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.

April 2009 photos (73)

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.

Chapati Tales

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

 

 

kusum-sarovara

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.