Shayona Cafe, nestled in a Chino Hills mandir, is a portal to India
East of Carbon Canyon in Chino Hills, with Mount Baldy and the San Bernardino Mountains as a backdrop, stands a hand-carved pink sandstone and marble mandir. The property appears to be pulled straight from India but sits firmly in Southern California. The gold-tipped shikharas marking the inner shrines gleam in the sun, inviting devotees to prayer and reflection. Highly visible from Highway 71 is the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, or BAPS Mandir, a place of worship for people of the Swaminarayan sect. It is also a deeply moving place to enjoy a meal.
The BAPS Mandir at Chino Hills is one of eight major such mandir complexes in North America. The sect has over 20 million followers worldwide and is part of the Hindu religion as a subset of Vaishnavism. The innermost shrine includes the idols of its spiritual leader, Swaminarayan, alongside Lord Krishna. Many come here for their faith, others for a sense of community and cultural nostalgia. Most marvel at the intricately designed mandir and strive to understand its importance to the community – and nearly all visitors pass by at least the Shayona Cafe, the restaurant and the mandir’s grocery store.
Although the fluorescent-lit restaurant does not offer the same charm and grace as other parts of the mandir property, it is an important gathering point for devotees, travellers, tourists and locals. Spread across both a daily selection of hot, frozen and dry food in the grocery store, the cafe’s modest and mostly traditional offerings are a taste of home for many people of Indian descent and a taste of India for those who have never been there. the. From traditional mithai (sweets) to classic comfort foods and snacks to foods prepared in accordance with Ayurvedic principles, Shayona has something for everyone who visits.
Longtime Temecula resident and businesswoman Smita Vasant loves the mandir for its beautiful carvings, architecture, and peaceful vibe; she uses the cafe to stock up on mithai and snacks for parties or for Diwali. Before the pandemic, Vasant’s business, Saffron Spot, was the preferred ice cream vendor for mandir events, and while she remains an avid home-cooker (and is not a cult member herself Swaminarayan), Vasant’s basket usually ends up being full. A recent trip included sesame peanut burfi (a brittle confectionery), gathiya and fafda (fried savory snacks), khandvi and dhokla (steamed savory snacks) and frozen entrees to complement his homemade meals .
“Everything is so authentic,” says Vasant. “It reminds you of India. It’s hard to pick one thing to like about Shayona. She adds that her husband “particularly” loves the restaurant’s kadhi bhaat, an iconic comfort food for many Gujarati Indians in the diaspora. Kadhi is a yoghurt sauce tempered with spices and thickened with chickpea flour; bhaat is steamed rice.
Hema Muthappa, a resident of Las Vegas, comes to greater Los Angeles several times a year and visits Shayona Cafe when she is in Southern California. “Food is the main reason,” she says. “I always tell my friends who visit Vegas to stop by the mandir and pick up the list of foods we crave. My favorite candy is anjeer [fig] and a dry fruit, and dhokla. Kaju Katli [a cashew nut confection] is the best.”‘
Beyond the selection, Muthappa says Shayona’s selections are affordable, taste great and remind her of Indian foods. Atlanta resident Veena Rao, who stopped by the BAPS mandir after visiting her mother in San Diego, agrees. “I’m a big fan of their buffet with seasonal dishes,” says Rao, “and their snacks, including pla.” A thepla is a savory, fried whole-wheat flatbread that is ideal for a mini meal or snack.
Generally speaking, Hinduism includes guidance on Vedic practices for its food preparations and includes Ayurvedic principles, intended to maintain balance, harmony and health. Unlike Hinduism as a whole, however, the Swaminarayan sect is relatively young. It incorporates the practice of bhakti, a combination of prayer with song and service. Daily practices involve making food offerings, or a thal – a multi-course meal made from high-quality ingredients – to the deities several times a day. Meals often end with a betel leaf as a mouth freshener, served without additives like edible lime, catechu or chewing tobacco.
