Ayurvedic culinary expert Divya Alter, chef-owner of Divya’s Kitchen in New York City, talks about her relationship with food as if…well, as if she is in love.
However, this wasn’t always the case.
There was a time when Alter looked at food as nothing more than something to fill her proverbial “tank.”
With the hectic pace of everyday life, many of us have reduced food to the mere status of “fuel”; something that you put it at the last minute with the least amount of consideration.
“But the human body is not a machine, and many of the food-related issues that affect us, can be traced to our lack of awareness of the relationship between body and spirit.”
For many, the spiritual connection to food has been lost.
In what should be considered more than a cookbook, What to Eat for How You Feel: The New Ayurvedic Kitchen beautifully captures the importance of what and how you eat as a spiritual practice.
Through 100 Seasonal Recipes, and advice on cooking and eating “as a path to awakening,” Alter shares how Ayurvedic principles helped her cultivate a conscious relationship with food, and invites readers to re-connect with the spiritual essence and transformative power of food.
BJB: In What to Eat for How You Feel: The New Ayurvedic Kitchen you write, “Our relationship with food often involves a lifetime of learning and practice.” What is the first step to begin a conscious relationship with food?
DA: The first thing is the desire to know food as something more than just food in your belly. It’s similar to when you want to have a relationship with a person. You want to meet the person, and get to know the person.
BJB: What was the most difficult change in your relationship and perception of food?
DA: The most difficult part was for me to give up the foods that were not good for me, foods that I really loved.
I grew up in Bulgaria, which is famous for the very tasty nightshade vegetables — potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers. I grew these vegetables with my family, and I preserved them for the winter. I was so accustomed to eating them, but when I was ill, they caused inflammation and pain.
When I started to practice Ayurveda I was already a Vegetarian. As a part of my yoga practice, I avoided certain foods that Ayurveda recommends you avoid.
The Ayurvedic approach to eating is very similar to the yoga approach to eating. There is focus on mindful eating with respect for the food and those who prepared it.
However, I got sick. Even though I was a Vegetarian, I continued to eat foods that were not right for my health. As I neglected my health, it became the biggest obstacle to my spiritual practice. I couldn’t do a lot of the work I was supposed to do, or be of service. I realized I had to take care of my health.
I had severe digestive problems — I felt as if food became my enemy. The first thing I had to change was my approach to food.
One of my teachers said, “There are three things you have to take care of in this order: your health, your spiritual practice and your service to others.”
I had it the other way around.
The way I was using food was something to “fill the tank.” Improving my relationship with food helped me to experience food as my companion in this life; as something to help me to maintain good health so I can fulfill my purpose in life.
Being selective of the foods to favor and avoid to maintain good health, also helped me to realize that there were so many vegetables and other ingredients that I could use that I’d never used.
When I began to look at food as something that was meant to heal, that was another shift in my perception.
BJB: “By noticing how food makes you feel…this is how food can become your wisdom.” What do you mean?
DA: You begin to listen to your body and begin to feel the experience of food, not just on your tongue and in your stomach, but the physical and mental energy produced by food. There is so much we can learn from food.
When we eat the right foods it gives us mental clarity and inner peace. Food is a very big part of spiritual practice because it’s not just physical. It has a mental and emotional, and even spiritual effect. The mind is the vehicle for us to experience higher spiritual realms, so by clearing the mind by eating pure foods we have pure thoughts that open up to higher spiritual truths.
BJB: “Instead of looking at foods as mixtures of different chemicals, Ayurveda looks at foods as combinations of space, air, water, fire, earth…” Please explain.
DA: The cosmic energy that keeps us alive is called Prana.
It consists of the five physical elements: space, air, water, fire, and earth. Everything in this world is a combination of these elements, including food and the body.
Our unique constitution of the makeup of these five elements determines which foods to use as the balancing factors.
The Golden Rule of Balance in Ayurveda is like increases like and opposites balance.
For example, if you’re more airy, and you eat airy foods such as lettuce, or cabbage, or popcorn, then your airiness will increase. It may manifest as being gaseous or ungrounded. In this case, eating more grounding foods, such as root vegetables and grains will help you feel better.
