, like veins in the body, brought us to the heart of Little India.

P1051201

When we stopped in front of a Sikh temple (or as it is known in Punjabi, gurdwara, meaning “gateway to the guru”) I momentarily wondered whether the big surprise of the evening was that we would all be joining a cult or that Dale & Franca had found religion during our brief separation. Anticipating the line of our thinking, Dale hastily explained that a fellow at the hostel they were staying at had brought them here on a previous evening and that the temple had a kitchen that served up meals to people of all colors and creeds. He assured us that the food was excellent and—even more tempting—completely free.

Sometimes we do not recognize a presented opportunity for what it is—a chance to produce a ripple in the river of our life’s adventure that changes the course of our journey, however infinitesimally—and we let ourselves sail by without ever realizing that we have lost out. But sometimes it seems that certain opportunities are so important that they echo back at us, giving us another occasion to grasp them. I’ve learned that rarely does life provide us with second chances; if we do not find the courage to master our fear or our doubts when an opportunity first presents itself to us, then our punishment for our foolishness is generally that this first appearance winds up also being the last. So, when we keep drawing the same card over and over, no matter how many times we shuffle the deck, it is important that we recognize that this card is meant for us alone and that we be willing to tuck it in our pocket and carry it until the time comes to play it.

During our time in Singapore, Tony & I had walked by a beautiful gilt Sikh complex. Singapore is a country filled with many lovely and imposing buildings; so many, in fact, that it is easy to become somewhat inured to the allure of the architecture. But this Sikh temple was so especially magnificent that it quite literally stopped us in our tracks. While we were stopped, we managed to tear our eyes away from the graceful, glittering curves of its onion domes to read the informational plaque outside. Amongst other things, we learned that gurdwaras used to be popular pit stops for weary wanderers (and budget backpackers) because they munificently offered free food and lodging to any and all who requested it. Unfortunately, due to the abuse of this generosity by Western travelers during the 60s and 70s, Sikh temples in Singapore now only offer this hospitality to a very select few. At the time, we both remarked that it would be pretty fantastic to have the chance to sit down to a free meal at one of these places, though we both wondered whether we would actually have the nerve to request the service. Shrugging, we had dismissed the question as one that we would likely never have the occasion to really answer.

Standing with Dale and Franca in front of the Gurdwara Sahib in Melaka, that question came ricocheting back at me. The awareness that, despite the odds, an opportunity thought lost was being presented to us once more sent a surge of giddiness through me while also suffusing me with an unerring sense of certainty of what we had to do next. Twice now we had stood before a Sikh temple and wondered at the experience of eating amongst its disciples. But whereas we had walked away before, turning our backs on the taste of enlightenment, this time I knew we had to step through the gates and discover what awaited us on the other side.

P1090929
P1090931

When Tony & I enthusiastically nodded our agreement with Dale & Franca’s plan for the evening, all apprehension melted from their faces only to be replaced with the puckish grins of co-conspirators. Grabbing us by the arms, they ushered us onto the grounds and over to dozens of shoes, from cheap rubber flip-flops to kitten-heeled mules bedecked with intricate embroidery, that had been doffed in front of a large trough filled with water. Shoes are not permitted inside the temple itself—not even its dining hall—and prior to entering the building, all visitors must wash their feet. Additionally, all who enter—men and women—must do so with covered heads and, as Tony learned, this means using a turban or scarf, not a baseball cap. Thankfully, the temple has a basket of surplus shawls that can be used by visitors without appropriate coverings of their own, though the dubious cleanliness and patterns formed by stains of indeterminate origins certainly made us wish we had purchased our own sarongs already (truly the most indispensable of all accessories for travelers to Asia!).

Appropriately cleaned and covered, we then proceeded to the main prayer room, which was absolutely silent save for the rhythmic chanting of an older man who sat cross-legged on a raised platform at the back of the hall. Letting the lilting stream of Gurmukhi—the melodic language of the Sikh’s holy scripture—that fell from his lips wash over us, we individually walked up to his dais and each placed a 2 MYR note in the offering plate that was set before it. Although one can technically eat for free at the Gurdwara Sahib, standard practice is to offer a few notes as a token of appreciation for the temple’s generosity: in our case, we left the equivalent of $0.66US, which is a small price to pay for the feast, and the experience, that awaited us.

