An Ayurvedic Chef on Eating for Wellness and Beauty

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There's a poetry to the way Divya Alter talks about food. Simple edible items—peaches, broccoli rabe, cultured ghee—suddenly have a greater purpose, a higher vibrational currency. It's as though Alter unlocks nourishment's potential and our relationship to it.

"When we prepare the food, how does it feel when we're touching it, smelling it, tasting it?" Alter asks. "When we eat the foods mindfully, how does it feel on our tongue, in our stomach? How do we feel after we eat the food?"

All of this observation flows from Alter's deep love for cooking and the impact what and how we eat has on our lives. Food is more than sustenance, she says. It is a "friend that has transformed and uplifted" her. Having grown up in Bulgaria, Alter started exploring a "conscious relationship" with food when she was eighteen and interning in a yoga ashram kitchen. Her time there proved to be the catalyst for her path as a vegetarian and cook.

Over the past three decades, Alter's experience as a cook has taken her to different facets of the world.  She experienced a profound shift when she learned of Ayurveda while she was in India. The ancient healing practice helped to cure Alter's autoimmune and digestive issues. This inspired her to study the practice, specifically Shaka Vansiya, an ancient lineage of Ayurveda that factors in exposures to the stressors of modern life. Soon after, Alter became a certified nutritional consultant and culinary educator.

Today, she weaves in her wisdom in her gorgeous cookbook, What to Eat for How You Feel, and in Divya's Kitchen, her beloved Ayurvedic restaurant in the East Village of Manhattan. (Divya's Kitchen happens to be the premier vegetarian Ayurvedic eatery in the city.) In the cozy, intimate space, Alter prepares her customers seasonal, local dishes from scratch, brimming with nourishing herbs and healing spices. Comforting seasonal khichari stew with yellow mung, red lentils, and cilantro-mint-chutney. Warming vegetable curry with cashew sauce and cilantro-mint-chutney. Her food has life. 

"That's one thing that really inspires me about Ayurveda: It goes so deep into food, on a vibrational level," she says.

And there lies the true power of food—and of Ayurveda. When we lean into what makes us balanced—mentally, physically, spiritually—our life force is honored and our spirit elevated. Our complexion also glows, as beautiful skin is byproduct of good digestion, says Alter.

There's a cadence and simplicity to it—and, as Alter tells us, an accessibility to all.

A Q&A with Divya Alter

In your book, What to Eat for How Your Feel, you talk about foods that invigorate, foods that are lackluster, and foods that are depleting. Can you explain this?

This is based on the prana in the food. Prana is the life force, the energy. There is natural energy in food.

 For example, take a peach. You just picked a fresh preach from a tree. It's so fresh and vibrant and aromatic. You almost feel it pulsating in your hand. This is an invigorating food. It's full of prana.

And then let's say you leave the peach and you forget it in the fridge or on the counter for a week or two and it kind of wrinkles. It doesn't look fresh or full of life anymore, this would be more of a lackluster food.

Then let's say you take the peach and you can it. Or you microwave it. It becomes bad. The peach still looks like food, tastes like food, smells like food, but the prana is gone. That's because canning or microwaving really takes the life out of the fruit to extend the shelf life. This would be a depleting food now.

When you think about it, it makes sense. If you have a freshly picked peach, an old peach, and a canned peach, which one will you pick to eat? We rarely think about the prana and modern nutrition doesn't really address that. It's about the vibrancy—and that applies to skin care also, whether or not it's going to invigorate us on all levels.

If someone is interested in following an Ayurvedic diet, where do you suggest they start?

First I try to understand where the person is at right now. Everybody's is on a different level of cooking at home or taking care of themselves. I always try to support people taking the next step from where they're at, rather than creating an artificial ideal platform that they cannot maintain.

If they don't cook at all at home then I would just start with something very simple. In my cookbook, the Cooked Apple Pre-Breakfast is a great example. It's such a simple recipe. It really helps digestion and the skin. And it's a beautiful prebiotic food, it helps the friendly bacteria to thrive in the gut. It also helps elimination. It takes five minutes to make, and apples are available everywhere. A simple recipe like that gets you starting to cook.

