Jamaica biz offers food for peace

By Cynthia Koons

It’s refreshingly quiet in Annam Brahma restaurant at 11 a.m.

A swirling stream of water drips through the rings of a four-armed statue. Women dressed in saris trickle through the dining room en route to the kitchen. A stray customer wanders in from the streets of Jamaica and orders “the regular.”

Slowly, business at Queens’ oldest vegetarian restaurant ensues.

Since 1971, followers of Sri Chinmoy — a spiritual leader who promotes peace, vegetarianism and athleticism — have operated the establishment at 84-43 164th St. in Jamaica. The prices haven’t changed in 15 years, but the owners say that is becoming harder to maintain.

“We’re just trying to come up with new ways that we can cut cost to keep prices low,” co-owner Nishtha Baum said. “It’s been very difficult, and we’ve been struggling with whether we can continue to do that.”

At Annam Brahma (definition: “food is God”) entrees start at $3.50 and cost no more than $7.25. Most of the salad and burger items run from $3.25 to $4.95.

But don’t be fooled — none of their burgers contain meat.

“We’re all interested in trying to have a more peaceful life for ourselves,” Baum said. “One way to do that is vegetarianism because it makes your system very calm and quiet.”

While many items on the menu maintain a traditional Indian flair, some items are as un-vegetarian as burgers, meatball heroes, BLT sandwiches and hot dogs.

“Many people believe if you’re eating meat and fish, you take in the qualities of those animals,” Baum said.

In keeping with that mentality, those meals are made with soy meat products. While the Sri Chinmoy followers allow themselves cheese and eggs, they also cater to vegan diets, which do not permit the consumption of animal products.

“The body certainly needs to be nourished,” Baum said. “We’re actually trying to serve the person as a whole.”

She said it has not been difficult to introduce vegetarian cuisine to the surrounding Jamaica community. The restaurant is nestled among schools, a senior center and a hospital and serves their employees on a daily basis.

“We were written up in the newspaper because the doctors in the hospital were so grateful that we stayed open one snowstorm after another,” she said. “They talked about exactly that — what a service it is.”

Diner Lois Buck said she started coming to Annam Brahma when her mother was living one block away at Margaret Tietz nursing home.

“We’d celebrate her birthday here,” Buck said. “I still have a picture that someone here took of Sri Chinmoy with my mom.”

Her mother died two years ago. Buck has remained a loyal customer in her honor.

“We came here until the end,” she said. “We admire all that Sri Chinmoy and the all the ladies here do.”

She said neither she nor her mother were followers of the spiritual movement.

“I like the atmosphere in the restaurant,” she said. “It’s just so warm and homey. Usually they play music and it’s so relaxing and restful — peaceful.”

Baum said the restaurant prides itself on being an integral part of not only the Sri Chinmoy community — which operates a number of businesses in the neighborhood — but the public as well.

“We’re not so much out for big profit,” Baum said. “When we talk about our place, it’s not a business, it’s a divine enterprise.”

At the front of the colorful dining room, a pale lavender couch sits behind a plexi-glass wall, only to be opened when Sri Chinmoy or other dignitaries come to dine.

On the dinner table in front of the silky couch, a bowl full of very un-Faberge eggs sit, cracked open and emptied.

Co-owner Shephali Burke said those were kept for good luck.

No part of the decor is a permanent fixture, Baum said. Servers were experimenting with napkin-folding techniques to create new lotus flower centerpieces as Baum addressed the fluid face of Annam Brahma.

“It keeps changing,” she said. “It will keep changing, I’m sure, because that’s the way life is.”

Reach reporter Cynthia Koons by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.

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