NYC | Eating for How You Feel – Ayurvedic Indian Food at Divya’s Kitchen

As you will understand from reading this post further, I am a sensitive person. And while this affects many aspects of my life, I don’t know if it had ever affected my tastebuds until I ate at Divya’s Kitchen on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in mid-December. With the first bite of each dish I sampled, I felt like I was going to cry. I can’t tell you if it’s because of how the spices brought me back to Bangalore (where I spent four magnificent weeks in 2016), or because the experience was so beyond what I was expecting, or because the food was exactly what my body needed at that exact time, but the emotion was there.

You may be wondering what I mean by that the food was exactly what my body needed. And it’s an odd thing to say without explaining, I know. But the chef, yes, Divya Alter herself, came out to chat with me, took my pulse, and recommended what to order based on what she had analyzed. This isn’t an experience everyone will be able to have, as Divya is quite busy teaching classes, preparing the food, creating recipes, and running the restaurant, but there are other ways to figure out what you should eat, which I’ll touch on below.

I’d experienced the pulse analysis when I was in India studying Ayurvedic medicine, but I was learning more about the treatments than what we are supposed to be eating. In India, I’d understood that in Ayurveda (from Sanskrit, “the study of life”), all living things are made up of three doshas – Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. But I never really wrapped my head around what a “dosha” is and perhaps it was too intuitive to my doctor in India to explain it to someone who was just learning. Divya explained it in a way that finally makes sense to me, which I’m going to try to explain to you.

What to Eat for How You Feel

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Divya is also the author of “What to Eat for How You Feel”, a combination Ayurvedic guidebook and cookbook, with 100 recipes to make based on the season, time of day, and your specific dosha. I’ve been poring over it for the last month, even sparking a conversation at Christmas with my cousins, aunts, and uncles.

I’m making the oatmeal recipe as I publish this post. I’ve ordered yellow split mung dal and a nut bag to help me make my own almond milk (!) since I couldn’t find these items in South Jersey. For the last few weeks, I’ve started eating cooked apples as a “pre-breakfast” as is recommended in the book although I life-hacked it for the moment and mine is actually warmed applesauce. And I’ve continued to sip hot water throughout the day, as was originally recommended to me in India and was reinforced by Divya. I’m taking baby steps (maybe one day I will work my way up to peeling apples before I’ve had my coffee), but I’m so excited about it.

Divya’s message is that food can heal. Instead of depending on medicine to make you feel better, change what you are eating because that affects everything else in your body from your skin to your mood. Eat for your body type and for the season. Balance yourself naturally.

Work with me here as you read on because it’s important to know a few things before I get to the food.

A (Very) Beginner’s Guide to Ayurveda

The other day when I was watching Roseanne reruns (yup), I noticed that at least one commercial during every break was for something related to probiotics – whether it was for a yogurt, a pill, or a powder for shakes. That’s because America is starting to understand something that Ayurvedic medicine has been based on for thousands of years – the importance of digestive health. But what I don’t think the Western world takes into account as much is that our digestive systems vary greatly, and what is good for one person may actually be harmful to another.

Divya explained the doshas that I’d learned about in India as three different types of digestion that then affect each person’s composition. While you can be more than one type, it’s likely one is most dominant. It is unlikely to be completely balanced across the three doshas, especially without eating cleanly.

Airy Digestion (Vata dosha – space + air)

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By taking my pulse and perhaps by looking at me, Divya could tell I have predominately “Airy digestion”. Among other things, this means that my mind races, my skin is dry and sometimes affected with eczema, and my stomach is sensitive. I am constantly cold and eat irregular meals (I fill up quickly but then need to eat again soon after). It means I am slender, creative, enthusiastic, sensitive (sometimes hypersensitive), easily excited, and extroverted. Like air, I am constantly moving or working on something. Divya told me my mantra should be “Slow down and breathe!” and that I need to stop rushing around when I’m not even late for anything. I had to smile because although I was early when walking to Divya’s Kitchen, I purposely rushed by all of the slow tourists in my way. All of what Divya said rings 100% true and is how I have described myself previously.

