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December is that time of year when everyone from Average Joe to Plain Jane hasten their steps in an attempt to find closure. Whether it’s personal matters like cleaning one’s teeth and de-cluttering their house, or a business deal that must be closed before the clock strikes midnight, all tasks are to be accomplished or else everything will turn into a pumpkin patch and Cinderella will run away barefoot.

The same commotion rules our house these days, hence my seldom presence in this cyber neighborhood. I’ve been meaning to sit down and tell you a story of a certain encounter, and a chat that followed…

Last month, while helping chef Fullilove shine his bright culinary light on LA food enthusiasts at the Test Kitchen, I ran into Ani Phyo, the raw food chef extraordinaire and author of four un-cook books. I think she’s working on her fifth now.

It’s funny how it happened really. All covered in flour dust while cutting beet pasta into long ribbons of vegan tagliatelle, I noticed this woman hanging around in the room, speaking gently on her cell phone, trying to be as non-intrusive as possible. Her voice I found very comforting and calming. Yes, I have a thing for voices. It turns me on if it strikes the right tone, and I don’t mean in a sexual way. At least not this time.

I digress.

The woman looked familiar, but I couldn’t match the face with a name in my head. She greeted us, asked about the pasta with an excited spark in her eye, and I couldn’t help but notice the voice again. Have I mentioned that I have a thing for people’s voices? I had to say something! Graciously she accepted my compliment and exited the room leaving nothing short of a shimmering glow behind. I saw her around over the two days I spent there, me working on Jason’s thing, her prepping for her event the following week. It wasn’t until I heard someone mention the name “Ani” and the word “raw” all in one sentence when it hit me.

I’VE GOT HER BOOK IN MY HOUSE! I’VE SEEN HER YOUTUBE VIDEOS. I KNOW WHO THE WOMAN IS!

Phew!

Ani Phyo in the kitchen of the Test Kitchen with Top Chef Alex Reznik.

Next thing I know, I’m stalking the poor gal around the kitchen premises hoping to score a short chat with her. For this blog. For YOU! Of course, it wasn’t the time nor place for it, so we settled for a phone conversation after her menu tasting at the Test Kitchen in mid November. However, Thanksgiving got in our way and it wasn’t until maybe last week that my phone rang at the precise time Ani said she would call.

I had a roster of questions I planned to bombard Ani with, but you know how it is. A conversation is a living creature, and so, as to be expected, it took us on its own ride. To begin, I wanted to know what was Ani’s definition of RAW FOODISM. She made it very uncomplicated by describing raw diet as fresh, whole foods made with ideally locally grown and organic ingredients.

“You can make a simple and delicious tomato and tarragon bisque straight from the blender. Or you can cook it, but that takes it longer and makes it more complicated” she explained.

Back in the day, when my eating habits were all over the map for reasons other than health, I went through raw stage myself. I read a ton about the diet, and learnt how complex and time-consuming its preparation was. Foods should be either completely raw or cooked in temperatures not exceeding 118° as to save the metabolism-boosting enzymes captured in the produce. Grains should be soaked in water for extended lengths of time in order for our stomachs to be able to digest them. If you wanted to get different textures you would have to dehydrate and/or powder some of your veggies. It wasn’t a diet for someone who works 10-11 hour days and wants to have a social life on top of that. Thank god, I lived in NYC back then where I had a raw food restaurant just a few blocks up, and a deli with fresh fruits and veggies cut and packaged daily for my convenience. My refrigerator stood empty for the entire five years that I was in Manhattan.

The memories of that period came back to me now, with Ani on the other end of the cable, and so I asked her about that whole process. Shockingly, she wasn’t very excited about dehydrating the food herself since in the process you lose, you know, the water. Then you need to drink it separately, and why would you do that if you can get both in one. Most of her recipes can be made very quickly, as she pointed out, using only a few kitchen essentials like a knife, a blender,  and a food processor, which I found stamped as little picture icons next to each recipe in her book, “Ani’s Raw Food Kitchen“.  Speaking of the book, its cover presents Ani about to take a bite from a raw sandwich she’s holding in her hands. That thing looks so incredibly appetizing. Every time I glance at the bookshelf, I want to rip it off the page, lick the paper, and bite into the binding. I can TASTE it just by looking at the damn thing. You must check it out!

