The Yoga of Small Bites

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.

stuffed okra

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.

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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.

Govardhana Puja 2007

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.

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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.

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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.

Heavenly Vanilla

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Few culinary ingredients evoke more passion or have the sensual complexity of vanilla.  In its direct, pure state, it is like heavenly ambrosia.  More often, it is the secret ingredient which compliments other spices and flavors, putting the final balancing touch to a dessert, pastry or the occasional savory dish.

Most of us have experienced vanilla through extract, a process that produces vanilla flavor through a medium of alcohol or glycerin.  The cheaper varieties are not even real vanilla, but a synthetic flavoring called vanillin.  When purchasing vanilla extract, I suggest making sure it is made from pure vanilla beans.

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The modern culinary revolution in America has increased awareness of long treasured, and often rare, culinary staples.  One of indispensable products used in high-end cuisine are vanilla beans, or more botanically correct: vanilla pods.  Not long ago I was contacted by a long-time friend living in South India who now lived on a farm and was growing Ayurvedic herbs as a livelihood.  He was also growing vanilla and wanted to know if I was interested in his crop.  When I asked whether the vanilla was organic, he described his product:

“I sun dry them, so they are organic sun dried vanilla pods. Or beans as most people call them. Vanilla is from the orchid family and the bean is actually a seed pod. You have to sun dry them and keep them wrapped in cotton and a wool blanket in a wooden box at night so they ferment. This fermentation brings out the aroma. Some big producers probably use some type of hot air blower in a warehouse to dry them.”

Vanilla

I agreed to purchase his crop and am now selling these wonderful heavenly pods.  If you are interested, please contact me at thevegguy@georgevutetakis.com.

Once you get the vanilla, my friend offers further suggestions:

“You can make an extraction out of some also with alcohol, I have heard that even Stoli vodka works. A friend of mines’ wife also told me she put some with the flour she bakes with for three weeks and it worked good. I am sure you know about putting it with sugar, coffee, etc. Cut length wise and keep in glass jar with sugar for three weeks.”

I usually prep the pods by cutting a slit lengthwise and scraping out the black vanilla paste to add to recipes.  I save the scraped pods and add them to jars of organic sugar, Grand Marnier or other infusible product.  After 2 to 3 weeks, the infused product is as strong as vanilla extract.  It makes the expense of the pods economical compared to the price of a good quality extract.

Please Visit Our Store

Many years of exploring traditional cooking techniques and preparing countless meals have influenced the choices I make when purchasing ingredients.  As a service,  I have created a marketplace to make it easy for our readers to find and purchase unique products which are fundamental to preparing fantastic healthy food.

Everything one needs to set up a kitchen and produce my recipes, with the exception of fresh produce, are available through the store. Here you will find items chosen from experience such as: Kitchen appliances; Pots and pans; knives and utensils; organic grains and flours; organic spices and herbs.

In addition, there are cookbooks, videos, yoga materials , gardening tools and supplies selected to enhance a harmonic lifestyle.

Shopping Links:

ENTER THE VEGETARIAN GUY STORE

ORDER ANYTHING ON AMAZON GREEN!

Small Cogs

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The world is huge and we are a small part of it, comparable to small cogs on an immense wheel.  Cooking is a natural part of this mechanism.  Beginning with foraging, every aspect of collecting, preparing and serving food connects us to the cycles of regeneration in this world.  Whether we admit to it or not, our lives are defined by this relationship.

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For me, the more I look into the food connection, the greater my sense of fulfillment and nourishment.  Often, many of us search for answers to universal questions in obscure places to discover the secrets of life.  One of the biggest secrets is something we deal with many times a day and is virtually right in front of us:  Our relationship with food is the source of good health and spiritual well being!

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Chapati Tales

All sorrows are less with bread.  ~Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

 

 

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The chapati may be the original bread…flat, without yeast and prepared over open fires.  The technique has been used for millennia and is adaptable to many different cooking circumstances, such as hot stones, coals or open flame.  The art of chapati making is often meditative and conducive for simple, yet elegant meals that focus on fresh and local flavors.

