by Lou Mancinelli
Honor the past. Respect the traditions that nourished your culture.
These are concepts that Maya Bhagat, former New York City corporate biochemist-turned Philadelphia School District high school science teacher once undervalued. But after a change in her career and a reintegration of the “Ayurvedic” cooking she was raised on, she’s now working to arrange her life and cooking according to tenets of India’s traditional methods and philosophies developed more than 5,000 years ago.
Bhagat, who asked that her age not be mentioned, teaches the Ayurvedic cooking style at Mt. Airy Learning Tree. This month she is teaching two classes, one demonstrating the traditional Indian method for making chai tea, another educating students about the basics of Ayurvedic cooking.
Ayurvedic cooking is as much rooted in learning to blend the right spices, often turmeric, coriander, cloves, cinnamon and/or cardamom, with rice and vegetables or legumes as it is steeped in philosophy. It’s a philosophy of cooking that incorporates the awareness of one’s consciousness and being.
It maintains that cooking is as much about the experience, energy and enjoyment of the cooking as it is about the balance of ingredients. “The spirit with which you cook and connect your energy transmits something far more,” said Bhagat.
In other words, you can feel the love, as it were. Bhagat explains cooking as a holistic enterprise. Hence, our affinity for a home-cooked meal. Grandma’s cooking seems to be just as much about grandma’s love and wisdom as it is about what’s for dinner.
Traditional Ayurvedic cooking maintains that certain foods are better for an individual at certain times of the year and at certain times in their lives. Each dish provides a balance of the six tastes — sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent — mixed with a vegetable, legumes, grains or meat. Bhagat advocates the use of ghee, a clarified butter with components that contribute to colon health. “Society has vilified butter,” she said, “but in fact, it’s used so normally in Ayurvedic cooking.”
For the Ayurvedic cook, everything in the dish has a purpose, and nature has provided the right vegetables at the right time. It was after the Beatles were exposed to ancient Indian philosophy that they sang “Let It Be.” So it is that Ayurvedic cooks prepare dishes according to the rhythms of nature. That means dishes composed of fresh fruits and vegetables when they harvest in the spring and dishes focused more on beans and grains in the winter. And Bhagat believes this concept can be applied to any dish in any type of cuisine.
“In an industrialized society we can get any vegetables at any time,” said Bhagat. “So now we’re confused in our heads … The easiest way to think about eating in an industrialized world is what’s for sale.”
Bhagat was raised in Zimbabwe in southern Africa, where she learned Ayurvedic cooking from her East Indian mother. It’s also where she was educated in biochemistry by British institutions, for at the time a white-minority (mostly British) ruled the country, then called Rhodesia.
She came to the U.S. 21 years ago when her elder family members decided the land of business was no longer southern Africa but America. Before coming to America, she developed an all-natural fruit bar similar to the frozen flavored popsicles that were later taken off the market because the price was too high compared to blends made of synthetic ingredients.
She worked in Manhattan in international trade and marketing as well as pharmaceuticals. But as the story often goes, the corporate world burned her out. Four years ago she moved to Center City. She questioned who she was, what she wanted. It led her to her roots, to a philosophy of existing with and of the universe as opposed to feeling pushed around by it like a boat without a rudder. Her new boat has a captain’s wheel, and she can manipulate the sails.
She became a certified counselor through the Institute For Integrative Nutrition, and she counsels individuals, groups and corporations. And last year she earned a master’s degree in teaching from Temple University.
In terms of both cooking and living, according to Maya, “It’s about basically taking a space and creating a whole nourishing experience and sharing that.”