India was on my mind a lot last week and for the first time since coming back in February I practiced ashtanga yoga every day. This weekend while taking a yoga class my teacher mentioned that just a few days earlier marked the four-year anniversary since Pattabhi Jois left this world. I wonder if in some subconscious way the energy of that anniversary had influenced me. This winter, I went to Mysore to study ashtanga at the Shri K. Pattabhi Jois Asthanga Yoga Institute founded by Jois and now led by his grandson Sharath and Jois’ daughter Saraswathi. I have been studying yoga for a decade and to study in this place, with the history and lineage going all the way back to Krishnamacharya, known as the grandfather of modern yoga, was an honor and probably more exciting than it should be. When you walk into the wide open shala space and practice on the huge, colorful, woven rugs surrounded by portraits of gurus on the wall and amazing practitioners from all over the world sweating next to you the energy is exhilarating. But little did I know, that one of the greatest and surprisingly richest experiences I would have in Mysore would be in the kitchen.
It was a hot December afternoon in Mysore when I piled into a rickshaw with a few friends from Venezuela, Argentina and California to go to lunch at Sandhya’s house in the Brahmin neighborhood of Lakshmipurum. The bright green and red slightly crumbling façade of her home felt cool and inviting. I left my shoes outside on the patio, entered through an unlit empty foyer and walked straight into a long narrow dining room stuffed with big tables, plastic chairs and smiling friends. Gorgeous bowls of fluffy aromatic rice, soupy dals, and bowl after bowl of veg dishes spiked with freshly grated coconut were placed on the table and quickly replaced when empty.
Most days during the high season (winter) in Mysore, a mecca in Southern India for ashtanga and vinyasa yoga practitioners alike, Sandhya will, upon request, cook a big, traditional Mysore style vegetarian feast in her home. She uses no onions, or garlic and very little oil so the food is sattvic, meaning, clean and pure, which appeals to her mostly yogi clientele. I was blown away by the distinct flavors of each dish: A rice with fresh curry leaves and peanuts, a bright yellow lentil dal, a sweet, tangy tomato chutney, pumpkin with fresh grated coconut, shredded carrots with home sprouted mung beans and warm flat wheat chapatti’s lovingly made one by one. All of it washed down with a warm, milky shot of sweet, spicy chai. While I was effusively thanking Sandhya at the end of lunch for the best meal I had eaten in India, I told her I would love to cook with her and learn her secrets. I never imagined she would say yes! And so began a week of chopping gourds, tempering dals with popping black mustard seeds, grating mature coconuts on the ground with a strange large metal contraption that you secure with your bare foot, rolling out thin chapattis folding them into triangles and then rolling them out again and again.
While the pungent tastes, the spicy smells and the colors were intoxicating; the stories that accompanied the recipes were almost more beautiful. Too often when you travel you get stuck in the tourist ghetto of seeing local sights without ever getting people’s stories. For three and a half hours every evening in between toasting spices and chopping okra, sitting cross legged on the tidy floor, Sandhya’s favorite place to cook, I heard Sandhya’s story—a story of India, a story of change. When she hit a hard moment and did not know what she would do for money or what direction her life would take, Guruji (the affectionate and reverent name for Pattabhi Jois), told her not to worry, and that “all will come.” He discreetly directed some of his yoga students who were looking for a place to stay to her home. She cooked for these students who lived there and they would invite their friends. Soon word of Sandhya’s delicious cooking spread and the continuous flow of hungry yogis has not stopped since.
For me, Sandhya’s home was a magical venue: delicious food, warm people, friendly cats who would coil their tails around my legs and a papaya tree in the backyard that produced perfect seedless papayas with gorgeous light orange flesh. My friend Dorota from Poland who was learning with me at Sandhya’s teased me saying that I would make a great journalist because of all the questions I asked – not just about the food, but about everything else. It’s what I love about food. It’s the perfect excuse to talk about everything else. It creates a common ground that makes people relax, let their guard down and let you into their lives. Often what you take away are not the recipes, or even the stories themselves, but the interconnectedness, the life lessons.
Over the two months I spent in India practicing yoga and traveling, Sandhya’s first person account of her life taught me more about the history and the changing ways of modern life in Southern India than any guidebook. In many respects, it’s not so different from everywhere else: people are working more, eating at home less, social roles are changing, good clean food is harder to find with the infiltration of cheap food, you need to make the same conscious decisions about how you want to eat and live, and about what you are saying by the things you buy. You need to support and sustain your local growers and artisans and choose quality over quantity. To make her famous chapattis she buys organic wheat, ground fresh by people she knows every week. She never buys packaged fruits or vegetables, which can be dangerous there and always tries to stay close to the source of her food. But what stayed with me the most was the story she told me about Guruji, it reinforced what I was learning over and over again through studying philosophy, meditating, talking with swamis in caves, and by getting on my mat everyday: The answer you are looking for is inside of yourself and “all will come”.
*If you like vegetarian cooking you should definitely pick up Sandhya’s cookbook Mysore Style Cooking there there are so many great recipes inside. I can’t recommend it enough!
**All photos in this post snapped on the fly in Mysore with my iPhone, which also doubled as a trusty flashlight when the lights would periodically go out across whole swaths of neighborhoods.
RECIPE: BEET SALAD WITH PINEAPPLE AND MUNG BEAN adapted from V. Sandhya
I love this fresh, simple recipe. I’ve made it as a side salad a number of times since coming back from India and it’s always a hit. The mustard seeds and mung beans give it a nuttiness and the grated coconut a hint of something exotic. You can substitute orange for pineapple, dried grated coconut for fresh, and half a lemon for the lime. You can buy sprouted mung beans in the grocery or health food store, or make your own by setting out dry mung beans in a bowl covered with filtered water for about 24 hours and changing the water periodically.
Serves 4-5 as a side dish
1 ½ teaspoon light vegetable oil (like safflower or organic canola)
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 medium beet, peeled and grated
1 cup sprouted mung bean
1 cup pineapple, chopped into small cubes
1 lime, juiced
2 tablespoons fresh grated coconut
1 tablespoon coriander leaves, finely chopped
a pinch of salt
Heat oil in a small saucepan, when hot add mustard seeds. Turn off the heat as soon as the mustard seeds start popping and turning grey, let cool.
Assemble all the other ingredients in a bowl, add the tempering oil and mustard seeds, mix and serve.