P1090936
P1051202

Before leaving the hall, we were intercepted by a local woman. Though my initial impulse upon her approach was to feel a bit chagrinned, worrying that she might call us out as interlopers, her face was open and warm, and her evident enthusiasm at our visit made us feel exceedingly welcome and soon set us at ease. She was happy to hear that we were there to enjoy the temple’s evening meal and was even more delighted to hear that Dale & Franca were repeat customers, so to speak. Before we left to eat, she told us a bit about the temple and its operation; in particular, she shared that the current prayer session that we were observing had begun a few weeks ago and would continue for another three months without any kind of pause or break in the recitation! When we expressed amazement at this, she smiled sanguinely and shepherded us into the dining hall, foisting plates into our hands and urging us to eat as much as we could. We smiled brightly at her enthusiasm and promised we would do our best to make her proud.

P1090939

From the moment we entered the grounds of the gurdwara, the generosity and kindness we experienced was almost overwhelming in its scope; these two actions are members of a small family of things that we can have heaped upon us and only ever feel lighter for their weight. The one possible exception to this is perhaps when it comes to food, for the volunteers standing at the buffet were so exuberant in the servings they doled out for us that we had a hard time carrying our hefty plates back to the long communal tables that were laid out in rambling rows. When we took our seats, we tucked into a veritable Punjabi feast:

P1090941
P1051209

Our plates were piled high with fiery baigan masala (spiced eggplant), a ladleful of thick lentil soup and tender potatoes (aloo ki dal) atop fluffy white rice, bitter melon that had been stuffed and then poached rendering the plump morsel delicious and mellowing out its more astringent notes, creamy puréed palak (spinach), lip-puckering cucumber achar (pickle), cooling and cleansing raita to soothe our burning palates, and flat chewy chapatti bread to mop everything up. For dessert, we were given heaping scoops of sweetened and spiced rice pilaf (a bit like a drier version of Indian rice pudding, kheer) and as many bananas as we could hold in our hands.

I’d like to be able to say that due to our weeks apart that the four of us didn’t fall upon the food like animals and instead gave each other the attention our separation deserved, but no. The food was incredible and we were all too busy trying to get it into our mouths as quickly as possible to bother with things like table manners or conversation; there would be time enough to talk after we had eaten our fill, but for a solid 20 minutes or so, the only sounds coming from our end of the table were those of chewing punctuated every so often with supremely satisfied sighs of delight. Everything was delicious and impeccably seasoned: there was a real finesse and balance to the spices so that all the flavors sang in harmony with one another creating a real symphony of taste that we just couldn’t get enough of. I was stuffed after just one plate, but the boys both went up for seconds; were it not for our desperate pleas announcing defeat, the ladies working in the kitchen would have happily kept topping them up until they were fit to burst.

It is a commonly held belief that there is no such thing as a free meal, and even at the Gurdwara Sahib, this is to some extent true: though no monetary remuneration is ever expected or demanded of diners, those who partake are expected to pay for their meal through the simple act of washing their dishes and cutlery after their meal. Dale and Franca had warned us that once you start washing you might find it difficult to stop as generally you are expected to perform this service so long as plates are handed to you (even by fellow diners shirking their own dish-washing duties). Replete from our feast, we were rolling up our sleeves and getting ready to get our hands wet when our friend from earlier sidled up to ask whether we had enjoyed the food. Seeing our satisfied grins and our bellies slightly distended from the epic meal, she bestowed us with a smile so wide that it eclipsed most of her diminutive face, and swept our empty plates into her arms. Despite the mass quantities of food in our stomachs, we collectively leaped to our feet and tried to insist that the least we could do was clean up after ourselves, but she was resolute: tonight we were her guests and as such, our dishes would join her own.

P1090937
Our new friend for the night
The dishwashing station
The dishwashing station

Long minutes passed in contented silence; we were only roused from our stupefied food coma by the return of our new friend who was briskly shaking the last drops of water from her hands. Beckoning us with a slight nod of her head, she led us back into the prayer hall, this time to a secluded corner. Turning to us, she spoke in hushed tones, inviting us to end our time at the temple by taking part in one of the holiest of Sikh rituals: known as karah parshad, the ritual refers to a crumbling sweet biscuit made of flour, sugar and ghee, which is considered extremely sacred as it believed to represent a taste of heaven. Following her directions, we kneeled before a woman draped in a sari the color of ripe aubergine swirled with turquoise and flecked with gold sequins the size of my pinkie fingernail that winked in the hall’s lamplight. Using both hands, we accepted the proffered karah parshad and then, remaining in the supplicant position, were careful to eat every speck of it, never allowing even a crumb of it to fall or touch the ground, for this is the greatest of offenses: that something divine should touch the earth.

