Divya Alter: Cooking the Ayurvedic Way

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – Cooking feels like a lost art in New York City. Given the number of culinary gems this city has to offer, opting out of dining out seems plain sacrilegious. Lately though I’ve been making most of my meals at home – and doing so by choice. It’s not easy - with the never-ending demands of caring for two newborns and the general supersonic-paced nature of city living, but it’s important to me that I bring my family together with home-cooked meals and nourish the babes with wholesome foods. I mean seriously, what’s better than fresh foods made with love?

While I’m not one to place a label on the types of dishes I cook (and don’t believe there’s one particular diet suitable for everyone), I’ve been making a conscious effort to prepare heart-healthy meals. These days, I rarely buy packaged foods and my shopping list consists of primarily whole foods (i.e. food requiring minimal processing). Though I’ve never been a junk food kind of gal, I do love baking and savoring sweets. So now instead of all-purpose flour, I  sub with almond or coconut flour; and rather than refined white sugar, I choose sucanat or turbinado. By making and eating what feels good, I’ve noticed a change in my body. I’m craving the healthier stuff.

Part of my journey to more wholesome foods was my discovery of the Ayurvedic tradition of cooking. Last November, I enrolled in an Ayurvedic cooking class with the lovely Divya Alter. Her class, which focuses on healthy, flavorful and fresh dishes, combines theory with practice. She begins by discussing the principles of what makes certain foods good for you and goes into the importance of achieving balance in one’s diet. Numerous spices and unfamiliar ingredients are introduced and discussed. Then we cook. The result: vibrant dishes, in a variety of textures and flavors, saturated with color and filled with nutritional goodness. Everything is vegetarian – and though I do eat meat – I’d have to say they are some of the best dishes I have tasted in my life.

Divya and her husband, Prentiss, started their non-profit educational organization, Bhagavat Life, six years ago to provide an array of courses based on “spiritual truths and tradition.” They traveled the world to countries like Guatemala and China leading mediation retreats, before planting their roots in the East Village three years ago and offering cooking classes.

 

Holiday: Tell me about Ayurveda.

Divya: Ayurveda is the ancient medical science of India. The original text dates back more than 5,000 years ago, so it has very deep roots. The goal of Ayurveda is to create and maintain balance on a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual level. Ayurveda looks at your body type and your particular ailments and imbalances, then recommends elements including food, routine, lifestyle that is meant to balance it. It has proven to work for centuries, when applied properly. What I love about it is that it’s so personal. We all have different needs, and a good Ayurvedic practitioner would be able to advise you on what exactly you need to maintain and be more balanced in your life.

 

Holiday: How did you discover Ayurvedic cooking? 

Divya: I was born in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. When I was 17, I decided to become a yogi and a vegetarian. But I didn’t know how to be a healthy vegetarian or how to cook.  I met a person on the street who was running an underground yoga ashram, and I went to check it out. They served this incredible feast there. I wanted to learn more, so I asked if they took interns.

Then, in 1999, I went to India and stayed there for five years. I lived in two holy places. One was located on the bank of the Ganges called Mayapur. The other place was the Vrindavan Institute. I studied philosophy and Sanskrit there. Living in India was such an education, though I got very sick at certain points and went to an Ayurvedic doctor. I learned from my doctor in Vrindavan, who gave a five-day course about self-healing and taught the basic principles of how to take care of your body. We had cooking classes, and I learned a few dishes from him as well. I also learned from family and friends there. When I was very sick in India, I had to cook for myself because most of the food available there was super spicy and I couldn’t handle it.

 

Holiday: The meals we cook in your class bear little resemblance to the Indian restaurant dishes I’ve eaten or the food that my mother-in-law makes.

