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4.0 out of 5 stars Quick taste of Ayurvedic nutrition and Yoga. Still Hungary, March 8, 2005
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This review is from: Yogi in the Kitchen (Paperback)
`Yogi in the Kitchen' by Elaine Gavalas, M.A., M.S. is a great little mish mash of culinary doctrine, mystic lore, yoga exercises, and recipes from around the world in a fun little book which has the power to get you interested, but drops the ball in the end.

While the Greeks and Romans were inventing mathematics, medicine, philosophy of knowledge, and science in the Mediterranean wild west, the Indians and Chinese were mapping the relation between body, soul, and mind in a way which has never quite been matched by Western thinkers until the advent of modern clinical psychology, which could do nothing more than affirm that the eastern mystics knew a thing or two about cultivating a healthy body and mind.

This book by a talented dabbler in both eastern lore and western nutritional science is a very nice introduction into all these matters. Ms. Gavalas manages to turn a very loose presentation into a virtue in that she does not bore us with dozens of pages on arcane Sanskrit derived words for the eastern version of a form of astrology.

For those who may be buying this book for recipes, know that in these 230 pages, 60 are devoted to the light introduction to the four different doctrines the author throws together into a mix of healthy eating regimens. These doctrines are vegetarianism, the Mediterranean diet, the Asian diet, and the ayurvedic diet. These first three are pretty well known to the average Western foodie, although the `Asian Diet' has gotten much less press and scientific review as a healthy regimen than the `Mediterranean diet'. The Ayurvedic diet is a development of Hindu doctrines and Yoga. The author describes it as `Yoga's sister science, ... a five thousand year old Indian holistic healing system for the body, mind, and spirit. The goal of Ayurveda, which means "the science of life" in Sanskrit is to achieve balance, vitality, energy, and perfect health through proper nutrition, exercise and meditation'.

The Ayurveda doctrine states that there are three basic body types, for which there are three recommended diets. A quick look at the description of the body types gives one a jolt of recognition when you recognize a distinction between the modern `apple' and `pear' shaped body types, plus a corresponding set of emotional and intellectual dispositions which will almost invariable describe one which fits you better than the other two. But then, most people get the same reaction when they read a description of their astrological sign. The descriptions of the three body / personality types are so general that confirming this lore using scientific techniques is almost impossible, which means the doctrines are so general as to be empty. And yet, they do seem to have some grounding in common sensical observations, and the Indians who groom this doctrine have spent the last 5000 years refining the empirical observations which have gone into the doctrine, so the odds are pretty good that they have gotten some things right.

On several points, I give Ms. Gavalas high points for avoiding some common errors. One small point is that she differentiates the Indian preparation, ghee, from the much less well-defined western notion of clarified butter. While they are very similar, ghee goes one step beyond separation to a cooking of the butterfat to a light brown color and a slightly stronger flavor. A much more important opinion is her not embracing the doctrines of those who advocate a purely raw cuisine. She quite correctly points out that cooking above the magic temperature defined by the raw advocates has many good things to offer.

Ms. Gavalas offers, in chapter 3, `the yoga pantry', and a very nice little overview of the benefits and dangers of a wide range of foods important to her four inspiration sources cited above. The very odd thing about this chapter is that although her four doctrines, but her recommendations set her agenda and conclusions are based on modern nutritional research. For example, while soy and its derivatives are cited as something just short of the fountain of youth, the author is careful to give us a sidebar on some dangers of eating too much soy. But, like virtually all nutritional research, some of these warnings are inconclusive and most are outweighed by benefits and called into question by the fact that populations which rely most on soy products have fewer problems which plague western populations.

If you are waiting for the recipes, we aren't there yet. The fourth chapter, with the same name as the title of the book, is a primer on simple yoga exercises, all of which are of the simplest sort. No joint twisting lotus positions on the kitchen linoleum today.

After all of this interesting run-up, Part 2, with the recipes, is an anticlimax. The very first recipe is for baba ghanoush, the Middle Eastern eggplant dip for which I have already a half dozen recipes, including some from some culinary heavyweights such as Claudia Roden, Clifford Wright, and Joyce Goldstein. In fact, about a third of the recipes in Ms. Gavalas book can be found in much more authoritative books by these and other authors. And, you can get the straight scoop on Indian recipes from Madhur Jaffrey and the skinny on Far Eastern recipes from Barbara Tropp.

The biggest disappointment with this book is that after giving us a very nicely balanced survey of Yogi doctrines, yoga exercises, and various healthy eating regimens, there is nothing to tell us where to get more information on either traditional doctrines or modern nutritional research. I am not an expert on these areas, but if you were looking for a book of exciting new healthy recipes, I suggest Nina Simonds' new `Spices of Life' which includes a great bibliography and other sources for follow-up study. Ms. Gavalas' book is excellent reading, but just a little thin on original recipes for $18 list.
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