Couple apply Sikh tradition of hospitality
By Marijke Fakasiieiki
In the midst of fast food restaurants along North Division in Spokane, Taste of India offers food that is "good for the soul," said owners Ajit (A.J.) Singh Khinda and his wife Hardish Khinda.
They recently shared about their love of food, the joy in friendships that form around a table and their role in helping start two Sikh Temples in Spokane Valley.
The Khindas are celebrating 20 years as owners of the Taste of India, a restaurant at 3110 N. Division.
The Sikh community has a long-standing tradition of feeding and caring for people as part of their spiritual practice.
Three teachings of Sikhism include "Kirat Karo," being dedicated and earning a pure living; "Vand Chakko," sharing what one has with others, and "Naam Japo," praising God and giving thanks.
A.J. and Hardish see their restaurant as an extension of those Sikh values.
In addition to sharing their Punjabi cuisine with the community, over the years they also have served meals for charitable organization fundraisers, such as Second Harvest, Wishing Star and others.
Taste of India has been one of the mainstays at the week-long Pig Out in the Park, in which they participated annually for 18 years until COVID.
"Spokane has been good to us. We have many people who come back to the restaurant as friends and family, not just customers," said A.J.
Their path to Spokane, starting the restaurant and founding two Sikh communities was a long journey and many years of hard work.
Coming from a small farming village in Punjab, A.J. headed to West Germany in 1976 to seek a better life. He started with eight German marks, which he spent on drinks with a new friend. After befriending a Frankfurt resident, who saw he was a hard worker, A.J. was given 800 marks, which he used for rent and to help another friend. He was there four years.
When he came to the U.S., he landed in Seattle and did odd jobs at Pike Place Market.
"I was looking for a smaller farming community," said A.J.
While working in a Seattle hotel, he learned from a man from the Spokane area that Spokane is in the heart of a farming area, so A.J. decided to visit.
"I stayed in a hotel managed by a Pakistani. He was buying, renovating and selling run-down properties. When I signed my name as Singh, he asked if I was from India," A.J. said.
Having met few people in Washington from India or Pakistan, the manager encouraged A.J. to move to Spokane. So A.J. did and worked several different jobs.
His work ethic coming from past experiences of hardship led him into jobs in clothing, hotels, maintenance, property renovation, landscaping, farming and cooking. He saved so he could run his own business.
In Spokane Community College (SCC) evening classes, he was certified in heating, air conditioning and ventilation (HVAC). On graduating in 1996, he started, A.J. Heating and Air Conditioning, which he still owns.
A.J. and Hardish also recently built and opened Sammy's Pit Stop, a gas station in Spokane Valley. Hardish, who married A.J. 38 years ago in the Punjab region of India, studied to be a teacher and then a nurse.
"I came to Spokane from a small village in India to be with my husband. After we married, I had to wait for my visa for more than a year," she said.
On arriving, she worked while continuing nursing studies at SCC. Since graduating in 1998 and becoming a registered nurse, she has worked full time at the Spokane Veteran's Home on Fifth Ave. As a nurse, Hardish experiences the COVID pandemic every day.
"It's been tough, because I am an infection control nurse and staff development coordinator. On the front lines of COVID, I take it one day at a time, doing my best to follow the guidelines. Health care professionals must follow strict protocols to keep our residents safe," said Hardish, who is tested for COVID daily.
"A.J. always wanted to open a restaurant, but we didn't have money for that. We both worked while finishing school," she said.
In 2001, A.J. came home one day and said that the Indian restaurant where they sometimes ate was for sale and a buyer needed a silent partner.
They thought they would not have to work there, but then the partner left the business to them.
Because they knew many people in Spokane, and loved sharing their Indian cuisine, they decided that by working hard, they could do it.
They had much to learn, such as portion sizes and pricing meals. They listened to customers to determine spice levels and include seasonal produce in dishes.
Thriving on word of mouth, they draw customers from around the region and many stop on road trips on the way to or from Seattle, Montana, Canada and beyond.
"Customers appreciate that we welcome them as family and friends," Hardish said.
Changing COVID restrictions mean Taste of India has changed how they package and offer food. Much of their business is now online deliveries. That means adding delivery costs and eco-friendly packaging. It now helps them track customers, so they know they have many return customers.
"Now it's tough to find and keep employees, so the restaurant involves mostly family members who moved to Spokane and needed jobs," said Hardish
One of their two children helps manage the restaurant and gas station while studying engineering at SCC. The other, a Gonzaga alum who works in communications and health equity, supports the family businesses on the side.
For many years the Khindas, who are now members of the Spokane Sikh community, traveled to Seattle to meet with a Sikh community there.
Because there was no temple in Spokane where they could pray and connect their children with Sikh beliefs, they considered leaving Spokane. Instead, in 2003, they helped found Sikh Temple of Spokane at 1420 N. Barker Road in Spokane Valley.
After that temple grew to about 150 families by 2017, they helped found the Gurudwara Shree Guru Nanak Darbar at 12122 E Cataldo Ave. in Spokane Valley, with about 80 Sikhs and their previous spiritual leader, Baba Ajit Singh. They also sought to have more outreach to children and youth. Today Baba Ji Balraj Singh leads that congregation.
The Sikh faith began in Punjab at the end of the 15th Century, and currently has 25 to 30 million followers. Guru Nanak, the first guru, and nine Sikh gurus who followed him, developed the spiritual teachings of the religion. The Sikh ideal is for humanity to know God's will and carry it out.
Sikhs believe in one creator; unity and equality of humankind, engaging in selfless service, striving for justice to benefit all and honest conduct in one's livelihood, said Hardish.
A.J. and Hardish start each day with gratefulness and practice "Chardi Kala" to attain a mental state of optimism and joy.
They pray informally at home and gather weekends for services at the temple with the Sikh community. During the pandemic, gathering has looked different as people wear masks, stagger their visits to the temple and distance to keep everyone safe.
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