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a big pile of bananas and people dishing up food
Food is served at Guru Nanak’s free kitchen (Image: Shanti Mathias)

KaiFebruary 28, 2024

A night at the Sikh-run free kitchen in central Auckland

a big pile of bananas and people dishing up food
Food is served at Guru Nanak’s free kitchen (Image: Shanti Mathias)

At a community meal frequented by the homeless in central Auckland, expense and lack of choice aren’t far from anyone’s mind. But sharing kai nurtures relationships even in the most difficult circumstances.

As volunteers unfold trestle tables and unpack food from plastic boxes, the scent of elaichi and spicy tomatoes wafts across the concrete tiles in front of Auckland’s central library. It’s a warm evening in late summer and it’s nearly dinner time. 

Someone is making comments about the team’s slowness, asking when he can eat. Parneet Kohli, a young man with a red turban and a big smile, reacts calmly, asking the man to instead help put up a sign on the wall identifying the event: this is Guru Nanak’s Free Kitchen, a once-a-month community meal run by Sikh volunteers from across Auckland. 

“I know you all want to eat, but we’re going to say a karakia first,” says Kohli, to the group of people who have already lined up. The volunteers, wearing glowing orange hi-vis vests, gather in a circle, and Kohli speaks in Punjabi, expressing gratitude to his provider and saying that everyone is looked after by the same entity. Everyone chants together at the end, then it’s food time.  

The volunteers serve up rajma and rice on paper plates, and some people also get vegetarian burgers, a popular addition to the menu. I sit down next to Zara*, a young woman wearing a green hoodie and leaning against the library’s external wall. “I grew up eating vegetarian food, and most of the free food here is, like, sausages,” she says, making a face. “So when I see that there is rice and beans here, I thought – hey!” 

some volunteers setting up a table, grey toned building city scenes
Volunteers set up tables and food (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

Zara moved to Auckland a few months ago to be with her fiance, and she’s been living on the streets since then. She’s three months pregnant. “The morning sickness has been really bad,” she says. Not having much choice about what she eats has made it even more difficult: sometimes she craves bananas or chicken, and she can’t get it. “I wake up feeling sick, and I’m tired 24/7,” she says. She’s saved the dessert – milky kheer and kada prasad, a simple halwa blessed and served at all gurudwaras – for her fiance, who has a sweet tooth. 

She passes what’s left on her plate to him, and keeps talking to me. “Where I grew up [in the US] it was rough sleeping on the streets – at least here, it doesn’t get below zero [degrees], and people have each other’s backs.” She’d love to see a programme like food stamps to discount food, but appreciates the social aspect of seeing the same faces at breakfast in the city mission, and around town during the day. 

A few metres away, Guy has managed to score one of the burgers, which he’s saving for later, eating the plump kidney beans in the rajma first before trying the sweet, grainy halwa. A gangly, slightly grizzled man, he pulls out his earphones to talk to me. He listens to talkback radio and podcasts all day – Newstalk ZB, RNZ, Stephen Colbert – anything that isn’t music and stimulates his brain. “Anything I don’t pay for is my favourite type of food!” he says, although he admits that the different curries he gets from the volunteers at this gathering each month all seem the same to him. 

Living on the streets means it’s much harder to do your own cooking, but when he can, Guy likes to use the free barbecues in the Domain to cook some sausages or even steak. “You can just get some bread with it and it’s a meal,” he says. He also keeps an eye on some Facebook pages that have announcements about where to find free food at different times. 

volunteers in high vis vests serve food
Guru Nanak’s Free Kitchen volunteers relax as others serve food (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

“We’d be starving without people like this,” says Maria, sitting on the steps, wearing shorts. She’s finished her meal and is digging into the Whittakers chocolate in shiny blue wrapping. “I’d love to see more discounted food.” She, too, is often frustrated that she doesn’t have lots of choice about what she eats. Her favourite food is boil up – particularly good at the Avondale market – but she doesn’t get the chance to eat it very often. In the meantime, she’s grateful for what she has, a regular routine of community meals. “I’ll see you at the Tuesday meal at Homeground,” she calls to a friend, who’s heading out. 

