Masala Farm: An Inspired Life

A book-signing for Suvir Saran’s “Masala Farm: Stories and Recipes from an Uncommon Life in the Country” will take place from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 16, at Gardenworks, 1055 Route 30, in Salem, N.Y. For more information, call (518) 854-3250. For more information on Suvir Saran, visit www.suvir.com .

I always tell people there’s no one answer to how I got rid of 185 pounds (and the emotional baggage that’s a package deal). Pardon the pun, but it’s simply too big an issue to point neatly in a singular direction of a pat answer. The ‘How Did You Do It’ queries come both in-person and via e-mail. Usually I can tell when someone really wants to hear what I have to say or if they’re hoping to be sent packing with a quickie prescription of diminished calories and a drill sergeant’s rotation of sit-ups and squats.

I can only give them the truth: The solution is a glittering mosaic. From a distance it may look like a single object, but step towards the canvas for a closer look and you’ll see a composition of little pieces made of different colors, shapes, and textures. All are intrinsic in their importance because when a piece of the mosaic is missing, it’s not the same picture.

Yes, I exercise on a regular basis. Yes, I eat considerably less than I did three years ago. But there’s so much more to the living-in-balance equation. Somewhere along the journey, I knew it would be crucial to make peace with food. With my intense love of it, my well-documented misuse of it, and my sometimes unmitigated fear of it. I’d been heading in the direction of a more harmonious relationship with food for years. And then one day, out of the blue, came an invitation of sorts, to hop on board the peace train. It was May of 2008 when I visited Suvir Saran and Charlie Burd at their gorgeous farm, tucked into the far reaches of Washington County, N.Y., not far from the Vermont border.

I was there to interview Suvir for a newspaper feature on his career as a celebrity chef, cookbook author, lecturer, and owner of the Michelin-awarded Devi restaurant in Manhattan. Despite the sundrenched spring weather, I was attired in my uniform du jour: black spandex leggings and a billowy black top. Even the shoes and sunglasses were of the noir persuasion. Truly, I was shrouded in every sense of the word. But at a size 26, I had very few wardrobe options.

Suvir and Charlie, May 2008…and me in the background taking notes in my usual Johnny Cash ensemble…

Suvir ushered me into the kitchen to a stool at the granite counter overlooking his industrial-sized Viking stove. The stove is his favorite place in the 232-year old farm house because it’s where he loves holding court, whether entertaining out of town guests for the weekend, friends from farmhouses down the road, or in this case, a journalist. I knew I was in for an interview unlike any other when Suvir opened his refrigerator and pulled out a glass bowl filled with goose eggs.

“Do you like eggs?” he asked, smiling as I stared in wonder at what looked like a pile of mini-white footballs.

“They’re my favorite food in the world,” I murmured, sensing with anticipation that he had some serious plans for the eggs.

“Good,” he said quietly, lighting the flame under a cast iron skillet and drizzling it with olive oil.

There were four people to cook for (a photographer had accompanied me) but the enormousness of each egg meant frying only one at a time, which frazzled him not a bit. I can still see Suvir at the Viking, standing protectively over the emerging masterpiece, adorning it with a bit of sea salt and fresh pepper. The culmination came with a chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese pushed back and forth across a grater until the sunny-side-up egg looked like a snow-capped volcano.

                                                                Suvir and “The Girls”

As Suvir went on to prepare the next goose egg, Charlie brewed foamy cups of espresso and stirred a pot of Sambhaar (a spicy vegetable and lentil stew) simmering on an adjacent burner while both talked about their most recent visit to Southeast Asia.

      Suvir Saran’s Sambhaar, a delightfully spicy vegetable-lentil stew from his “American Masala” cookbook

Then Suvir handed me a copy of his first cookbook, “Indian Home Cooking,” to look over and I found myself staring at a page near the beginning where he states the following philosophy: “When a guest comes into your house, God comes with him…we treat all our guests as if they were God because we believe God is in all of us.”

Suvir didn’t just stop with perfectly prepared goose eggs that day (with the warm liquid yolks oozing over the toasted bread like glorified, pearlescent lava). He pulled glass storage bowls from the refrigerator to reveal a tomato chutney salsa and a pale green coconut-mint chutney. Then he fired up an iron wok and began ladling a batter made of rice and chick pea flour to make Dosas, a savory pancake used for dipping. (Everything Suvir cooked that day, except the goose eggs, were from recipes in his excellent “American Masala” cookbook).

                            Heaven in a griddle: Suvir Saran’s chick pea-flour-based Dosas

“I don’t know why I’m doing this,” he said, looking momentarily up from the sizzling Dosa “I’ve never made Dosas for a journalist before.” Somewhere in his core, he must have intuited a fellow food lover under the journalistic veneer. And perhaps at an unconscious level, he sensed I was trapped in a prison of a body and was searching for answers.

As Suvir will tell anyone who asks (and as a lecturer and consultant who travels the world on speaking engagements, he’s asked quite frequently), the answer to excess weight or any other health imbalance isn’t to enlist your inner drill sergeant of restriction. Don’t we all know by now that it always backfires? Why do we keep falling for it? Why did I keep falling for it all those years? Maybe because I thought it was the only answer, the singular way out of the tunnel.

