Guests visiting a temple of Krishna for the first time are often puzzled by the ceremonial offering of vegetarian dishes to the form of Lord Krishna on the altar -- and understandably so. After all, what does the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent Lord want with our little plate of rice and vegetables? Has He suddenly become hungry? Hasn't He created countless tons of food? Isn't God self-sufficient? Does Krishna really need those offerings of food?
In fact, Krishna does ask for these offerings, not because he needs our rice and vegetable, but because He wants our devotion. In the Bhagavad-Gita (9.26) He says, "If one offers me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit or water, I will accept it."
When Krishna asks us to offer Him food, we should understand that He is actually inviting us to reawaken our eternal loving relationship with Him. At first we comply in a mood of faith mixed with duty; later, as our realization matures, we do it with affection and love. Just as anybody naturally offers the best he has to his beloved, the devotee offer Krishna his wealth, his intelligence, his life, and his vegetarian food.
Krishna is the ultimate beloved of everyone, but how can we offer gifts to a beloved we don't yet know? The Vedic tradition can guide us. If you would like to try, but can't follow all the procedures, you can remember that when the great devotee hanuman and his companions were building a bridge of large, heavy stones for King Rama, an incarnation of Lord Krishna, a little spider also pleased the Lord by carrying the largest pebbles he could.
First, reserve a special place for the offering. It can be a tabletop or an entire room converted into a temple. The altar basically consists of a raised platform with a picture of Lord Krishna and His eternal consort Srimati Radharani on it, a picture of Lord Caitanya and His eternal consorts (the panca-tattva), and a picture of the spiritual master.
The spiritual master accepts the offering of the disciple and offers it to his own spiritual master, who in turn offers it to his spiritual master. In this way the offering ascends through a succession of spiritual masters, until it reaches Lord Krishna. ISKCON devotees who have not been initiated yet, or who have received initiation from Srila Prabhupada, use a picture of Srila Prabhupada. Devotees who are disciples of Srila Prabhupada's disciples use a picture of their own spiritual master.
From the shopping to the cooking, meditate on pleasing Krishna. Look for the freshest and best fruits and vegetables. Shopping in supermarkets requires care and attention. There is more to it than simply avoiding obvious meat, fish and eggs. Take the time to read every label. Keep in mind that nowadays virtually everything contains some product of animal origin, although this may not be so easy to ascertain. And don't assume that products stay the same; they change.
Watch out for rennet (made of the lining of a calf's stomach and used to make cheese), gelatine (boiled bones, hooves and horns, used to set foods), lecithin (if it is not marked "soy lecithin," it may come from eggs), and animal fats. Many products have it. And if a product has a blank label or its origin is difficult to determine, don't buy it; the manufacturer doesn't want you to know what's inside. The same goes for products that are overly or exclusively coded with the infamous E-numbers.
There are also a number of products with specific characteristics that make them unsuitable for offering. Mushrooms are unofferable and you will not find them in the Vedic kitchen. According to the Ayurveda they increase the mode of ignorance. On top of that their nutritional value is practically zero. Digesting mushrooms takes more energy than they could ever give you.
Onions and garlic are also on the list. Although their medicinal values are highly praised in the Ayurveda, transcendentalists are recommended not to take them because they strongly increase the mode of passion, which leads to loss of concentration, patience and tolerance. Besides the commonly known types of drugs -- heroine, alcohol, tobacco, etc. -- also coffee, black tea and cacao are considered intoxication due to their effect on the mind. According to the Ayurveda these substances shorten the life span.
A number of these products can be easily replaced. In the Vedic kitchen we use asafoetida instead of onions and garlic. Chocolate and other cocoa-products are easily matched and sometimes even surpassed by carob, a powder coming from the fruits of the Carob tree (Ciratonia siliqua). Similarly, according to many the different surrogate coffees, such as chicory, taste better than real coffee. And after tasting the high variety of herb and fruit teas, you will not find it difficult to renounce the tannic-acid rich black tea that affects the stomach wall.
Offer foods in the mode of goodness, such as grains, beans, milk products, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. Countless recipes are available in the many cookbooks published by ISKCON and available to you by mail order. By cooking according to these established methods, you can achieve delicious results with only a small amount of practice
How to offer your food
One must cook in clean surroundings, with as little external distraction as possible. Make sure the family pet is not in the kitchen while you are cooking or offering. Please do not taste the food while preparing it, for you are cooking for the Lord and want Him to be the first to enjoy the preparations.
After you have finished the preparations, place a portion of each on new plates and bowls you have purchased just for this purpose. Bring the dishes to your home altar and place them before a picture of the Lord. One should bow down before the altar and, after rising, chant the Hare Krishna mantra for five or ten minutes. Those more advanced in the process chant three specific meant for offering food. But to start with, chanting Hare Krishna will do fine.
When you finish chanting, take the dishes back to the kitchen, transfer the food (now prasadam) into normal eating bowls, and wash the offering plates. After carefully putting the offering plates away ready for the next offering, distribute the prasadam from the offering plate, as well as the remaining preparations that were still in their original cooking pots in the kitchen (all that food is also offered simultaneously with the offering on the altar and is also called prasadam), and enjoy the transcendental taste of the spiritual realm. If you like, before the meal you can also recite the same prayers for honouring prasadam as the devotees do.