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Forbes Magazine & Williams Sonoma
Nicky Moona, a chef, author and proponent of yoga-style cooking, was radiant in an emerald tunic Saturday afternoon, standing behind an eight-burner stove in the kitchen of a Midtown Manhattan Williams-Sonoma store.
“When you know how to use spices, you don’t need to rely on tons of fat for flavor,” she told an interested crowd, watching in various states of winter-wear undress.
“These dishes are low in calories and have virtually no fat,” she added, turning off the final burner beneath a foursome of Thanksgiving side dishes: green beans, Brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes and a cranberry chutney.
No wallflowers to a turkey show-stealer, each side indeed packed a wallop of flavor. Mashed potatoes saw not a pat of butter, but met instead with mustard seeds, curry leaves (a very subtle flavor), cilantro, salt and a small, slim green chili, split lengthwise.
Brussels sprouts, crunchy and bright, were paired with cumin seeds, garlic, a good cup of chopped red onion and a similar slim green chili. The cranberries were blended with ginger, jalapenos, curry leaves, mustard seeds and Himalayan salt, while the green beans found an unexpected ally in a shower of freshly grated coconut, which lapped up the spices, exuded a gentle sweetness and, after some time in the sauté pan with the beans and spices, added an appeal like homemade breadcrumbs, or that popular string bean casserole topping, fried onions.
“The green beans and coconut has kind of become ‘my thing,’” Moona laughed, adding in a faux whisper, “I have my mother to thank!”
Moona grew up in Bombay (now called Mumbai), where she had generations of women informing her cooking. With each woman passing down knowledge to the next, she said, her family and its community have been following a yoga style of eating for more than a century.
“It’s a lifestyle, not a fad diet,” Moona said during a call the day before. “It’s about eating healthy and trying to stay free of diseases, but at the same time you get a lot flavor. There’s a mentality that vegetarian cuisine is boring, but that doesn’t have to be the case.”
The yoga culinary tradition, which developed alongside the physical practice, divides food into three categories. Sattvic foods are those that should be eaten most often. The easiest to digest, and believed to contribute to “good health, energy, vitality, vigor, mental alertness, peace and strength,” as Moona describes on her Web site, My Yoga Kitchen, they include whole and unrefined grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, dairy, natural sweeteners such as honey, “therapeutic spices,” and small amounts of oil and clarified butter, called ghee.
Eaten more moderately are Rajasic foods, which are more gaseous, spicy, hot, bitter, salty, sour and pungent and thought to stimulate the body — a helpful thing during dark winter days. They include toor lentils, chickpeas, soybeans, chili powder, garlic, onions, coffee, tea, chocolate and wine.
Tamasic foods — meat, fish, eggs, alcohol and processed or deep-fried foods among them — are suggested in the smallest quantities. The most difficult to digest, they’re also thought to be the least beneficial to both body and mind, causing dullness, lethargy and heaviness.
While heavy and light are terms Americans can easily relate to foods, more foreign is the concept of attaching a psychological impact (beyond pleasure) to foods.
“The first group is good for the mind and the body,” Moona explained. “It’s not only easy to digest, but helps you calm down and de-stress from the day and in general deal with your emotions really well. When you’re eating fruits and vegetables and lentils it has a more calming effect than when you’re eating animal products.”
And those therapeutic spices?
“Spices originally began being used for their therapeutic properties,” said Moona, adding that because they’re nutrient dense, they also naturally increase one’s metabolism. Each with its benefits, yoga cooking focuses on seven spices: turmeric powder, coriander powder, red chili powder, asafetida, cumin seeds, mustard seeds and fennel seeds.
While asafetida, a resin from the root of a plant, is thought to aid digestion and respiratory problems, and cumin is said to flush out toxins and support immune function, turmeric is celebrated as the wonder spice, thought to contain anti-inflammatory properties and to act as a strong antioxidant.
Yoga cooking has traditional dishes for pregnant and nursing women, as well as for children and babies. A common first food, said Moona, is lentils with turmeric, a pinch of salt and ghee, mashed up with rice into a risotto-like dish. After eight months of age, other spices are introduced.
“The earlier you introduce a child’s palate to different spices and tastes, the less fussy they’ll be,” Moona suggested, adding, “Spices are really introduced to better their palates. But if they have a cough or a cold, these things are really helping, too.”
“There’s a perception that if you don’t give a child meat they won’t be strong. But look at India. Half the country is vegetarian!” she laughed. “Good health is so much about being conscious of having a balanced meal. We’ll have a meal of rice, lentils, beans, vegetables, whole-wheat bread — it’s a very tapas-style of eating, with many tastes, but all of it nutritional and balanced.”
A final tip I took away from the cooking demonstration: Seeds added to a dish late in the cooking process usually end up uncooked, Moona said. Instead, add them to the warm oil, before anything else is added to the skillet, and when you hear them pop you know they’re cooked and can proceed.
NICKY MOONA’S GREEN BEANS WITH COCONUT
1 pound of green beans, washed and cut into thirds
2 tsp. canola oil
A pinch of asafetida
1 tsp. cumin seeds
3-4 curry leaves
1/2 tsp. turmeric powder
1/2 tsp. red chili powder
1 tsp. coriander powder
1/2 cup of grated fresh coconut
Over medium heat, add the oil, asafetida and cumin seeds to a sauté pan. When the oil is warm and the seeds begin to pop, add the curry leaves and beans and sauté for 5 to 8 minutes. Add salt to taste, along with the remaining spices. Mix well and then add coconut, stir again and cook for 2 to 3 minutes longer, or until the beans are tender. Serves 3-4. * For a Sattvic version, add the salt and turmeric when indicated, but omit the chili powder and coriander powder