Note from the editor (me): I wrote the below during a specific period when me lifestyle was interwined with a deeply committed Ashtanga yoga practice and was guided by Ayurvedic principles and theory. Cooking became an integral part of my day. I was also living alone 😉
Notes on cooking
At that moment of me in front of my stove it’s me in front of my day.. All of my cares and all of my woes are there with me, and I’m the one that understands me best.. Cooking is there for nourishment, for growth, for an opportunity to take time out to connect our bodies and minds on an organic and fundamental level to that which regulates and unifies our system as a whole. Our days can be rough and they can be amazing, and when we cook it is our chance to reintegrate that healing and celebratory energy into our being.. Nobody knows us better than ourselves..
Cooking based on mood can be very good.. How am I feeling? From there we start.. Am I hot or cold, agitated or sluggish, dry or damp? Each type of spice and ingredient has its own set of properties such as being cooling or warming, calming or invigorating, oily or absorbent, etc. In keeping a sensitivity to these factors we can bring balance to our state of being, which is really the primary component in health and nutrition.
Our body and mind, in my experience, work on a system of balance and re-balance. At the center is peace and equanimity. When we go about our days we expend energy or have experiences that can sway us either to the left or to that right. In those cases the body and mind begin to ‘ask’ for what can recenter it. What we think and feel is often based on this action/reaction mechanism. In healing we bring acknowledgement to this factor and do what we do to regain our sense of center; in self-healing we take this opportunity for ourselves to recognize, express, and celebrate in what it is that nourishes and re-centers. It’s an important and necessary process of being human; it comes in a variety of forms, and cooking has been one which has had great value for me.
In my cooking I’ve cooked almost exclusively Indian food. It’s worked exceedingly well and is a lot of fun, too. Approaching it for the first time is not as daunting as one might expect. I got some good books which gave me a foundation and, now, after some time of following recipes, I feel comfortable improvising based on mood. (I recommend Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking and Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking, and Vasant Lad’s Ayurvedic Cooking for Self Healing.)
The recipes here are for rice and dal, a staple in the Indian/yogic diet, and the dish I cook the most often. It might seem like a dish with limitations, but in fact there are innumerable ways of preparing rice and dal. First, there are many many different kinds of legumes, each with their own different properties. Second, there are the spices themselves which provide a world of possibilities. Then, there is cooking method, in that the way both the rice and dal are cooked, the way the spices get cooked, and the order in which the spices are added all play a significant role in shaping the character of the dish. Also, Rice and dal is a good dish to make for those who are busy and need to keep the day feeling productive. With about 10-15 minutes of preparation, once the routine is familiar, the dal cooks on its own for about 25-30 minutes. During that time one can check email, clean the house, or make a call to grandparents/grandchildren, for example. I could have even had a pot of dal on the stove now as I’ve been writing this…
Notes on eating
In eating, take time out from the day, time out to connect.. eating is the chance to give our bodies and minds a rest and reconnect to the ‘bigger picture.’ It is important to recognize this and acknowledge it. Having eating be a moment for a mental time out is what helps restore balance, and bring clarity and joy to the rest of what we do. What do we with the mind during this time out? One way to go about it is to bring our minds to focus on taste. What is its flavor as it sits on the tongue? Each food has its own character and good food is there to be enjoyed. What does it feel like when the nutrients of the food which we ingest reach our muscles, blood and cells? The answers are instantaneous. If we are thinking (or talking) excessively over this process then we can easily miss out on the mentally nourishing qualities of the eating ritual. In addition, eating with a relaxed and steady mind reinforces those qualities as our body breaks down and absorbs the food. And, the inverse is true in that eating while agitated or nervous can bring those restless states back into our system, for example. Taking a mental ‘time out’ while eating will prove to be rewarding. Mostly, the moment to channel the mind towards a more relaxed state will in turn only positively enhance the work which has brought us to this point. Of course, this is easiest in ideal circumstances so that time I ate that deep fried twinkle while standing amidst the crowd in Coney Island had its own special set of conditions:)
I have a conceptual image for the notion of ‘soul food:’ the food that we eat is itself not which gives us energy, rather it only feeds a greater internal source which itself is responsible for nourishing the body. Much like adding coal to a fire, it is not the coals itself which provide the heat, it is the fire. Food is only surface level but really what fuels us is an inner energy, or fire, at the core. It is this core energy which keeps us alive. Food which promotes balance, growth, and well being is what allows a greater connection and higher functioning of core energy. Keeping this principle in mind helps emphasize the body as a self sustaining and regenerative mechanism. In connecting to the internal source which ultimately sustains us is what I consider to be soul food.
* A note on quantities: the amount of spice to add can be variable and depend on the individual. I initially got a sense for quantities by following amounts listed in recipes but now I can gauge by feel what seems appropriate. For the recipes presented here I decided to do a sliding scale of 1-4 to indicate amounts: 1 is a ‘pinch,’ 2 is ‘more than a pinch,’ 3 is a ‘good amount but not too much,’ 4 is a ‘good amount but with a touch extra.’