From Children's Cooking to Herbal Alchemy

I loved to cook even as a kid, a tendency my mother encouraged with what strikes me now as incredible indulgence. Our “children’s cooking” sessions consisted of taking down scores of ingredients from the pantry shelves and mixing them in a big bowl. The resulting soy sauce-ketchup-flour mash-ups can only have ended up in the trash (or at best, summers, in the compost); we must not have used huge quantities of anything. My mother’s indulgence was innocent, not some strategy for turning me into a kitchen elf, but eventually it paid off nonetheless when some of my creations began verging on edible--I have vague memories of lumpy, pasty cookies—and became fully edible before too long (pasta with red sauce).

This being Manhattan and me an only child of offbeat professors, I wound up, in sixth grade, taking classes in French haute cuisine. These were given by the rotund and exacting and obviously impassioned monsieur Lévi, who ran (and still runs) a tiny cooking school out of his cramped but ship-shape Upper West Side apartment kitchen. From amongst the Creuset and copper pots, he would issue to myself and the two other students such commandments as “Never use dried herbs” (a dictum preserved in my binder from those days, scrawled in all-caps and with several exclamation points) and dictate the procedure for a red wine reduction sauce. Each week I’d go home and recreate the small kitchen magics: sweet and savory soufflés, potatoes au gratin, crêpes, real mayonnaise. (The crêpes became a mainstay in my middle school French class, overseen as it was by a teacher whose appetite for French culture didn’t stop with Au Revoir Les Enfants.) Along with techniques, I absorbed the confidence that I could cook more or less anything—at least anything from within the Euro-American sphere.

My first forays into my first love of Indian cooking were less successful, being based on recipes from the side of a curry powder tin. I had yet to learn that curry powder is a colonial invention rarely seen in Indian kitchens, that authentic subcontinental cuisine begins with purging the false idols from the spice drawer and replacing them with ingredients in the raw, from Asafoetida to Zanthoxylum. I began to sense that, in my quest for flavor fluency, spices were the next frontier.

In college, a friend had acquired a Hare Krishna cookbook and, from the Southasian enclave of Jackson Heights, a set of whole and ground seeds in heavy, cork-stoppered jars. Weekly, we’d skip out on the dining hall fare (which was clearly laced, for reasons I couldn’t then and can’t now countenance, with laxatives) in favor of cooking a meal free not only of that contaminating influence, but also that of onions, garlic and meat—this according to the strictures followed by vegetarian Vaishnavas. Though the food was on the bland side, as Indian goes, I got used to popping mustard seeds in oil, grinding freshly toasted cumin and coriander seeds, judging the potency of a batch of turmeric. My first, lopsided flatbreads came out, sprinkled with black nigella seeds, from that fluorescent-lit dorm kitchenette.

It was around this time that a book on Ayurveda, India’s traditional medicine, found its way into my hands—a gift from an aunt. Alongside generative metaphors like the “digestive fire,” an idea that would prove important as I worked through belly woes and into the field of herbal medicine, the book introduced me to the “six tastes:” sweet, salty, sour (think lemon), pungent (think chilies), bitter (think dandelion greens), and astringent (think unripe banana or over-steeped tea). According to this understanding, each taste possessed certain qualities and tended toward certain effects on the body. Sweet, for instance, nourishes the tissues (think ‘yam’ rather than ‘cotton candy’) and creates contentment, when applied in moderation; too much can clog and dampen. Bitter, meanwhile, is much the opposite, cleansing and lightening rather than building us up, and can be harshly drying in excess. In contrast to our American predilection for sweets (with bitter coming only from coffee or beer), the Ayurvedic view underscored the importance of all six tastes in proper proportion—with the understanding that the proportion will vary according to season and according to who is doing the eating (the astringent taste, being intensely drying, is needed in much smaller quantities for a dry, thin person, who can use more sweet than a thick, heavy one could).