If you're more of an experienced cook, say you cook most of your meals at home, then I would ask them, so how much leftovers do you eat? If you eat leftovers five days out of seven, then I would say why don't you try to spend more time on weekend prepping so you can try to have fresh meals every day. So that'll be a next step for some. Because leftovers are really hard to digest, they cause a lot of clogging and toxicity in the body. So again, it is all about meeting where the person is at.

Are there certain Ayurvedic cooking staples that you recommend somebody has in their kitchen?

In terms of spices, there are four essential spices that my teacher, Vaidya Mishra, used to say to have are: turmeric, coriander, fennel, and cumin. I call them the four super spices—and I have a super spice masala spice blend recipe  in my book. You can use these four spiced safely every day. I love spices, I cook with so many spices because different spices help digest different nutrients. There's certain spices that help with protein digestion or  carbohydrate digestion. But I would start with these four.

Black pepper is also good to have on hand. Black pepper helps digestion without overheating the body and it helps keep the channels open in the body. 

I really like to use the white Himalayan rock salt. I use soma salt, which you can only get it from one provider, Chadika, which is my teacher's product website. But also if you're purchasing Himalayan rock salt in the store, look for the lightest color. The darker it is, the more heating it is for your liver.

For anything sweet or for grains like rice, I would recommend cinnamon sticks. And if you want to do the apple in the morning, definitely get some whole cloves.

In terms of oils, I'm a big fan of cultured ghee. This is ghee that comes from cultured butter. It's much lighter than your common ghee and it's one of the best things for the skin also because it increases ojas, which is vitality, in the body. Cultured ghee is fantastic for keeping the skin moist on the inside. It travels very easily in the body and helps pull toxins out of the fat tissue, which means that somebody could use it to lose weight. It's a very good cooking oil because of its  high smoke point , so you can pan fry with it. It's absolutely delicious. A good quality extra virgin olive oil is great to have. If you're a very high pitta individual, which would mean you're very fiery, especially in the summer, you can use coconut oil for cooking. And sesame oil is great in the winter because it's more heating.

And then in terms of the dry ingredients, always choose whole grain and anything that's not refined. Depending on what your dosha balancing needs are, you can choose different types of core grains. I really love organic white basmati rice because it's very easy to digest and very nourishing. I also like red Bhutanese rice, which is low-glycemic and more nourishing than brown rice, while being much easier to digest. And then yellow split mung. This is a really good for making khichari, which is a staple dish in Ayurveda.

And then all fresh and local vegetables and fruits.

How should the seasons mandate what foods to eat?

It's always good to eat seasonal and local as much as possible. And seasonal in terms of the qualities of the food. So in the winter, you want to have more warming spices and warming ingredients. For example, amaranth is very warming. It's a really good grounding grain for the winter. In the summer, use more cooling spices like coriander and fennel and cilantro. So it's not just the seasonal ingredients, but also the seasoning that you use to create warming or cooling effects in the food.

Just like we change our clothes with the change of seasons, we need to adjust our food and also our diets accordingly. When I see people eating all these cold salads in the winter, I'm thinking "you're going to feel really cold after that." And you see, that's where awareness comes. That's where your food wisdom grows; when you pay attention to this. Because some people they just like to eat the same thing again and again, not considering what's happening in the environment. It's about slowing down to listen to your body. We're not taught how to listen our body. We need to learn that. And then make our decisions based on what we need to balance.

How does food impact beauty and skin health?

True beauty always shines from within, from your character beauty and your spiritual beauty. And, of course, the health of your body. You have the glow when you have good digestion, when your doshas are in balance, when your mind is peaceful and satisfied. And then outer beauty is a byproduct. Of course, we need to use good cleansers and products to maintain good skin. We need the full beauty package, so to speak. The internal and the external. And then we'll age gracefully. No matter how we look as we age, that inner beauty will always shine from within.

To learn more about Divya Alter, visit: divyaalter.com and divyaskitchen.com.

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