Because of my digestion type of being “up in the air”, I need to eat more “grounding” foods as in things that grow close to the ground like root vegetables and leafy greens. I need sweet, comforting foods like rice, almonds, and wheat. Though none of us should be eating cold foods in the winter (I’ve always said I don’t like cold cuts or salad when it’s cold out), I should stick to warm foods at all times. I also need more sleep and some love – a massage, hugs, meditation, yoga – to keep me warm. Divya pointed out the importance of me connecting more with nature – which is probably why I feel so amazing when I’m hiking in a National Park or sitting by the ocean watching the waves crash in. While I love change, I also need a routine, something I’ve been missing for a whole year and a half.

Though I know much more about my own digestion type, I’ll touch upon the others since we are all different. While this quick description and an online quiz can get you thinking, the only true way to figure it out is to visit someone trained in the analysis.

Fiery Digestion (Pitta dosha – fire + a little water)

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The second type of digestion is “Fiery”. The traits of someone with this digestion type include a warmer body temperature, passion, ambition, a protective nature, a strong digestion (that could turn to heartburn or ulcers), acne or rosacea, perfectionism, irritability, and leadership skills. These folks can quickly go off on others when in imbalance, like a fire.

If you find the above description accurate for you, you may want to develop a mantra of “Chill out!” You’ll also want to consume cooling foods and connect yourself with the calming energies of water and earth.

Earthy Digestion (Kapha dosha – water + earth)

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The final type of digestion is “Earthy”. People of this type can experience oily skin, bloating, congestion, asthma, a good long-term memory, a slow and steady pace, and nights of good sleep. They are “rooted” in the earth when it comes to their routines (they are averse to change) and companionship (they are loyal).

A mantra you could develop if you believe you are this type is “Let go and move on!” as your long-term memory also means you may hold grudges and your resistance to change might be dragging you down too close to the earth. You’ll want to eat energizing foods that make you move and connect with air and fire.

General Eating Tips

Divya’s recommendations are quite simple and make a lot of sense. Eat when you’re hungry. Don’t eat when you’re not hungry. Don’t keep eating until you’re completely full (and need to unbutton your pants like I have done on holidays), keep your stomach about a third empty so that it has enough room to digest everything properly. If you’ve burped, you’ve gone too far.

Eat while sitting down without the distractions of the tv, a book, or your phone. Don’t drink anything cold with meals as its akin to throwing cold water on the fire of your digestion and could slow it down. Eat your largest meal at lunch because that is the time of day your digestive fires are strongest. Eat cooling meals in the summer and warming meals in the winter. Balance the different tastes in your meals – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, and astringent.

Fresh food is way better than frozen or even leftovers as the food loses its nutritional value. For this reason, Divya’s Kitchen starts from scratch every day, and even prepares their lentils separately for the lunch and dinner services. They also make their own almond milk (as I’m going to next week!) and grind their own flour in the restaurant, which I’ve never even heard of anyone doing before.

The Restaurant

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One more thing before I get to the actual food. Divya’s Kitchen is one of the coziest, warmest, most-welcoming restaurants I’ve ever been in. With its baby-blue tinted ceiling, white country-style chairs, and openness, instead of feeling right off of 1st Avenue, it feels like you’re in one of those restaurants in the South that is in an old home with a wrap-around porch.

Divya’s Kitchen is on 1st Street and 1st Avenue, so it’s easy to remember. It’s a block that has actually meant a lot to me in my time in NYC – with an Italian place I used to get fresh pasta at 3 a.m., the diviest of dives where you can get a free pizza when you order a beer, and a bar I had to cab to and from four times in one night because I forgot my ID and could not miss the party. And now, it’s a block with a restaurant that has become, with just the one visit, one of my favorites in the city and has already transformed my eating habits.

The Food

Finally. It’s not typical that in talking about a restaurant you write 1,700 words first about the concept of the food, but it’s important to understand that this isn’t just any old restaurant. But while this is about Ayurveda…it’s also about the food, so let’s chat about it.