Everyone’s now had a first serving of food and the volunteers are giving out leftovers in takeaway boxes to anyone who wants. “I’ve been coming every month since 2017,” says Aditya, who is standing by the water and tea canisters with his primary school-aged son Vian. “It means a lot to have vegetarian food, so people can get a taste of that too.” Vian joins in too, handing out cups and spooning prasad onto people’s plates. “I like to help people,” he says, then scurries behind his dad. 

To these volunteers, sharing kai is a vital way to express their religious faith as Sikhs. Guru Nanak, who they named their kitchen after, is the founder of Sikhism and the first of 10 Gurus revered by Sikhs. “It’s a way to express the idea that we are all equal, we all belong to God,” says Richard, another volunteer. An Englishman, he’s been part of the Sikh community for 20 years since he married into it – his wife and son are still serving food. “It’s this feeling – I get it at football games, too – that we’re all together, a special kind of life and force.” 

a smiling man in a red turban and orange hi vis vest - he looks kind and approachable
Parneet Kohli started GNFK after a visit to Edinburgh (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

Gurudwaras all around the world have kitchens, and serve food to anyone who wants it. The langar, or community kitchen in the Golden Temple in Amritsar in north India is one of the biggest, serving 100,000 people a day. Sharing food, always vegetarian, is an essential part of the faith. “You can travel anywhere in the world and find a gurudwara and have some free food,” Kohli says. 

It’s part of sewa, or service, which is a key tenet of Sikhism. Sikh groups are often at the forefront of volunteering – many were very involved in the response to Cyclone Gabrielle too.

Inspired by visiting Guru Nanak’s Free Kitchen on a trip to Edinburgh as a student, Kohli started Guru Nanak’s Free Kitchen in Auckland in 2017. It was initially just a one-off, run by the Sikh youth group, but they had so much support and so much interest that they decided to do it regularly. There’s now a GNFK in Wellington, too, joining dozens of others around the world, and they’re looking into starting something similar in South Auckland. Through Covid lockdowns, they kept handing out food at drive-thrus and by giving people food bags or responding to messages from Facebook. 

The food is cooked at the New Lynn gurudwara, using about 10-15kg of rice, and similar amounts of curry. A group of people get together on Friday to prep the food – chopping onions, measuring out spices – and another group starts cooking on Saturday afternoons, before bringing the food into town. 

“It made sense to use the facilities we had at the gurudwara,” Kohli says. They try to plan nutrient-balanced food with vegetables and fruit as well as carbohydrates. “If you’re struggling to provide for yourself, you just end up going for the cheap stuff, and it’s not that healthy,” he says. 

Kohli knows that a monthly meal doesn’t solve the bigger, structural issues that make food, and housing, hard to access. But a meal is one place to start. “It’s just something you need every day – it’s a fundamental,” he says. 

Just as important is the way that food can build relationships. As I speak to Kohli, we’re continually interrupted by people coming up to chat to him. He waves at Cookie, a man playing guitar on the other side of the steps, and answers questions about when the next meal will be. “I realised that a lot of people want to volunteer, but they just want to serve food, they don’t want to talk,” he says. “But I try to really foster relationships, because I think that’s what’s missing too – people feeling that they’re almost alienated from society.” 

Conversations can veer spiritual, with lots of people curious about the Sikh faith, or can be more casual catch ups. “We can go on for a while, find all these parallels between different faiths. It’s reassuring, really, and surprising – people really want to think and talk about this stuff.” Giving people needed food is rewarding, but adding to the understanding of Sikhism is just as much so. 

By 7pm, most of the people who came to eat have left, and the buckets of rajma are empty. The vicious tragedy of this country’s inaccessible necessities – food and housing – remains, but at least for this evening, bellies are full, rubbish is tidied away, and the sound of a guitar is still drifting across the library steps.

*Names have been changed, or just first names have been used, for interviewees’ preference.

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