Turmeric lattes be damned. Our cover star for May, chef Nira Kehar tells you about real Ayurveda, mindful eating and meditation
In conversation with cookbook author, yogini and the first Indian female chef to be invited by the James Beard Foundation
At 40, life for Denmark-based cookbook author Nira Kehar only keeps getting better and she is far from done. Formerly, she ran a popular restaurant in Delhi called Chez Nini; was invited to the James Beard Foundation in New York in 2014 as the first Indian female chef to cook a meal and has also written a cookbook titled Ojas: Modern Recipes And Ancient Wisdom For Everyday Ayurveda [Dovetail]. We chat with Kehar about the healing powers of Ayurveda and finding her voice through food, mindfulness and meditation.
Edited excerpts from the interview.
When and how did you begin your journey with Ayurveda?
I was educated as a computer engineer. I joined the workforce, but at the end of the first year, I suffered a freak accident at work. Ayurveda had already been a part of my life at that point, so I decided to deal with the pain in a natural way. I was debilitated for almost a year and at such a young age too. That led to a full-blown existential crisis but also an intense desire for creativity and expression. As I explored this, I realised that while growing up, food was the language of love in my family and it felt natural to find my voice through it. I found myself making the decision between studying to be an Ayurvedic practitioner or otherwise a chef. The rest as they say is history
And how has this Vedic wisdom helped you in your own life?
Ayurveda maintains that all life must be supported by energy in balance. I strive for this balance in all aspects of my life. I make tweaks to my routine as I learn more about my body through the science of Ayurveda and give myself time to integrate them. For example, I have recently started practising a new breathing exercise before I sit down to meditate. I started with 1 minute in the first week and kept adding a minute each week. I can now comfortably do the exercise for five minutes and will continue increasing the span till I reach my goal. I am careful about not making too many changes to my life at a time because that ensures sustainable growth.
Has Ayurveda helped you tackle personal issues too?
Some of my greatest challenges—like the divorce from my first marriage in India or being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018 and recovering from it—have been blessings in disguise. I didn't understand this at the time and I wouldn't wish such a struggle upon anyone. But when I look back, I can map all of my most important developments to these resistances. I was able to stay strong because I believed that I would rise above them. Ayurveda provides me with a deeper understanding of my body, which allows me to give myself what I need in order to live in balance and peace. To give you another example, I have been able to conquer slow digestion by putting incremental changes into place over time to increase the fire element in my body. This has in turn improved my skin, nutrition absorption and state of mind.
With an information overload and every few weeks a new superfood popping up, how does one decide what's good for them?
We are naturally blessed with intuition about what is good for our bodies. The best tip I can give anyone is to develop that intuition and Ayurveda is an incredible tool to that end. Identify what you like and what gives you pleasure. You can start with small bits of information and then see how you can integrate them in your life. I would also advise people to go back to the basics and identify their favourites. Rethink methods and ingredients they are using and ask themselves things like can I possibly use less oil, should I be serving smaller portions and supplement the rest with vegetables, what healing spice could I use to create a new and unique flavour and so on.
What is your first association with nature-based food and why did you think of dedicating your work to this subject?
Being born and raised in a cultural melting pot like Montreal and waking up to the aromas arising from my mother's kitchen has defined my palate and perspective on food as a panoply of possibilities. My grandmother studied Ayurveda and practiced its principles to feed her family through her life. My mother implicitly did the same and these practices didn't need to be labeled or distinguished. Ayurveda is woven so deeply in the Indian lifestyle that when we read about it, we realise that we are already practicing it in so many ways. I experienced this connection at the age of 10 when I read Pramahansa Yogananda's book Autobiography of a Yogi. It was like my Harry Potter at that age, except I knew what I was reading to be true.
Besides eating well and relying on Ayurvedic food, what are the other self care rituals that you practice? And what does your work-from-home day look like?
Transcendental meditation has been part of my daily life for over a decade now. I practice it twice a day for twenty minutes. It keeps me centered and connected to the world around me. Other than that, I structure my days to instill good habits and practices. My body and mind thrives on routine, which is true for everyone and essential for a Vata dominant type like myself. Part of this routine is a morning ritual of celery juice, probiotics and meditation with my husband. On weekdays, we work from home for two hours until it's time for lunch. Then a two hour walk in nature, which is my favourite part of the day. Post this, we go back to work for three to four hours and then another meditation before dinner. After dinner we usually watch a movie or a show or read till we sleep. The weekends are for friends, adventures and daydreaming. When we got married, we decided that the most important luxury we could ever give ourselves is the freedom to live with a healthy work-life balance.
So then, what does an everyday meal look like in your home?
Food and feeding is pure joy for me so I derive a lot of pleasure from all aspects of a meal; be it the idea, or sourcing the ingredients, preparing it, presenting it and gathering with loved ones to engage in the senses. A meal in our home is a combination of patience, mindfulness and lots of laughter and stories at the table. Vegetables are the stars of most of my dishes and we eat a balanced amount of meats and fish two to three times a week. I like to mix textures and include all the six tastes in each meal. My favourite thing is to imagine unusual combinations and bring them to life. I own a ton of cookbooks, so for three meals a week, at least, I am trying something new from one of them. This helps keep me get creative and learn, and is exciting for my family too. One of my absolute favorite cookbooks right now is The Flavor Equation by Nik Sharma.
What is next for you?
Our bodies and nature are seamlessly connected and she provides everything we need with a remarkable precision. I plan to spend my time deepening this understanding, using Ayurveda as my guide. I am excited about being part of the community that brings Ayurveda to people's lives, the same way that Yoga does. My upcoming work involves developing food interactions in the form of design and Ayurveda-focused cookbooks, interactive chef's tables, cross-disciplinary collaborations and some form of a food series on television.
Cover designed by Priyal Rajput; Image used in cover design by Mehtab Mann