Across the country, top chefs have adopted serving a series of small bites to their discerning customers in order to present food at its purest and freshest state. In those culinary emporiums of the celebrity chef, the goal is to immerse the senses in the wonders of gastronomy. Through visual presentation, tactile sensation, aromatic teases and tasting stimulating flavors chefs are wowing their guests with magnificent plates and anticipatory service.
While the specific experience may be new, there is a long history for this kind of eating. While the great cuisines of Europe are directly rooted to the indulgence of monks in abbeys of the middle ages (and indirectly in Roman high-society excesses), there are also culinary traditions from areas of the world less exposed to the American palate, such as China, Thailand, Vietnam and India. One of these is the cuisine of Yogic India. Entwined with the ancient medical science of Ayurveda, as well as religious philosophies which espouse spiritual cooking and distribution of food, the yoga of cooking has been refined over fifty centuries of recorded history.
Many years ago, my personal culinary journey placed me in Vrindavan, one of the yoga epicenters of India. This was Krishna’s hometown and continues to thrive as a philosophical retreat with over 5000 temples and numerous spiritual schools, particularly inclined toward bhakti-yoga. I became enamored by the attention to detail placed on the food, not only in temples, but in households and street food as well. With a different approach than Western chefs, the food not only had to look good and taste perfect, but it had to be cooked “a-la-minute” and more significantly, also digest well.
The Ayurvedic philosophy of balance was present everywhere, but especially noticeable in the traditional main lunch meal, called a thali. This is where small bites came into play. Originally served on banana leaves with clay cups or stainless steel trays for the common man, it was also served pure silver trays for the aristocrats. Rice is placed in the center and small bowls of vegetables, savories, dahls, pickles, chutneys and raita surround it. In addition, freshly made pillow shaped chapatis are served with steam still spouting through a crack in the top.
The meal balances the five tastes and five mellows of Ayurveda to create an ideal healthy meal with abundant complete proteins, phyto-nutrients and anti-oxidants. Like the fine dining cooking in America, it is a complete sensual immersion, but unlike the West, one feels nourished and vitalized in body, mind and spirit with both sensual stimulation and dietary engagement. The senses are wowed, but they are also brought on board as partners in health. All ingredients were local and, without refrigeration, we shopped the market daily. In my mind, this is the gold standard for us to strive for. There were no leftovers and extras were shared with local sadhus and animals.
While my explanations cannot do them justice, it can be said some of these meals were instances that created rare tears of joy as I ate. The food was that good! The cooks who prepared those meals are still my culinary heroes and inspire similar attention to detail in every meal I prepare.