P1090938

Though none of us were followers of the faith, we all felt very touched and blessed to be included in this ritual and it was the perfect culmination of our visit to the Sikh complex. Whether I believed in the symbolism behind the act seemed secondary to the fact that those who had invited us to eat of the karah parshad believed wholeheartedly in its sacrament and wished to share it with us. It may have been my tongue that had the taste of heaven bestowed upon it, but it was through my heart that I witnessed the spectacular beauty of the moment.

As I rose from the kneeling position, I felt a curious sensation that I can describe only as a lightness that stems from the feeling of deep satisfaction, the kind that seems to emanate from your very soul. Saying thank you to the two women for their kindness, we turned and walked outside to the courtyard where the sun, hanging low in the early evening sky, was beginning to dip below the horizon. Slipping on our shoes, the four of us linked arms, and as we headed out into the bustling, busy streets of Melaka in search of the next adventure, the added bounce in our steps made it feel as though for the rest of the night that our feet never touched the ground.

Written by: Stephenie Harrison


In another life, I moved from Toronto, Canada to Nashville, TN to pursue my doctoral degree in Psychology. That chapter of my life is now finished, but I did earn the right to demand you call me Dr. Steph (though I respond just as well to plain old Steph). I am an avid reader whose book collection is rivaled only by my many pairs of cute shoes. I also like to knit, hold impromptu karaoke parties, and try new and unusual foods. Generally not all at the same time. I also really love to learn languages, which may explain why I took 3 years of Latin in highschool. I'm turning over a new leaf, so instead of looking forward, I'm going to work on enjoying the present, so the country I'm most looking forward to is whichever one we're in right now!

We want to hear from you!

Required fields are marked with red.
Anything you share with us will not be published, traded, sold or otherwise used outside this site in any way, ever. We will not spam you.

We moderate comments, so if you haven't posted with us before and your comment doesn't show up right away, we will get to it, no need to post it twice. Thanks for your patience!

A comment is required.

Name is required. You can only use alphanumeric characters (a-z, A-Z).

CommentLuv badge

Read comments (20)

  1. November 20, 2013 at 6:27 am
    Nov. 20, '13

    That sounds amazing Steph! I often hesitate at activities around religious sites, wondering if it is okay that I partially participate or if I am being rude by taking part and yet not believing in my heart. I think your approach is right – to take in what you can and enjoy the hospitality offered.
    Gillian @GlobalBookshelf recently posted..Book Review: All The Pretty Horses

    • November 21, 2013 at 10:43 pm
      Nov. 21, '13

      Back home I would have been hard pressed to visit anything with a whiff of the religious floating about it, but on this trip I’ve been a lot more open about the simple act of exploration. It seems to me that Asia makes this particularly easy as most of the devotees we have encountered are really open-minded and seek to educate rather than convert. And above all, we’ve always felt very welcome—whether at Taiwanese temples or Nepali gompas—so that certainly helps too!

  2. November 20, 2013 at 7:16 am
    Nov. 20, '13

    What an incredible experience it sounds like you guys had there!! Where I’m from (Vancouver) has a huge Indian population, and my ex and I totally used to Gurdwara-roam when we were low on funds and hungry 🙂
    Rika | Cubicle Throwdown recently posted..Organization Addicts Unite (GIVEAWAY…WOOHOO!)

    • November 22, 2013 at 1:16 am
      Nov. 22, '13

      I am sure that Toronto must also have its fair share of Sikh gurdwaras, yet I never would have thought to visit one prior to this. Next time we’re back though, I just might have to check one out!

  3. November 20, 2013 at 12:24 pm
    Nov. 20, '13

    This post brings back some nice memories. I wish I could have that amazing food for dinner tonight with exactly the same company, where and when are we going to meet again? It’s your time to stalk us 😉
    Franca recently posted..Berlin’s Changing … But So Are We

    • November 22, 2013 at 4:53 am
      Nov. 22, '13

      Yes, this night would not have been nearly so special without the company we shared!

      I’d love to get my stalk on, but I need y’all to head somewhere less pricey (and preferably outside the Schengen zone!)… then you’ll never be rid of us!

