ma già volgeva il mio disio e ’l velle
sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,
l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.
but my desire and will were moved already –
like a wheel revolving uniformly – by
the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.
— from Paradiso (The Divine Comedy) by Dante Alighieri
When I went to India more than 20 years ago to work on my first film, I wasn’t paid for the first two months, such was/is the poor demand versus massive supply for entry-level film production jobs. I was given accommodations in Delhi and had to figure out the rest myself.
Unnerved by the intense heat, unable to cook and restricted by funds, I subsisted on – and I’m not kidding – toast with tomatoes for breakfast, toast with tomatoes for lunch, and pasta with tomatoes for dinner. A pat of butter may have been involved here and there. Salt and chilli flakes rounded out the flavours.
Parmesan and olive oil were not easily available those days and even a can of tomatoes was expensive then, so I bought what was abundant, cheap and didn’t require cooking: fresh tomatoes. And filled my stomach with brown bread and pasta. Every. Single. Day. For two months. A friend took me out to get ice lollies one afternoon, and the joy of the simple treat stayed with me for days. When the film’s producer eventually arrived in India, she put me on a weekly salary. This was a huge relief because the tomato season was over and they were becoming tasteless.
After the rest of the crew joined the unit and we moved to our first location for the shoot, I would zip between the film set and the production office at our hotel. The production team joked about how they could tell on which days I expected to be in the office because room service would send an order of boneless tandoori chicken. Because that’s what I ate at lunch every single day for six months.
A few years earlier, while studying in Florence, I would go to a local deli for lunch with my fellow students. And every day I’d order the same thing: a turkey and cheese sandwich. So much so that if anyone else asked for the turkey and cheese, the owner would say, “oh, you want a Nupu sandwich?”
When I went back to teach in Florence some years later, almost every single night a group of us would invite each other over for dinner. And without fail, we all served salad and pasta. It was the same when I visited Italian friends in their homes.
It goes without saying that Italians take their food very, very seriously. Yet dining and entertaining wasn’t competitive; nobody created lavish dishes or snazzy desserts to impress each other. Instead, the salad had the simplest of ingredients but always tasted remarkably fresh. And the pasta – often the humble spaghetti – was cooked al dente with a drizzle of excellent olive oil and freshly grated parmesan cheese, and served with seasonal vegetables.
I’m not one for nostalgia, so remembering these snippets has actually been a bit of a jolt. Because now when I think of food, I’m amazed that it feels so very complicated.
I’m trying to understand when it began. Perhaps when I moved to London in the late ’90s. British food was at last losing its stodgy reputation – but only because international cuisine exploded beyond local “ethnic” neighbourhood cafés. It became the norm to try a different restaurant every time we ate out.
I once heard a delightful radio interview with two friends with a standing arrangement to meet once a month, who decided they would go alphabetically through countries recognised by the United Nations and sample each of their cuisine. All but one (very new) country had an eatery in London at that time. It seemed a shame to have the world at our doorstep and not participate in its riches. Eating the same food day in day out felt passé.
In popular culture, cooking shows dominated television, chefs became celebrities, and their books bestsellers. “Food porn” became a reality; we all watched other people doing it on television – and doing it better than we ever could – and did less and less of it ourselves.
We began to demand more than nutrition from our food. It was to deliver pleasure, excitement, surprise. It was supposed to thrill our senses and entertain us. We wanted to swoon over our meals and claim it was divine, heavenly, orgasmic. And if food didn’t achieve all of these things then, well, we were lacking.
Some years later, social media catapulted food to new heights. The first time I sat with a friend at dinner who photographed her plate, I was astounded.
Was anything wrong?
Oh no, she said, I just wanted to share it.
There were just the two of us sitting at the table so I asked, with whom?
The world, it turned out, of course.
It became a thing, this photographing your artful dessert or Buddha bowl, and posting it online for the world to see.
