The first time I met Divya Alter was by pure coincidence. An important lunch meeting prompted me to search for a vegan cuisine spot in New York’s East Village. We ended up at Divya’s Kitchen. Once you get out of the street, past other diners and settle in, you realize this is unlike any other place in New York City. It would be a mistake to call Divya’s Kitchen just a restaurant. Upon further investigation, you see a space of healing, learning and community. The most charming perk of Divya’s Kitchen is Divya herself. The chef has a well-trained staff, yet she is very much hands on and front and center. She might take you to your table, stop by to make sure all is as it should be, but best of all, she might give you her time and energy to talk about the menu. There is much to be learned from someone who has spent thirty years as a vegetarian, continues to be a devout student of the Ayurvedic lifestyle and gives back by teaching and promoting health and wellness at a nonprofit in the East Village. Needless to say, as a seeker of both mind and body healing, I will continue to come back to Divya’s Kitchen. Using food as medicine is yet another way to practice self-care.
Q & A With Divya Alter
PK: Tell me a bit about your background as a chef? When did your love of cooking Ayurveda dishes begin?
I fell in love with vegetarian food and cooking when I started interning at a Bhakti Yoga Ashram in my hometown of Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Aside from the ashram training and learning from a few amazing home cooks and cookbook authors, I am mostly self-taught. I did not go to culinary school because I did not want to touch meat, fish, and eggs (I’ve been a vegetarian for 30 years). I continued to learn local Indian dishes while I studied in India for 5 years. There I experienced the tremendous benefits of Ayurvedic healing and lifestyle. Over the past 25 years, every time I get sick (no matter where I am), I would meet an Ayurvedic doctor to help me. I met my main Ayurveda teacher, Vaidya RK Mishra, in 2009; he and his student Dr. Marianne Teitelbaum helped me cure an autoimmune disease. I was so impressed with the teachings and treatment protocols of his Shaka Vansiya Ayurveda tradition that I became an avid student of everything Vaidya was teaching. He taught me the theory and practice of Ayurvedic cooking like no one else. I’ve been teaching Ayurvedic cooking classes at our school, Bhagavat Life and writing recipes for the past decade.
PK: How can a life-long meat eater begin to incorporate vegan/vegetarian dishes in their diet? What advice would you give to those who start but give up on the idea of becoming vegan or vegetarian?
I don’t recommend becoming a vegan or vegetarian to be your dietary goal. You can be a vegan and eat very unhealthy foods. Make it a goal to eat healthy meals every day; make it a goal to live a conscious life of care for the environment and other living beings. Then it will be much easier to change and sustain a diet that supports your life values.
If you are scared of going vegetarian/vegan, start with small steps: try it for a day per week and gradually increase. Replace refined, processed, canned foods with their wholesome equivalents. Replace refined white sugar with wholesome sweeteners, white bleached flour with whole grain flours, hydrogenated oils with good quality olive oil, cultured ghee, coconut oil; table salt with Himalayan rock salt or pure sea salt—and so on. You will feel so much more nourished when you eat wholesome foods.
If you want to be a healthy vegetarian/vegan, you need to be more conscious of getting enough protein and other nutrients. Incorporate protein rich foods in your daily meals: lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds, organic whole dairy products. Ayurveda takes nutrition a step further – don’t just count the grams of protein but also consider whether you can digest it. Someone with weak digestive system won’t feel good after eating heavy garbanzo beans or plant-based meat substitutes. In my cookbook, What to Eat for How You Feel, I explain how you can cook healthy according to your digestion.
PK: What are your favorite ingredients and what are some special ingredients that you recommend people try at home?
I have so many favorite ingredients! My favorite cooking oil is cultured ghee, not the common ghee, but ghee made from cultured butter. It is so light and flavorful and satisfying, and it is an excellent cooking oil. At Divya’s Kitchen, we make cultured butter and ghee from scratch—by culturing organic heavy cream, churning it into butter and then cooking it into ghee—it’s very special. You can purchase a jar at our retail section and experience the difference.
My favorite salt is Soma Salt, white Himalayan rock salt that Ayurveda regards as the best of all, being most cooling for your liver. It is rich in minerals yet very delicate, I use it at home all the time.
One of my favorite vegetables is the artichoke. I love the grounding and alkalizing feeling I get when I eat it. And then, it is so good for your liver and gallbladder—it has numerous healing properties. You could cook fresh artichokes once a week as a preventative for blood sugar and cholesterol issues.
PK: Where do you source your ingredients?
For Divya’s Kitchen, we source our ingredients through wholesale distributors. In the summer, I like to order from Hudson Valley Harvest, a pick-to-order distributor of local produce. For cooking at home, I like to shop at the Union Square Farmers Market and our local health foods stores. Some specialty ingredients I order on line. Pure Indian Foods is an excellent online store for high quality organic staples from India. We source our traditional Ayurvedic spice blends from Chandika.
PK: How can we use food as medicine for the body and soul?
Our bodies have an inherent intelligence to heal.
To use food as medicine, you have to always ask yourself, “Is this food going to heal me or hurt me?” According to Ayurveda, every ingredient is good for someone but bad for someone else—one man’s food is another man’s poison.
Why? Because we all have different bodily constitutions and imbalances, and based on that, the same food interacts differently.
To learn what foods are medicinal for you, you have to first learn more about your body, what it’s current needs are. To be more specific, you can consult with a trained Ayurvedic practitioner. They can guide you in choosing the foods that are good for you right now.
Generally speaking, food is medicinal when it is lovingly prepared, fresh, easy to digest, invigorating, makes you happy and content. Such food restores the intelligence of the body to heal itself. Foods that are canned, processed, microwaved, frozen, denatured in anyway—our bodies have a really hard time handling those.
Food can also be medicine for the soul; food and cooking can become a path to spiritual enlightenment. There are many spiritual practices that incorporate blessing the food before we eat it. When you express gratitude by offering your food to its Creator, to nature, to those who’ve contributed to your meal, your heart opens to higher spiritual experiences. I always bless my food before I serve it or eat it. Find the practice that helps you experience that soul connection.
PK: Mental health illnesses, such depression, can take a toll on the body. Any recommendations for healthier eating and lifestyle that can provide us with energy and or overall feeling of ease?
Everything in our body is connected, and we are connected with everything and everyone around us; so yes, food can also affect our mental health as well.
Ayurveda always seeks the deep cause for every illness; it does not just consider the symptoms. Recommendations are very personal, with the goal to address the cause, and then symptoms naturally subside.
In general, you will get a lot more energy from freshly prepared food rather than packaged meals and leftovers. So I’d say, start by minimizing leftovers and increasing freshly cooked food. Replace artificial drinks and snacks with fresh ones.
Spend time in nature and with animals. Walking in the forest or barefoot on the beach, breathing fresh air, sitting by a lake or a stream, being out in the sun (especially before noon)—this is so uplifting to the mind.
I find it very therapeutic to hang out with cows. I like visiting the Gita Nagari Eco Farm and Sanctuary – they practice ahimsa (non-violence) cow care, and you can go and brush the cows, feed them, watch them roam in the pastures—it is so medicinal for the mind!
For Divya Alter’s recipes, visit www.divyaalter.com