Suvir maintains, as I ultimately realized, that food is a pleasure meant to be enjoyed. The eating experience is inherently nurturing if we allow it to be. Cliché as it may sound, food is glorious. And it can be both glorious and health-enhancing.

The goose egg was divinely creamy. The symphony of spices in the apricot-colored Sambhaar richocheted from my tongue to the back of my throat as I savored each spoonful. The crisp Dosa was the perfect vehicle to enjoy the thick chutneys, and both versions were fragrant and hypnotic.

If only every meal could have such a ratio of peacefulness and pleasure.

The renowned food critic Gael Greene describes Suvir’s prowess in the kitchen as a cross between George Balanchine and Leonard Bernstein because of his instinct for finding the perfect tension between an efficient flow of food and conversation and a relaxed, enjoyable pace. She has been known to go on for pages about Suvir’s cooking: “I’ve found myself seduced by his Indian riffs on American classics; the richer-than-Bill Gates mac and cheese, his remarkable corn bread, the classic American cakes he perfected, like his dense lemon cake, and upside-down pineapple,” Greene writes in her blog, www.insatiable-critic.com .

That day, we talked at length about the importance of the farm-to-table movement, the evils of the nation’s corporate ways that fills supermarket shelves with dirt-cheap cans of processed food floating in excess food coloring and sodium. But I gathered the most information simply by observing Suvir and Charlie’s ways in the kitchen, the relaxed and modulated pace of meal preparation, and the rapt attention they gave to me as a guest in their home as we sat around our plates and talked. No trance-inducing news footage from a television or even background music from a stereo to interfere with genuinely connecting.

I listened as Suvir explained his views on home kitchens being sacred territory and the central nerve center of the home.

“In the Indian home, the kitchen is where we create magical tastes that have the power to heal the mind, body, and soul. All cultures that are a happy people meet in the kitchen,” he said, scooping out a dollop of mint chutney with a Dosa. “I want to encourage people to go back to the kitchen and start nurturing. I want us to go back to a civilized culture, not one where we are isolated from one another. You are what you eat. And so my philosophy, and that of my parents and grandparents, is to cook, share, and eat with care and thought.”

Suvir had no way of knowing this at the time (though my 300-pound-plus frame may have given him an inkling),but my kitchen was quite the opposite environment. Over the years its main function had eroded into a pit stop to refuel for more potato chip and clam dip binges. Like Suvir and Charlie, I actually loved giving dinner parties and occasionally threw them, but as my eating to dull emotional pain escalated, so did a healthy perspective on food choices, quantity, and an overall sense of boundaries as to a time and a place for eating. For me it was anytime, anyplace, any reason. The original reasons for starting in the first place had long blurred out of focus…such clever grease that keeps the wheels of addiction spinning in perfect rhythm.

I left American Masala Farm that day with Suvir’s first two cookbooks, a cache of goose eggs, and an amazing sense of serenity that I parlayed into a mother’s day lunch on my apartment balcony later that week. I served the courses in the most leisurly fashion ever known to friends and family. The time spent together was a lot more than just a meal, it was an event that lasted for several hours before the last bite of dessert was gone. It would be nearly 9 months (interesting gestation period, no?) before the A-Ha! Moment came while watching Oprah in a potato chip-stupor, which set in motion an avalanche of change and ensuing weight transformation. But something had shifted in me during that encounter with Suvir and Charlie on their farm. It was real and profound and like a seed, took some time to manifest its fruit.

In a culture that desperately reveres instant gratification (especially where wanting to look a certain way is concerned) it’s important that I’m clear with people up front that my path to salvation wasn’t a speedy one. I don’t know if it ever can be.

It took years to put the mosaic together and frame it. Fervent journaling, group therapy, white-knuckle dieting, a few 12-step meetings thrown in for good measure, reading untold volumes of self-help books, an ongoing love affair with spirituality, and a beautiful, savory lesson at American Masala Farm on the transformational power of food all played a part. Up until May 2008, I’d always operated under the premise that food and isolation go hand in hand. Thanks to Suvir and Charlie,I realized it’s quite the opposite.

And it gets even better: The experience I had at their farm has been distilled into Suvir’s latest book, “Masala Farm: Stories and Recipes from an Uncommon Life in the Country.” It’s a cookbook/memoir of simple, pleasure-filled living that Suvir and Charlie wrote together. It showcases dozens of their favorite recipes and recipes from their circle of friends, including Glens Falls caterer Sally Longo, who spent weeks at the farm helping with recipe prep and photo shoots. I’ve been perusing the recipes and photos and it all looks divine. As someone who eats gluten-free, I’ll be making a beeline for the Farmhouse Crispy-Creamy Potatoes, Chai Cider, Chunky Eggplant Dip, Asparagus and Green Pea Risotto, and the Almost-Flourless Caramel-Lacquered Chocolate Peanut Torte.

And I’ll absolutely be marking the occasion with a dinner party. Do I have any takers?

A consummate giver:  I’m over the moon because Suvir just gifted me with a pair of padukas from his family’s home in India.  I cherish them and use them everyday.