The idea of raw foods instantly whisks me away to tropical lands abundant with fresh produce… and sunshine! Would it be wise and practical to switch to an all raw diet for someone who lives in an area where winter comes and slaps you in the face with its snow falls and damp weather, I asked next?

“You can add heating ingredients, like chili pepper, or ginger to your food. However, everyone is unique and must listen to their body. I lived in Portland for four years, where it rained a lot, and my hands were constantly cold. I don’t know if it was good for me that I ate raw there. It depends on a person. Just listen to your body, and if you feel like you need something warm, eat something warm.”

Here’s where I really started falling for that girl because… she’s rational. She encourages people to stay healthy and live balanced lives as opposed to following some strict rules that lead to extremes.

“If you want to make changes in your diet” – Ani suggests – “start with whole ingredients.” (Meaning unprocessed, organic produce.) “Have gratitude, educate yourself and make choices based on that knowledge. Living a whole and balanced life is not only about the food, but also about your attitude, creating a strong bond with your community, giving back, and having gratitude.”

Having heard all that I couldn’t help but wonder: does Ani Phyo, the sexy queen of raw food movement, cheats on an occasion with what she consumes herself?

“Oh, yes, I cheat sometimes. How crazy do you want to get?” she asked laughing. “I love quinoa. I like tempeh, too. Just the other day, I wanted something warm, so I cooked myself a bowl of lentils. And sometimes, when I get the craving, I stop by Veggie Grill and get a veggie burger. And you know what, I have wheat intolerance, and I know I will have a stomach cramp and I will feel bad for a day, and I may even break out. But once in a while, if I want it, I just have a veggie burger.”

I was in love. A normal gal, sane, with all the pieces of furniture neatly organized in her head. It’s all about balance, people. Extremes never work long term and too often lead to eating disorders, which I myself learnt the hard way. Ani also admitted to having lived hard core raw for a decade, and today she realizes it wasn’t healthy for her.

So what does her day look like today food wise? She starts with two, three smoothies in the morning. She’ll blend blueberries, cashews, water and lecithin into a creamy drink and have it for breakfast. For lunch she may have a big green salad since she likes to work out mid day. After breaking a sweat, she may enjoy another smoothie while her metabolism is rolling. Dinner meal could be a bowl of lentils, a wrap, a salad, whatever strikes her fancy. Kelp noodles is something she raves about for a great addition to a salad.

When on the road, and she travels a lot, Ani always carries with her a bag of goji berries, nuts, maybe nori wrap or dried sea vegetables to nibble on. A banana, an orange and some peanut butter also travel well and help her get through parts of the country that don’t offer a wide array of fresh produce.

Ani Phyo's Raw Kale Chips

In the end I got all girly on her and dug for her beauty tips.

“I don’t put on my skin anything I wouldn’t eat, since it gets absorbed through the pores and gets into my blood stream. I use hobo oil to moisture my skin. Or coconut oil. I just rub it all over. I smell like a piña-colada and I love it. However, in winter I use hobo oil, because it sinks into the skin faster.”

Make-up she uses sporadically, not on a daily basis. Ani’s OK with mascara in moderation, not to be extreme. And if she uses eye shadows, she chooses spirulina based cosmetics.

All in all, it was such an inspiring exchange. Ani is gracious, laughs a lot, and takes herself lightly. Her beauty comes from within first. It’s her healthy mind and body that allow for her charms to express themselves in the physical form as well. She’s delightful to be around, and I hope for another chance in the future.

Feel free to visit her website and direct any questions to her via her Facebook fan page. That’s the best way to get a hold of her, she says.

In my next installment, I’ll include photos of the foods Ani Phyo wowed the crowds with at the Test Kitchen back in November. Stay tuned.

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“There’s a hole in your heart. You can try to stuff it with alcohol-sex-food-drugs-what have you. And you never will” – a shaman said to me one day. “That’s the place for God” – she told me. “Let him back in and you will never again feel lonely. Never again will you feel lost, loveless, or hopeless. Never again will you feel ALONE“.