The myriad details of this way of thinking were a source of fascination and extracurricular study as I wended my way through college. Yet the takeaway was simple: food is medicine. The tongue, I began to understand, was for most of history our only laboratory. Our tasting organ has never been surpassed in its versatility. Of course, like most instruments, it had to be calibrated, but once it was, taste could emerge as not only a sensory pleasure, not only a way of distinguishing the edible from the poisonous. It was something more fundamental: an intimate, intricate means of experiencing and learning about the external world--and influencing the internal one.

I read about the legendary Shen Nong, the “divine husbandman” of Chinese lore, who had learned the properties of plants by tasting them, one by one. If a plant was known to promote sweating, it was because someone had chewed it, noted a minty or a spicy pungency, and felt the prickle of pores opening to accommodate an invigorated circulation. In other words, they had tasted the plant. There was a word for this kind of plant-taster: an herbalist.

One interest telescoped almost imperceptibly into another: from food to medicine, via the common threads of plants and flavor. Following these threads made for an unconventional undergrad trajectory, one spent as much in the woods and the kitchen as the library; later it would lead me across the country, hopping from organic farm to study program, and to Nepal on a research fellowship into foodways and culture. Whatever project I had in mind, a fateful encounter with a last-of-his-lineage Ayurvedic practitioner changed my course firmly in the direction of medical studies. More than a decade on, that flavorful thread has yielded a practice in Traditional Asian Medicine (incorporating both East Asian and Ayurvedic approaches). Here, the blending of flavors reaches one of its subtlest expressions in the hundreds of classical formulas that have been handed down for the alleviation of suffering.

These formulas, the bread and butter of my clinical work, are nothing if not brilliant recipes (and also in some cases templates, what the NY Times’ Sam Sifton calls “no-recipe recipes,” admitting of near-infinite variation). Through the precise application of specific flavor combinations, a given formula resolves patterns of disharmony, essentially remedying the bodily weather. Treatment can be relatively straightforward, as in warming a chronically chilly person (suffering from menstrual cramps, Reynaud’s syndrome, diarrhea, or one of any number of conditions that can be due to cold) with pungent and sweet medicinals, ranging from old spice cabinet friends like ginger to more intense materials like aconite that have no place in a tagine. But it can also be considerably more complex. Patterns of disharmony can combine heat with cold, damp with dry, up with down; our knots themselves get tied in knots, then shellacked for good measure. Given the existence of all manner of complicated pathologies, treatment strategies to match must exist, and they do. Yet all are rooted in taste and its offspring, the knowledge of the properties of substances (a subject known in Sanskrit as dravyaguna vijnāna).

In a sense, treating complex diseases with traditional (as opposed to conventional) medicine requires the instincts and boldness of a master chef, for formulas can combine flavors more intense and seemingly conflicting than anything found in a Michelin starred restaurant dish: the most brutal bitter together with shockingly pungent and piercingly sour. Luckily for the practitioner of traditional Asian medicine, there are thousands of years’ worth of recipes and teachers to guide us. The number of published formulas in the extant Chinese literature must number in the hundreds of thousands; of these, perhaps five hundred to a thousand have truly stuck around as important touchstones, with a somewhat smaller number that count as truly classic. Yet even armed with recipes such as these, the practitioner faces no simple task in discern which to use when, and when to modify, and how. The heart of the matter is an understanding of physiology and pathology, without which understanding of the medicinal materials themselves is meaningless. As in any field, the true master makes it all look easy, while the lesser practitioner quickly becomes lost in the maze. Case studies, formulas, modifications…wading through the piles of books, it’s easy to lose touch with the senses, with the immediacy of flavor.

Perhaps, then, it was as an antidote to the intellectual rigors of my chosen path that perfume came calling. To reawaken the senses, to put the soul back in touch with sensory beauty. And as a form of medicine in itself. (See previous post, "Adventures in Olfaction"


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