BJB: How can you determine what type of digestion you have?
DA: In the book, I explain the four types of digestion according to Ayurveda — balanced, airy/irregular, fiery/acidic, earthy/sluggish. It’s pretty easy for us to understand how we feel after we eat.
When you eat, for example, if you get this burning reaction in your stomach and you have high acidic digestion, then you have fiery digestion. The stage before the acidity of fiery digestion is that you’re always hungry.
Now, imagine the metabolic fire in the stomach when there’s too much moisture in the stomach.
Some people have more moisture than fire and the moisture lowers the fire, which slows down digestion. A symptom for this is you feel very tired after you eat. You can’t really handle heavy foods and you have a low appetite. With this slow digestion, you need more fiery foods (ex. ginger) to dry up the moisture.
BJB: Ayurveda talks about food in the language of qualities that capture the food’s physical and energetic properties.
DA: The question is, how we experience foods in different parts of our bodies.
When we eat, first we experience the tastes on our tongue — sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, and astringent.
Then we experience the qualities of food: is it tart, crunchy, soft, moist or dry, heavy or light? We speak of food in terms of how we experience its characteristics. We don’t say, “Oh, I really feel the protein.”
Ayurveda goes much deeper into not only how food feels, but also how it transforms and what energy it creates in the body.
Rather than just chemical composition, it’s more of an energetic effect of the energies of these five elements and how different foods increase certain energies, or decrease certain energies in the body.
Modern nutrition creates recipes based on chemical composition with intended perfect ratios, but the foods may not compatible when they end up in your stomach. And on a digestive level, this can be harmful, so you’d experience negative reactions.
This is why it’s important to think about food combinations. Some foods are contradictory for digestion. When they end up in the stomach they fight with each other.
BJB: You write, “Two people can eat the same salad and one feels bloated while the other feels boosted.” Why does the same healthy food have different effects on different people?
DA: Different digestions break down foods differently.
For example, let’s look at it like the fuel we put in cars. You put diesel in a diesel car and you put unleaded in an unleaded car. Salad is an airy and cold food. Cold and raw foods need extra strong fire to cook in the stomach. When the digestive fire is low, breaking down food takes longer. Some of the food is semi-digested and turns into toxins.
BJB: What has been the most surprising and unexpected part of creating a conscious relationship with food?
DA: The incredible and unlimited variety of delicious recipes I am able to create with wholesome, non-inflammatory ingredients within the “limits” of avoiding toxic foods, and my reliance on divine intervention and inspiration.
Being born in Bulgaria, English is my third language (after Bulgarian and Russian). I would never have imagined writing an entire book in English.
In the writing of this book, creating recipes and being in the kitchen, I always felt I was doing something beyond me; like there is divine energy guiding me as an instrument.
During my life, I’ve tried so many other things. Spirituality was the missing link.
BJB: What affect does love and authenticity have on the food we prepare?
DA: The attitude, consciousness and heart disposition always manifests into the food. In the book, I mention that you should always cook with love.
When you cook with love, it comes from the heart and through your hands as an energetic current that circulates within the food.
When I train my cooks and students, I tell them if you’re anxious and worried about something, let’s talk about it before you enter the kitchen. Just as love transfers to the food, so does anger.
When we cook we are being of service. We want people to be nurtured and inspired when they eat our food. When we cook together at the restaurant, we cook with humility and work as a team. When I step out of the kitchen to greet the guests in the restaurant, people often tell me they can feel the love in the food.
At the end of the day, it’s not about how many people we impressed or how much money we made, but whether we were able to facilitate a loving exchange through service.
As it turns out Divya Alter is not only in love with food, but also with being of service.
Love wishes for the highest and best for others, and service contributes to the highest and best for others.
With culinary creations imbued with love and the highest intention to be of service, it is no surprise that patrons are drawn to Divya’s Kitchen.
It is clear she has found the missing ingredient:
Divya Alter is a certified nutritional consultant and educator in the Shaka Vansiya Ayurveda tradition. She is the co-founder of Bhagavat Life, the only Ayurvedic culinary school in New York.
She and her husband launched North America’s first Ayurvedic chef certification program and Divya’s Kitchen.
This interview was originally published on Medium.com.