My first exposure to Indian food started in Cleveland in 1972.  The marvelously flexible and flavorful bread was served at the Hare Krishna temple on Sundays.  Soon, I became a regular, helping to make hundreds of chapatis in the clean and unpretentious kitchen that once belonged to John D. Rockefeller’s daughter.  I was shown proper ratios of flour, water and oil along with the best methods for making the dough by hand.  Taking on the job of kneading, I also learned how the dough was similar to the clay I was working with in pottery class at school.  Kneading and resting the dough were important for good chapatis: Ten minutes of kneading, then fifteen minutes of resting.  Sometimes, we would change the technique and “age” the dough in water overnight, which made the dough elastic and with a slight tang.  Often, we would seek the help of Indian women who learned the art of chapati making in early childhood.  I marveled how they deftly handled the thin rolling pins, turning a ball of dough into evenly rolled, thin, flat and perfectly round breads in a matter of seconds.  A talent passed on from mother to daughter for millennia, vividly displayed with fluid hand movements and perfectly puffed breads.

Living in the Northern Indian town of Vrndavan, I was immersed in a culinary yoga which maintained a strong emphasis on the balance between chapatis, rice, dahls and subjis.  The total chapati experience was revealed with the invite to lunch in local homes where I was able to witness this sweet perfection of Indian hospitality.  First and foremost, Vaishnava Hindu households always made a small portion as an offering to Vishnu first, thus “spiritualizing” the food and stressing the importance role food play in a life.  In a social setting, this was rarely shared with company, as the guest was made to feel as they were the only object of attention.  In my case, a desire to learn about food often brought extra demonstrations and detailed information about the preparation of food.  The menu was usually simple local fare such as mung dahl, basmati rice studded with black cardamom, a subji such as begun sak (eggplant and spinach) and, of course, a steaming fresh chapati.  Not just warm, but cooked to perfection, puffed up with a small vent of steam pouring out the top, just at the very moment the bread was placed on my plate.  As my fingers lifted the last morsel of tender bread off the plate, another fresh, perfectly prepared chapati would be placed in front of me…the steam swirling and beckoning.  This gastronomical ritual would continue until my belly could consume no more.  The most amazing part was that these experiences were merely daily lunches.  The sophistication of the food, high etiquette and attention to detail were simply how life was lived.

From The Hare Krishna Cookbook, circa 1973
From The Hare Krishna Cookbook, circa 1973, Copyright BBT

A “white” whole wheat flour works well.  The best flour to use is the durum whole wheat “atta” flour sold at Indian import stores.

To make this recipe vegan, place the chapatis directly in a covered container to keep the steam in.  

The chapatis will retain moisture and be soft for serving.  

Go Kan Mon

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Buddhist Principles of Dining

 

  1. Respect the labor of everyone who contributed to the meal 
  2. Commit good deeds worthy of sharing in the meal
  3. Arrive at the table without any negative feelings toward others
  4. Eat In order to achieve spiritual and physical well being
  5. Be dedicated to the pursuit of enlightenment

Sound

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When it comes to food, sound supports the other senses, placing us in a three dimensional experience.  Even though it seems to play a background role, the influence of sound on our heart and mind is perhaps the most powerful sense.  In Feng Shui and Vastu, sound is recognized as having the ability to create motion through vibration.  What we hear inspires us to react and that is why the aural environment is important in all stages of the food experience.  

 

According to Pythagorus, and confirmed by Plato, sound is the primordial element.  This is also embraced by the Vedas, which are considered the oldest books in the world.  According to these beliefs, sound is the original element that creates vibration for movement.  If we could hear across the entire aural spectrum, everything would have a sound, including the silence we currently perceive.  According to the Vedas, physical environments can change through sound and it is also an important tool for spiritual connections.  Sound is a key part of our environment affecting our mind, body and spirit.  Often, ancient Greeks spoke in song.  This is still evident through Cretan spontaneous poetry known as Mantinades.  Sanskrit is a poetic language, verbalized with meter and rhythm, often with melodious incantations.  Sanskrit is called Deva Nagiri, because it is believed to be the language of heaven and is structured in a way that creates change and movement.  Brahminical culture maintains chanting specific Sanskrit mantras can change matter and alter the cycles of action and reaction they call Karma.  

 

On more mundane levels, music can change moods, evoke passions and greatly effect perception. White noise and harsh noises can also make a difference.  Harsh words, arguing, criticism and expressions of anger are some of the more obvious vocal distractions that affect us in both subtle and gross ways.  Sound affects our mindset, bodily movement and clarity of spirit.  It is natural to see how an aural environment can influence cooking.  For me, cooking is an expression of what lies within, most often seeing myself as a conveyance of knowledge, tradition and creative expression.  As some people are eloquent speakers, my eloquence is in the language of food and all that goes with it.  

