East of Carbon Canyon in Chino Hills, against the backdrop of Mt. Baldy and the San Bernardino mountains, rises a mandir made from hand-carved pink sandstone and marble. The property feels pulled straight from India but sits firmly in Southern California. Gold-tipped shikharas marking inner sanctums glint in the sunlight, inviting the faithful to prayer and reflection. Clearly visible from Highway 71, this is the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, or the BAPS Mandir, a place of worship for the people of the Swaminarayan sect. It’s also a deeply moving place to enjoy a meal.
Nearly every visitor to the Chino Hills location makes a pass through the Shayona Cafe, the mandir’s on-site restaurant and grocery store. While the fluorescent-lit restaurant may not offer the same charm and grace as other parts of the mandir property, it is an important gathering point for worshippers, travelers, tourists, and locals. Spread across both a daily hot food selection and frozen foods and dry goods over in the grocery area, 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. From traditional mithai (sweets) to classic comfort foods and snacks to foods made in accordance with Ayurvedic principles, Shayona has something for everyone who visits it.
Longtime Temecula resident and businesswoman Smita Vasant loves the mandir for its beautiful carvings, architecture, and peaceful ambiance; she uses the cafe to stock up on mithai and snacks when entertaining 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 cook (and is not herself a member of the Swaminarayan sect), Vasant’s shopping basket usually ends up full. A recent trip included sesame peanut burfi (a brittle-like confection), gathiya, and fafda (fried savory snacks), khandvi and dhokla (steamed savory snacks), and frozen entrees to supplement her home-cooked meals.
“Everything is so authentic,” says Vasant. “It reminds you of India. It is hard to pick one thing to like in Shayona.” She adds that her husband is “particularly fond” of the restaurant’s kadhi bhaat, an iconic comfort food for many Gujarati Indians in the diaspora. Kadhi is a yogurt 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 a few times per year and visits Shayona Cafe when she’s in Southern California. “Food is the main reason,” she says. “I always tell my friends who are visiting Vegas to stop by the mandir and pick up the list of foods we crave. My favorite sweet is the anjeer [fig] and dried fruit one, and dhokla. Kaju katli [a cashew nut confection] is the best.”’
Beyond the selection, Muthappa says that Shayona’s selections are affordable, taste good, and remind her of foods from India. Out-of-towner Veena Rao of Atlanta, who stopped into the BAPS mandir after visiting her mother in nearby San Diego, agrees. “I am a great fan of their buffet with seasonal entrees,” says Rao, “and their snacks, including thepla.” A thepla is a griddle-fried savory whole wheat flatbread, good for a mini-meal or snack.
Generally speaking, Hinduism includes guidance for Vedic practices for its food preparations and includes Ayurvedic principles, meant to maintain balance, harmony, and health. Unlike Hinduism as a whole, however, the Swaminarayan sect is relatively young. (Eater reached out to BAPS for comment on this story but did not hear back before publication.) It incorporates the practice of bhakti, a combination of prayer with song and service. Daily practices involve making food offerings, or a thal — a multicourse meal made with high-quality ingredients — to the deities several times a day. Meals often close with a betel leaf as a mouth freshener, served without additives like edible lime, catechu, or chewing tobacco.
Thals are influenced by the sect’s roots in Hinduism. The Swaminarayan vegetarian diet absorbs many Ayurvedic principles, including the concept of warming and cooling foods, and Ayurvedic guidelines around raw, cooked, and fermented foods are important considerations. Mind-altering foods like alcohol or warming foods that could distract from spiritual goals are prohibited. In addition to meat and eggs, unwashed grains, onions, garlic, red lentils, mushrooms, asafoetida, vinegar, and liquor are also prohibited. Fermentation for dishes like dosa or the popular dhokla (steamed rice and chickpea flour cake) is achieved by combining baking soda and lime juice. Deviating from Ayurvedic principles that favor seasonality, warming fruits and vegetables like eggplants, radishes, watermelons, and sugarcane are not consumed in the peak growing season.