“In the ’70s, if I took a photo and mailed it to someone, they’d think I was a lunatic. They’d be like, ‘What’s this?’ ‘Oh, it’s just a photo from my life, I thought you’d like it. It’s fettucine alfredo. Yes, it’s my lunch – did you like it, did you not like it? Could you forward it to some people – I’d like to get a lot of opinions about it.’” — from Judd Apatow: The Return (watch it here)
If you created the dish which you photographed and posted then you could, overnight, become the hot new thing in health via social media: a clean eating guru. These were, more often than not, young white women with blonde hair who showed everyone what they ate every day, becoming Instagram stars and the new bestselling authors without having any culinary training or education. They made grand health claims and glowed with a fresh-faced radiance – as one often does at 23.
Goji berries, chia seeds, green smoothies. Hipsters with their gourmet coffee, avocado toast and almond milk. A new week, a new star. Are you keeping up? Orthorexia, a newly defined eating disorder entered the mainstream; it means an obsession with eating foods considered healthy.
If one disregards all that and just chooses to eat a “sensible” diet, then the media is not helpful. One week eggs are great for you, and the next they’re going to kill you. There are endless scaremongering headlines of pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, formalin, adulteration… all enough to put you off your brekkie.
Capitalism creates a never-ending hunger for growth (kind of like cancer, a friend pointed out). It perversely feeds a sense of entitlement while at the same time foments discontent that can only be filled with More. If you are lacking in any way, then it’s because you haven’t tried hard enough, or haven’t spent enough. You are not yet enough.
It feels as if the last ten years for me have been made up of one diet or another. There were the low carb years when bread, pasta and potatoes were removed. There was the sort-of-Paleo chapter when dairy and legumes were omitted too. There was a year when I was vegetarian, and another when I was vegan, and even raw vegan (the bloating from eating raw produce, I can assure you, was not fun). Last year, I finally learnt to cook and it felt like a whole new journey with many recipes to try.
Now at an age where my body can no longer handle poor (or, indeed, extreme) eating habits, and at the stage of my life where I want to stop making excuses or get stressed about the way I live, I decided: enough. I made an appointment to see an Ayurvedic doctor.
A sister science to yoga, Ayurveda has been around for 5,000 years and meticulously researched and studied. I won’t pretend to do it justice here by trying to encapsulate this vast subject with a few pithy sentences, but in the broadest of terms it sees people as being a microcosm of the bigger universe.
We all – trees, animals, mountains, ocean, us – are made of the same five elements of water, earth, fire, air and ether. We are, indeed, One.
I’ve flirted with Ayurveda for 22 years, but somehow revisiting it this time and grasping this basic concept made me teary-eyed. How we treat ourselves is how we treat the planet, and vice versa. (Similarly, in yoga, ahimsa is often understood to mean non-violence towards nature or each other, but it can start with treating ourselves kindly and gently, which can oddly be more challenging.)
Food is revered in Ayurveda and seen as a means to connect with our higher consciousness. How we eat is also vital, and it’s advised to delay eating if upset or angry. Our mental, spiritual, emotional and physical selves are entwined, and eating is one way everything comes together. So, you know, no pressure then.
Ayurveda believes food should be cooked with love and eaten with gratitude. In practical terms: seasonal fresh foods, lightly cooked with spices to aid digestion, selecting ingredients to pacify any current imbalances while avoiding those that cause us harm. The focus is on sattvic foods – light and wholesome, purifying and conscious, health-promoting and eaten in moderation. While the advice is obvious, it sounded oddly revolutionary after my fatigued journey around food.
Stripping capitalism’s commodification of food, I had to reorient my previous views on eating – which was its role to thrill/entertain/impress me. (I’m not proud of this, I’m just being honest.) Like parents who expect their children to soothe a deep internal wound. Or lovers who want another person to make them feel whole. Or addicts who want to fill a god-shaped hole.
Because all restrictions were off and I was eating everything again including bread, legumes, vegetables, fruits, dairy and meat (though increasingly less of the latter), I felt overwhelmed at the beginning. I didn’t know what to feed myself every day.