 

Choosing sounds

Often, traveling to Crete with my father and son, we found simple tavernas where waves lapped in symphonic meter by our feet while feasting on a crisp cucumber salad glistening with the liquid gold of fresh pressed extra virgin olive oil.  Local dialects epitomized the Greek word onomatopoeia, with mellifluous chatter beautifully decorating the aural landscape.  Mixed with the scents of the sea and the olive oil basted grills we entered a meditative state, much like Odysseus and the Sirens, where a concentrated effort to extract ourselves from the hypnosis was necessary to accomplish tasks of the day.
A visual landscape is dramatically enhanced by sound.  The transition from silent film to “talkies” is one example of the difference. Sound gives depth and definition to sight.  To create a fulfilling dining experience, chefs and restaurateurs sculpt the aural experience to compliment and enhance the sensual experience.  In dining, sound is a compliment to the meal, a background enhancement that soothes and excites indirectly. Anticipation and salivation are encouraged with the sight of food cooking uttering companion sounds like crackling, spurting, bubbling, puffing and sputtering.  Sound also plays a direct part as an accompaniment to taste, touch and aroma as food is consumed and we sense such things as crunching, slurping, chewing and swallowing.  In some old cultures, a good belch at the end of a meal signifies a cook’s success.  Listening, and becoming sensitive, to the sounds of cooking and eating is a very important part of the world of cooking.  Just as a spice can change the nature of a preparation, so what we hear when cooking and eating alters the food and how we digest it.  

 

Creating a Sacred Space

fort-stockton-sunset.jpg In the thick of sawing, sanding, plastering and painting, I often take advantage of the meditative opportunities. During these moments, I find inspiration in the Bhagavad Gita, where a pro-active form of spirituality is recommended: Yoga, not as an escape or retreat, but a linking action between the person, earth, sky and cosmos.  

So, I let thoughts form, not as the doer, but as part of what is going on.  In the midst of crafting a home my thoughts peruse preparing food, feeding people and teaching others.  Installing the kitchen while meditating on its function helps to gain a feel for the house and how it works.  Of course, there are frequent interruptions, often comic, as deadlines approach and Sara and I have some of our more romantic moments as walls are plastered and ceilings are skim-coated. Each house has its own personality and we are participants in how it evolves.  

A home as a sacred space is evident in how well it enables nurturing for those who reside in as well as for visitors. Some of the traits to look for are how the welcoming the home is, what role does the kitchen (the heart chakra nurturing center of a home) play, the flow and ease of movement as well as light and how it moves through the house.  One red flag that most of us do not think about is too much storage.  This encourages organized clutter and unnecessary attachment—big distractions to the unimpeded flow of energy. It is better to find a good home for that unused Nordic Track, than to store it for years. Recycling and sustainability encourage movement and flow Stagnation and clutter in a home is the energy flow equivalent to a blockage of an artery, creating potential for a stroke or a heart attack in the nurturing department.  Why the emphasis on nurturing?  It is a primal function of all life giving relationships.  To nurture is to encourage growth, whether it is spiritual or material and the Bhagavad Gita teaches us that the difference between spiritual and material is the purpose, not the element. Thus, a sacred space is a facility that encourages growth, flow and purpose, enabling whatever path the dweller follows.  In the bigger picture, the home should also add to the community through encouraging interaction and flow among all who pass by. Now, back to making that cabinet level and plumb.

 

In Search of Taste

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In Vrndavan, India, with a few friends, we would make the rounds of the exotic markets, old libraries and historic temples.  In July, at the peak of the season, we would find bright orange Alphonso mangos from a local walla and a watermelon from a farmer in the field.  In the cool,wide and shallow stream of the Yamuna river, we buried the fruit in the silty bottom.  We walked among the five hundred year old shrines, returning in an hour to harvest the chilled crop.  Certain mangos in India are unbelievable.  If one could conjure up an ideal fruit, this would be a prime canditate.  The easily peeled skin revealed a melt in the mouth, non stringy flesh that tasted like a cross between a pineapple and floral honey.  The small pit was the perfect size to suck the last drops of mango nectar from.  The Indian sun-drenched watermelons quenched the thirst and filled the stomach with sugary satisfaction that can only be had in the warm sun, cool water and sweet air of rural India.  In those days we lived a simple life, but experienced great pleasures through these fruits.  Whatever could not be finished were shared with passing locals, many of them sadhus, who appreciated the taste and the spirit in which it was offered.