The Thals are influenced by the sect’s roots in Hinduism. The Swaminarayan vegetarian diet absorbs many Ayurvedic principles, including the concept of heating and cooling foods, and Ayurvedic guidelines for raw, cooked, and fermented foods are important considerations. Psychotropic foods such as alcohol or warming foods that could distract from spiritual goals are prohibited. In addition to meat and eggs, unwashed cereals, onions, garlic, red lentils, mushrooms, asafoetida, vinegar and alcohol are also prohibited. Fermentation of dishes like dosa or the popular dhokla (steamed rice cake and chickpea flour) is achieved by combining baking soda and lime juice. Deviating from Ayurvedic principles that promote seasonality, warming fruits and vegetables like eggplant, radishes, watermelon, and sugar cane are not eaten during the peak growing season.
Instead, Shayona’s menu changes according to seasonal religious guidelines, and her offerings regularly attract first-generation Indians who don’t have as broad a frame of reference as their parents. Whenever Viha Umashankar, a first-generation Native American student at Berkeley, visits friends in the area, she tries to stop. “I rush to see if they serve Gujarati daal,” says Umashankar. “Reminds me of the daal my grandma makes. I could drink it by the gallon. A Gujarati daal is a sweet and savory lentil preparation with tamarind and jaggery flavors cutting an otherwise spicy dish; it is the nostalgia of Umashankar, whose grandmother lives in India. “Their undhiyoo is also very good, as is their lilva kachori – if I get my hands on it. They are always out when I leave. I wash it down with a Maaza guava because I find everything very spicy, but oh, so good .”
Undhiyoo is a seasonal specialty, made with roasted eggplant, and lilva kachori is another seasonal dish. These are batter-coated, filled, and fried croquettes served with a spicy green chutney and a tangy tamarind chutney. Both dishes make rotating appearances on Shayona’s menu and often sell out quickly.
However, not everyone who comes to Shayona Cafe is there to eat there. Some visit specifically for Shayona’s stock of traditional Ayurvedic food-based medicines. A local resident and passionate about home cooking, Purvangi Butani lived in the area long before the mandir was built in 2011. Guided by the religious views of her late parents, she shops in Shayona for traditional Gujarati Ayurvedic winter confections or herbal supplements. Favorites include adadiya paak, made with split black lentils and ghee; vasanu, made from dried fruits, nuts and wheat flour; and saalem paak, methi paak and other traditional preparations suitable for women’s overall health. “Mom and Ba [maternal grandmother] would make [paaks] when they lived in India decades ago,” Butani says, reminiscing, “but these are tedious to make in small batches. I never liked them when I was younger, so I never learned how to make them. I guess now I eat it out of nostalgia.
Like Vasant, Butani’s list of favorite snacks is long. For her entertainment needs, she buys snacks like dhokla, thepla and khakhra, although other members of her family are fond of African chevdo, a mix of snacks made from potato sticks and fruits. dry. Since a small section of Shayona is devoted to religious supplies, Butani’s basket will also regularly include cotton wicks and prayer beads for her own rituals at home – it is, after all, still a place of worship.
Many Indian expats who visit this BAPS mandir end up closing their eyes and sighing: for a moment, they feel like they are in India. The sprawling complex serves its community in a variety of ways: as a place of worship, as a beautiful place to visit for non-observant locals, and as a destination for on-site dining or home cooking for those seeking a souvenir of particular flavor.
Here, traditional cooking techniques, flavors and ways of life are still preserved. Almost everyone who eats at Shayona finds familiar flavors and tastes, often noticing the feeling of “home from home”. For some, home is a place in the United States, where they live, work and eat; for others, home could mean India, or anywhere else on the winding road that took them from here to there, via countries once colonized by Britain. And while the food isn’t the only centerpiece of the BAPS mandir, it’s an essential part of the cult and a distinct community space in Chino Hills. The seasonal snacks and dishes found here create a basic understanding between generations, allowing older recipes to endure, conveniently packaged for the next generation, whose ties to the land of their heritage are often fragile and regularly questioned. Like all the best cuisines, its food has the ability to connect people – to each other and to a legacy that is always close to their hearts.
The BAPS Mandir is located at 15100 Fairfield Ranch Road in Chino Hills. Shayona Snack and Confectionery Shop is open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, while Shayona Cafe is open Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.