Divya: Many people think Ayurvedic cooking is Indian cooking, but it’s not. It’s something that comes from India and uses a lot of the ingredients that are available in India, but the goal in Ayurveda is always to balance the palate. A lot of Indian food today is rajasic – it’s food that’s full of fire and promotes passion. It’s really spicy food, instead of sattvic – or full of goodness. It’s very heating. It makes the mind restless. It is the kind of food that very often imbalances you, especially in the West, where we’re already surrounded by a fast and stressful lifestyle. Our life is so stimulating here that we need more pacifying foods. If you have a very hot liver, which most of us in the West do, then eating spicy foods will only aggravate and cause more acidity and heartburn. 

 

Holiday: What are some of the basic principles of Ayurvedic cooking?

Divya: The first principle is to start with fresh ingredients, ideally seasonal, freshly picked, organic and without GMOs. Then there’s the proper combination of the ingredients, in order to ensure that the ingredients are not mutually contradictory. When they’re mutually contradictory it creates a lot of toxicity in your body. When I cook, I also think about how people are going to digest the food and how they are going to feel afterwards. Ayurvedic cooking is not food that stays in your body for too long and makes you feel heavy.

It is different from any other cooking because the goal is to prepare the food in a way that the prana – the energy of the food – is preserved as much as possible and at the same time the food is made easier to digest. The longer food stays in your body, the greater the chance of creating toxic residue. The goal of Ayurvedic eating is to be able to digest your food 100 percent. Food in Ayurveda is also used to cleanse. It nourishes while it cleanses. It’s the kind of food that makes you feel full at the end of eating, but leaves you light and energized.

 

Holiday: Is it an all-vegetarian diet?

Divya: Ayurveda recommends cooking for different kinds of consciousness. Some people really need to eat meat, their bodies require it, and some people don’t.  In Ayurveda, it’s often recommended to have a vegetarian diet  – I’m a vegetarian – but if you don’t want to be vegetarian, there are certain meats they recommend you eat, mostly turkey and chicken. They don’t recommend beef.

 

Holiday: Is Ayurvedic cooking more of an art or a science?

Divya: It is both. There is the theory behind Ayurveda, which makes it a science. The skills part is where the art comes in.

 

Holiday: I know so many people who want to start eating better, but don’t think they have the time to make meals from scratch. What advice do you have for them?

Divya:  It starts with a mental adjustment. Some people don’t think about doing certain things, while others do it every day. If you don’t cook at all, you have to mentally make space for yourself to start cooking. In India and in Bulgaria, it’s part of the culture. We cook three times a day. It’s normal to go home and make a fresh meal. Creating more of this culture would bring so much health to people’s lives. I would say, if you are very busy, start simple. One way of saving time is to use certain appliances. You can make a meal in a crockpot or slow cooker overnight. Also with a steamer, you can make a 3-dish meal quickly, one on top of the other. The most important thing is to make cooking part of your life and part of your culture. Make it a habit. Start with something small. Experience the pleasure of cooking and enjoying a fresh meal or sharing it with others. It doesn’t have to be a chore.

 

Holiday: What is a simple meal to make?

Divya: A one-pot meal like khichari will give you complete protein, and has vegetables and grains.

 

Holiday: What are the super foods of Ayurvedic cooking?

Divya: The super food is the food that will balance you.  It’s different for everybody. But there are a few foods that are good for all three doshas (constitutions). Tridoshic foods include asparagus, daikon radish, loki squash and mung dal.

 

Holiday: How about super spices?

Divya: Turmeric, coriander, cumin and fennel.

 

Holiday: You are working on a cookbook. Can you share with us your process of developing recipes? 

Divya: I have learned many recipes from my Ayurvedic teachers, Dr. Vaidya Mishra and Dr. Marianne Teitelbaum. I adjust them a little bit sometimes, but it’s basically their recipes. I have also taken a bunch of cooking classes. What I like to do as well is look at my favorite cookbooks, and if I like a recipe that isn’t completely Ayurvedic, I will apply Ayurvedic principles to it. For example, if it’s a dessert, I will usually reduce the sugar, change the flour, and add a couple of spices that will make the sweet easier to digest. I “Ayurvedise” it and turn it into a new recipe.