  4. November 20, 2013 at 8:19 pm
    Nov. 20, '13

    What an amazing experience! I love participating in religious ceremonies like this when invited, even if I do not necessarily practice the religion. It certainly connects you to new people in a whole new way.
    Casey @ A Cruising Couple recently posted..Wildlife In Costa Rica | A Coffee N Jungle Night Hike

    • November 22, 2013 at 4:54 am
      Nov. 22, '13

      It’s definitely nice to learn about different faiths, even if I don’t subscribe to any of them. Given the openness we have been received at various religious complexes on this trip, the least I can do is repay these people with an open mind and heart of my own.

  5. November 20, 2013 at 10:52 pm
    Nov. 20, '13

    I’m really not into religion but I appreciate when temples give away food. Not because it’s free (I haven’t actually been there to ever eat the free food myself yet) but because of the act of kindness, sharing and community feel it represents.
    I’ve been meaning to go for a Gurdwara meal in Delhi.. and I’m sure that, just like yours, it should be a pretty interesting experience!
    Zara @ Backpack ME recently posted..FOOD PORN: a year of Food Around the World

    • November 22, 2013 at 5:00 am
      Nov. 22, '13

      One of the places I’d really love to visit in India is the Golden Gurdwara in Amritsar. It has so much history and is beautiful, so on those merits alone, it would be worth a visit, but now I know how good the food is, so obviously a visit will be in order! I’ve also heard you can spend the night there for a nominal donation, which could be a cool follow-up to this post…

      I agree that the fact that the food was free wasn’t really the best part of the evening we had, though. The money saved didn’t really matter (food in Malaysia is pretty cheap anyway), but the spirit behind it was really what mattered.

  6. November 20, 2013 at 10:58 pm
    Nov. 20, '13

    This was such a sweet story. I totally agree that even for non-religious people, an experience in places of worship can be transformative simply through the generosity that other people show. What a beautiful evening.
    Sally recently posted..Photoessay: Stunning Sunsets in Rural Korea

    • November 22, 2013 at 5:02 am
      Nov. 22, '13

      Yes, I think the key is just to approach things, religious or not, with an open mind and acceptance. When we go into things with a real desire to learn rather than to judge, that’s when the magic happens!

  7. November 21, 2013 at 6:08 am
    Nov. 21, '13

    This sounds like a wonderful experience! We went to a Sikh complex back in Toronto once, and I had mixed feelings about accepting the free meal because I didn’t want to come across as if we were taking advantage in some way. But the people were so generous and we felt so grateful, that everything about the experience was really positive.
    Jessica recently posted..Inside Super Typhoon Haiyan: Part II

    • November 26, 2013 at 10:07 am
      Nov. 26, '13

      That sounds pretty much identical to our experience. I think the people there could tell we were curious and had gone in willing to observe and learn, and that the free meal was just secondary. Because we were open to those around us and genuinely excited to hear about the temple and the rituals, I think it was clear we only had good intentions and those were reflected back at us.

  8. November 21, 2013 at 9:55 am
    Nov. 21, '13

    Awesome story, and the food looks wonderful!
    Mark Wiens recently posted..Chips Mayai (French Fries Omelet) – A Staple of Tanzanian Junk Food

    • November 22, 2013 at 5:03 am
      Nov. 22, '13

      Thanks, Mark. The food was spectacular, executed with love and real skill!

  9. December 6, 2013 at 7:59 am
    Dec. 6, '13

    Steph, you are such a good writer! With so many different blogs out there, I am tempted to spend hours reading a variety of them, but instead I always find myself absorbed in another one of your stories. I only hope that your plans include South America so that we can meet up! Anyway, thanks for inspiring me to add Asia to my travel plans!

    • December 7, 2013 at 9:14 pm
      Dec. 7, '13

      Rochelle, this comment made my day, so thank you for taking the time to leave such kind words! Thank you for stopping by and for reading and letting us know you love what we do; it means so much to us!

      No immediate plans to visit South America, but we never say never and it’s certainly a place we want to explore some day! We just can’t seem to leave Asia but we know the world is a big place and we’ve still got plenty left to explore! 😀

  10. Sheetal
    November 3, 2015 at 10:49 am
    Nov. 3, '15

    What a great article! Can you please share the address to this gurdwara in Costa Rica? I’m planning on making this a stop while I’m there!

    Thank you!!

    • December 6, 2015 at 3:18 pm
      Dec. 6, '15

      Hi Sheetal. We actually visited this Gurdwara in Melaka, Malaysia. We’ve never been to Costa Rica, so have no idea if they have gurdwaras there!

Leave a comment!