Instead, Shayona’s menu changes in accordance with seasonal religious guidelines, and its offerings regularly attract first-generation Indians who don’t have as broad a frame of reference as their parents. Whenever first-generation Indian American Berkeley student Viha Umashankar visits friends in the area, she tries to stop in. “I rush to see if they are serving Gujarati daal,” says Umashankar. “It reminds me of daal that my grandmother makes. I could drink it by the gallon.” A Gujarati daal is a sweet-savory lentil preparation with the flavors of tamarind and jaggery cutting through an otherwise spicy dish; it’s nostalgic for Umashankar, whose grandmother lives in India. “Their undhiyoo is also very good, as are their lilva kachori — if I get my hands on it. They are always out when I go. I wash it down with a guava Maaza because I find everything very spicy, but oh, so good.’’
Undhiyoo is a seasonal specialty, made with roasted eggplants, and lilva kachori is another seasonal dish. These are dough-wrapped, filled, and deep-fried croquettes served with a spicy green chutney and a tangy tamarind chutney. Both dishes make rotating appearances on the Shayona menu, and often sell out fast.
Not everyone who comes to the Shayona Cafe is there to eat on-site, though. Some visit specifically for Shayona’s stock of traditional Ayurvedic food-based medicines. Local resident and avid home cook Purvangi Butani has lived in the area long before the mandir was built in 2011. Guided by her late parents’ religious views, she shops at Shayona for traditional Ayurvedic Gujarati winter confections or herbal supplements. Favorites include adadiya paak, made from split black lentils and ghee; vasanu, made with dried fruits, nuts, and wheat flour; and saalem paak, methi paak, and other traditional preparations suitable for overall women’s health. “Mom and Ba [maternal grandmother] would make [paaks] when they lived in India decades ago,” says Butani, reminiscing, “but these are tedious to make in small quantities. I never liked them when I was younger, so I never learned to make them. I guess now I eat it out of nostalgia.”
Like Vasant, Butani’s list of favorite snacks is long. For her entertaining needs, she purchases snacks like dhokla, thepla, and khakhra, though other members of her family are partial to the African chevdo, a snack mix made with shoestring potato sticks and dried fruits. Since a small section of Shayona is devoted to religious supplies, Butani’s shopping basket will also regularly include both cotton wicks and prayer beads for her own home rituals — this is, after all, still a place of worship.
Here, traditional cooking techniques, flavors, and foodways are consistently kept alive. Nearly every person who eats at Shayona finds familiar flavors and tastes, remarking often on the feeling of “home.” For some, home is a place in the U.S., where they live and work and eat; for others, home could mean India, or any other spot on the winding path that has taken them from here to there, via countries once colonized by Britain. And while food is not the sole centerpiece at the BAPS mandir, it is a core part of the sect and a distinct community space in Chino Hills. The snacks and seasonal dishes found here create a baseline understanding between generations, allowing older recipes to live on, conveniently packaged for the next generation, whose ties to the land of their heritage are often fragile and routinely challenged. Like all the best kitchens, its food wields the ability to connect people — to each other, and to a heritage they continue to hold close to their hearts.
The Shayona snacks and sweets store is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, while Shayona Cafe is open Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at 15100 Fairfield Ranch Road in Chino Hills.
The BAPS Mandir in Chino Hills is one of eight such mandir complexes across North America; the sect has more than 20 million followers worldwide and is part of the Hindu religion as a subset of Vaishnavism. BAPS, recognized for its powerful political ties, has also faced unsettling allegations: The organization is currently named in a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in New Jersey in May 2021 that alleges the group participated in the human trafficking of more than 200 workers from India brought to the U.S. to do building and maintenance labor at the Robbinsville, New Jersey mandir.
In October 2021, the lawsuit was amended to include four other locations, including the Chino Hills mandir, alleging that “R-1 workers who were employed at those temples also worked long hours for very little pay, suffering violations of their employment and civil rights.” The hourly salary for workers who labored at these temples is alleged to have been as low as $1.20, far below federal and state minimum wage standards. Spokespeople for BAPS denied the allegations to the New York Times in November 2021. Eater has reached out to the BAPS organization for comment about the lawsuit; the organization did not previously respond to comment for this story prior to publication.
Update: October 21, 2:48 p.m. PST: This story has been updated to include information about the pending lawsuit against BAPS.