New York’s prestigious James Beard House put another crack in the foodie world’s glass ceiling last Friday when it hosted its first-ever female chef from India.
Nira Kehar, chef of the award-winning New Delhi restaurant Chez Nini, presented “Eating Stories: Montreal to New Delhi” at the James Beard House, serving up Ayurveda-inspired dishes that reflected her physical and spiritual journey from Montreal (where she was born) to New Delhi, where she found inspiration and success as a chef.
Kehar was an engineer until the age of 24, when she injured her spine on the job and spent months bedridden. Conventional medicines were not alleviating her intense pain, so she used meditation and an Ayurvedic diet punctuated with cleanses to speed her healing. “The injury was a turning point. It forced me to become introspective. I decided I wanted to be happy, and feeding people creatively makes me happy,” she says.
Kehar is famous for recipes that blend the flavors of a Québécois brasserie with the bounty of an Indian market (at the Beard House, she served fermented lentils set against pumpkin and morels; okra carpaccio and Kashmiri garlic-coconut tapioca; and finger millet gnocchi with salt ‘n’ pepper mackerel fillet, cashew milk and raisin oil). Few know that the principles of Ayurveda guide her cooking. “I am not a doctor. You do not come to my restaurant to take a cure, yet it’s so important to me to make food that respects the system of Ayurveda,” she says. Here are her 3 Ayurveda-inspired principles of mindful eating:
• Engage the 5 senses: “Ayurveda asks us to look at our food, to listen to the sound of our chewing,” she says. “Food should deserve your attention.”
• Eat seasonally: “In Ayurveda, there are specific foods you should eat at specific times of the year,” she explains. “Nature provides a system. Use fresh, seasonal ingredients.”
• Eat a balanced diet: Kehar asserts that even meat has its place in an Ayurvedic diet, if it restores balance to the body. She never serves a heaping plate of meat, or a single vegetable for that matter. Her dishes strive toward a balance of flavors, textures, and nutrients.