Then I revisited Viana La Place’s wonderful book of Italian recipes, Unplugged Kitchen, and read:
Decide on a few simple signature dishes and serve them again and again to your heart’s content – for family and for friends. Remember, the complexity of your cooking or its ceaseless novelty is not the measure of who you are.
Eloquent, simple every day food is the best food in the world. It doesn’t challenge or confuse or attempt to dazzle. In its familiarity it tastes better, is more nurturing and conveys more meaning than any fancy layered, shaped, and tortured dish that you make once and never make again.
Reading this reminded me of my eating habits from 20 years ago. (I could indeed go further back to eating a strawberry jam sandwich every day for lunch at school for nine years…)
I had forgotten how I was a creature of habit. That I quite naturally gravitated and enjoyed eating the same foods again and again – simplicity on repeat. How its ease and comfort, like wearing a favourite dress day after day, made me feel like my favourite me.
Food does not have to be an adventure except on the rare occasion when it is a genuine treat, like my dear friend Himani’s haleem – slow cooked cracked wheat and mutton that melts in the mouth, made with love and shared with joy.
Otherwise, the same reliably good food eaten daily is grounding and nourishing without over-exciting (and ultimately fatiguing) the senses. Simplicity on repeat is all that’s needed. This is actually the most profound way food can be our salvation.
I’m not entirely there yet – old habits die hard – but it has been liberating to return to the same dishes, such as roasted vegetables with quinoa, again and again. And each time to get a little deeper into it, stripping it to a fewer mix of ingredients so the flavour of each can pop and come into its own.
It’s a relief to remember that humble is Enough, and not feel the lack. To once more think of food as an easy and enjoyable daily habit. To care more about the freshness and flavour of ingredients than the spectacle of the dish on the table. To turn to the same few meals with the cosy comfort of an old friend. To make eating food simple once again.
“We ate well and cheaply and drunk well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.” — Ernest Hemingway
Although I am no longer active on social media, I’m more than thrilled if you choose to share this post on your end, thanks!
In Ayurveda, people are categorised by their doshas – vata (air and ether), pitta (fire and water), kapha (earth and water) – the three constitutions that we are each made up of. I’m repeatedly startled by how accurate and revealing this can be. This is determined by taking the pulse, examining the tongue and answering a long list of questions. I became rather emotional when my doctor asked, “Do you find yourself moving a lot?” Yes, I move countries and jobs often; I move when I don’t know what else to do; I move even when I don’t want to. “It’s your vata imbalance,” he said, explaining how the same imbalance was responsible for my anxiety, insomnia, dry skin and eyes, erratic appetite, sensitivity to noise, inability to decide/commit, and why I pathologically hate the cold (and much, much more). While not a substitute for being diagnosed in person, taking an online quiz can be fun. Keep in mind most of us are a combination of two (and, rarely, even all three). You can try a quiz here, then go here to understand your type a little better.
Ayurveda provides a complete philosophy and practice, both of which I’d found massively overwhelming until now. A comprehensive overview is lovingly detailed in this big book, Ayurvedic Lifestyle Practices by Shunya Acharya. For a quicker read, her student Ananta Ripa Ajmera wrote The Ayurveda Way, which nicely touches on some of the key concepts with recipes and asanas. (Yoga and Ayurveda slot neatly into each other; in India it would be unusual for a yoga teacher to not practise Ayurveda, or an Ayurvedic doctor to not advise on yoga poses and breathing exercises.) Please do keep in mind that a book may present background information but as each person is viewed individually in Ayurveda, the only way to really get advice on one’s diet and practices is from a personal consultation with a trained Ayurvedic practitioner.
There are only 12 episodes on this podcast, Ayurveda and Vedic Living before they stopped, but they’re all really good. Aparna Khalonkar gives thoughtful notes on various topics, and the ones on each dosha are really worth listening to.
Keep it simple!