by Len Lear and Lou Mancinelli
Maya Bhagat is a biochemist, but the chemical experiments she is cooking up these days in the “laboratory” are actually quite tasty and healthful. And she will be glad to teach them to you.
Bhagat, who requested that her age not be mentioned, has also become a holistic health counselor and now teaches Ayurvedic (“the science of life”) cooking, the oldest healing science in existence, having originated in India more than 5,000 years ago.
Maya will be teaching five classes for Mt. Airy Learning Tree on Ayurvedic cooking — brewing tea, creating dishes with vegetables, beans and lentils, grains and vegetarian quiches — starting with two classes on Saturday, Jan. 31, at the Unitarian Society of Germantown, 6511 Lincoln Drive.
What is the key to making vegetables tasty? “Every encounter matters,” explained Maya, “from the feeling you have as you walk through the aisles choosing the vegetables to how you connect/vibrate with what you see. The vegetables ‘speak’ to you leafy, vibrant, fresh, solid, rooted, dense and comforting.
“The energy with which you cook the food impacts the flavors and receptivity, which is the transcendence between the chemical alchemy of the cooking of the ingredients. Why does mom’s or grandmom’s food always taste great? Because it’s cooked with heart. The vegetables create the canvas on which the therapeutic spices accentuate flavors. Food is medicine. Not just what is on the plate but beyond, including the conscious process and atmosphere in which it is eaten.”
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.”
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 because at the time a white minority (mostly British) ruled the country, then called Rhodesia.
She came to the U.S. 24 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 was later taken off the market because the price was too high compared to blends made with 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. Seven 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.
She became a certified counselor through the Institute For Integrative Nutrition, and she counsels individuals, groups and corporations. And three years ago she earned a master’s degree in teaching from Temple University. For the last five years she has taught in local public schools, currently teaching physics and chemistry to 11th and 12th grade students in a magnet school in the city.
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.”