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Divya started me off with the Focaccia with basil-parsley pesto (pictured above). As you can see, this isn’t your regular focaccia. While I don’t remember exactly what’s inside, you can tell from the picture that it’s healthy.  Healthy-looking food doesn’t always translate into something that tastes amazing. I was sitting across from the chef, so right before I bit in, I braced myself to make sure I didn’t make a face if I didn’t like it. But as you could tell from the first 9,000 pages of this post, I LOVED IT. It was a sign of things to come and at that moment, I was so excited.

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The next item Divya suggested I try was the Soothing Mung Soup (above) which is not something I would have ordered myself since I didn’t know what it was. I now know that it is yellow split mung dal (a type of lentils) with lots of spices (turmeric, curry, ginger, coriander, cumin, etc.) and ghee. This recipe is in Divya’s cookbook and I’m going to try it next week. The dish was exactly what the name is, soothing and smooth, and the combo of the soup and the biscuit truly warmed me to the soul on a night when I had to wear my sleeping-bag coat.

Though I’m not gluten-free, I decided to try the GF biscuit, made with amaranth and sorghum flours, of course milled by Divya and her team themselves. Their regular biscuits are made with einkorn (what wheat was before the American wheat industry changed it into something that many of us have trouble processing) and barley flours, so maybe someone who typically has trouble with wheat wouldn’t with these biscuits, but I’m not a doctor.

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As my main, Divya recommended Vegetable Curry, which again isn’t something I’d typically order. I have semi-joked that my body doesn’t need veggies because it doesn’t crave them. I typically think about eating raw vegetables and salads, but what my body needs is warm vegetables. And now, I’m starting to crave them, especially in the way they were prepared at Divya’s Kitchen. The curry has taro root (which Divya says is way better for me than potatoes, even though I eat potatoes 45x/week), carrots, green beans, cauliflower, zucchini, curried red lentils, beets, a cilantro-mint chutney, and basmati rice, in a cashew sauce. I also added leafy greens, a mix of spinach, kale, and I think collard greens. I tried each ingredient separately first then mixed them all together. Both ways were better than anything else I’d eaten that month.

To accompany my meal, Divya ordered me a digestive tea and then told me I could create it myself with equal parts cumin, coriander, and fennel, using unbleached tea bags, as they do in their restaurant. The taste reminded me of the seeds they have at the front of restaurants in India that you can grab, similar to a bowl of mints. This tea is another thing that I’ll be making myself.

For dessert, I chose a “heart-opening” rose tea and a rose chocolate mousse. I’d loved the flavor of rose so much when I was on Food Street in Bangalore and wanted to feel even more connected to my time there before I left and was forced to remember I was back in Manhattan. The mousse was beyond.

Though the menu is inspired by Ayurvedic and Indian cuisine, Divya has added some western staples for your pickiest friends. One of the most popular dinner items is their Lasagna {Cashew milk béchamel, broccoli, carrots, spinach, fresh mozzarella, house-made fresh cheese, basil-parsley pesto}. Sometimes it’s hard for people who do not have eating restrictions to pick a restaurant for a mixed group and vice versa. Divya’s Kitchen clearly marks the vegan and gluten-free options and everything is vegetarian. I can’t imagine someone being disappointed.

The food was so amazing that although I couldn’t eat it all (because of my Vata), I packed it up to bring home. It was so yummy that I brought it to a party that night, back to Weehawken where I was staying, back to the city, almost to an interview (that turned into a phone interview instead), and all the way back home on the bus to Atlantic City so that I didn’t waste a single bite. And even though Divya recommends having everything fresh and not eating leftovers, I purposely made it last for the next few days so that I could stay grounded right before the hectic two weeks I had ahead of me.

If you’re interested in trying Divya’s Kitchen yourself, please invite me! I don’t even care if we haven’t known each other in a decade or if we haven’t met yet. This food will bring us together.

xx

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Divya’s Kitchen for hosting me and to my friends at Escape To…by Fairkonnect for setting me up with the experience. Opinions and well-deserved praise are always my own.

3 Responses

  1. gut_instinct

    Wow! Great post! I can totally relate to the “airy” digestion (like you)! Eating warm foods and participating in warming activities such as massage does help, although I’ve never thought of those activities in connection to my digestive system before. Thanks for opening my eyes to a new way of thinking!

    Liked by 1 person

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