Culinary (and spiritual) adventures: India

by Irina Vishnevskaya, Tastemaker in Residence

In between apartments, continents and careers and on a whim followed by another late-night Googling spree I somehow ended up booking a month long trip to Rishikesh, India to spend time meditating and calming my mind at an Ashram. Translations: Rishikesh is a small city in northern India at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains. An Ashram is a spiritual hermitage or monastery; typically Ashrams are places where yoga and meditation as well as philosophy are cultivated.  

Although I feel like I could write a book about my experiences there (and watch out world, someday I just might) for now I’ll just list a few anecdotes from my time there in an effort to add a little spice, zen and peace to your day. That or simply some amusement. 

Open your eyes 

When I first got to the Ashram I was in shock (it might have been the long car ride, the three times we had to change a flat tire, or the jetlag). The Ashram was, like so many things in life, not how I imagined it would be. There was no real shower- just a faucet and two buckets. Everything was old. Really old. The bed was harder than a hardwood floor. Geckos were running along my room’s windows. I was in tears. I wanted to escape. I walked all the way into town (over an hour walk) to find an internet café, call my mom and cry. Sometimes we just don’t grow out of our childhood reflexes. I went to sleep my first night sad; mad that I did another crazy thing without thinking it all the way through. Between jetlag-disturbed dreams, I plotted my escape from India back to the land of warm showers and plush beds. When I woke up the next day in a sleepy fog and stepped out of the room, the beauty of where I was nearly blinded me. Surely this was a different place from where I was the day before. The day before I was so wrapped up in the crazy, frenzied world of my mind that I hadn’t noticed the Himalayan Mountains in the background, the Ganges River right under my nose or the beautiful garden underneath my feet. Yet I was in the same exact place. The sun was shining from the same angle, nothing physical had changed at all. It’s as though I had just cleared the grime from my glasses. It was about time.  

Shut up and eat 

The Ashram I stayed at had a small dining room fit for at most 30 people, and meals were served buffet style. We helped ourselves to as much Indian curry, chapatti flatbread, papaya as we wanted. And we sat and ate at long communal tables. These communal tables had one problem- they held signs that said “Silence Please”. I was appalled when I saw these. I was sure they had been misplaced. Did they really expect me, Irina, the girl who hasn’t stopped talking since she started at 11 months old to not talk during her favorite time of day- mealtime? The way I had been raised, mealtime is the most communal time of the day; in my family the kitchen is the focal point of the home and all major decisions in life are debated around the table during a meal. After instigating a few mini-revolutions by starting full out discussions in the dining room (and getting in trouble for it) I finally forced myself to, for once in my life, follow instructions. And guess what- it’s not that bad. It’s actually great to eat in silence. I mean with your full attention on your meal, not while reading or watching TV or anything. Just sit in silence and eat. You enjoy your meal in such a different way, it’s so much more rewarding, it’s an amazing way of recharging your batteries. And even if you’re sharing the meal with others, the energy that silence produces is really wonderful. Yes, it’s hard to bring into our modern lives, but even now, if I find myself eating dinner alone I try to resist the urge to check the news, read or call a friend. I just sit and eat. Someday I’ll have to introduce this concept to my chatty family and boyfriend. Though I think that’s a larger challenge than what I’m ready for right now. 

Monkeys like toast too 

One morning, a monkey waltzed into the dining room- calm and relaxed, as if he/ she actually belonged there, took one look at the plate I had foraged myself for breakfast, reached up, grabbed a hold of my bread toasted to perfection and walked out. I was dumbfounded. I’ve never seen a monkey that close before outside of the zoo, let alone been a victim of its theft. It was a gentle reminder to share, that nothing is actually “mine” and to laugh. Bon appétit to you, my dear monkey friend. 

Khichuri is the ultimate comfort food 

It might be hard to fill the shoes of your home-made grilled cheese sandwich, but Khichuri comes pretty darn close.  And it has one major benefit over grilled cheese- it’s actually good for you. Khichuri (pronounced: kit-che-riii), is a staple comfort food made in much of northern India and Pakistan. It is a rather simple combination of rice and dal, oil and a variety of spices. We ate it at the Ashram nearly every other night for dinner with Papadum (thin, round freshly made cracker). 

To make it at home: add spices like cumin seeds, mustard seeds, curry, garlic paste, chopped tomato and onion to a few tablespoons of your favorite oil.  Mix the ingredients in the bottom of a pot over medium heat then add rice, mung beans or dal (lentils). Add turmeric, red chili powder, garam masala and salt to taste. Pour a couple of cups of water over it and cook. It takes all of a few minutes to make and is incredibly warming, especially for these winter months most of us are stuck with. I also like to substitute rice with millet, quinoa or bulgur for added nutritional value. 

Namaste (hello/goodbye in Sanskrit) and a good day to you and yours. May you clean your glasses, shut up for just a bit, put down your cell phone and share your toast.