Sunset 2

I left the woman’s apartment with an ironic smirk teetering on my face. What was I thinking going over there in the first place? That she will cure me from sorrow? That she will cleanse my aura and thus heal my aching soul? A hundred and fifty bucks dumped into the sewer of the city of CRAZY.

And then, one morning, I rise along with the first rays of sun, and on the road I proceed in my car that obediently carries me in every direction that I order. My eyes are still in denial and want to stay shut and keep dreaming. But the sun is relentless – its arms reach my face, warming me up, encouraging me to breathe, and to stay roused.

The fresh morning air pours inside the car. Windows rolled down, the road almost empty. Sunday morning. Easter morning. It used to mean something. Its importance has diminished over the years away from family traditions, away from home. Home.

One sad thought. I let it fly out with the breeze, so dominant now. The wind makes itself at ease in my car, in my hair, floating around my head, over my eyes. Single strings play with the floating air on the edge of the window. They hang over the cliff of the windshield, dance, and do not fall. It’s the game the wind plays with my mop. And I let it. Liberate me, too, I beg inside my head, but stay taciturn outside my scull.

I keep the car speeding steadily while passing by the ocean on my left. That infinite mass of water, so sparkling, so cheerful, with the sky glancing down as in admiring its own reflection. Nature’s mood is calm, quiescent, tranquil. A glass of water glistens on one side, the wind twirls inside my vehicle, the sun shines above, and music flows from the speakers hidden beneath me. I’m heading to a temple. Lake Shrine. I enter the temple and it’s a place like I’ve never seen before…

I haven’t crossed church’s gates in years. I turned my back on the whole institution while still just a young girl somewhere in a small town in the midst of Poland. That girl, an indignant teenager is all, rebelled the Church. A bunch of hypocrites I decided all priests were, and nothing but. I despised those cynical and double-faced “guardians of societal morale”. Burn in hell, I pouted. And like that I abandoned the ranks of the Catholic fellowship.

Fifteen years later and thousands of miles passed. “There’s a hole in your heart” – a shaman said to me one chilly afternoon in California.

… On the bright Easter Sunday I walk into the temple of the Self Realization Fellowship. It’s their morning service.  Most seats already have an occupant. As I tread down a soft, carpeted isle, I am slammed with flashbacks from the days of youth…  My body shivers under the chill of a dim and hollow hall of a gothic building; its silence interrupted by the threatening echo of scurried heals stomping against the tile floors. The echo fills every inch between the monumental walls, then bounces back and travels farther from the ground to the tip of the spire… In my mind I put a spell on the dreadful memory and shake it off. Be gone! My eyes open again and I glance around. The faces surrounding me are bright, placid, warm, and welcoming. My body relaxes. The peace here has the texture of red velvet.

In this House, meditation replaces prayer.  Love of self fills in the shoes of Catholic guilt. Intent allows for focus. The minister’s voice calmly leads me through my journey inwards. He accompanies a search for my inner light and encourages me to expand my heart while making room for… God?

I have to think about that one. Later.

My entire essence is suddenly stirred into motion by the music that I hear. A choir performs spiritual songs in Hebrew, German and English. It’s not the words, but the voices, their harmony, the threads of notes waved into a coherent fabric of music that move me to the core.  I’m touched. I’m shaken by the beauty that fills and surrounds this space. Where am I? Tears blur my vision, but I am able to see now better than ever.  The hole in my heart is no longer.  The emotion overwhelms me, and I no longer feel lonely. My reason sunbathes on the lawn outside while I experience the unspeakable. All I know at this moment is LOVE.

Sun Behind a Tree

Almost eighteen months have passed since that Easter morning. I’m not a regular at the Lake Shrine by any means. Life happens to me.  Tired happens to me. Lazy happens to me.  All the other Sundays in between the above mentioned however I make the effort to find the time for a spiritual practice. Whether it’s the  temple of the Self Realization Fellowship with its calming attitude, or the highly vibrant and bursting with energy church of Agape, peace finds me. There I unfold stress and discharge negative emotions. Those places are real, accessible, and welcoming.  I feel safe there.  They help me reinforce balance in my life.

That’s not all, however, and there are more pieces to the puzzle that this la dolce vita is. There’s laughter, there’s love and respect for self and others, sharing and giving, eating healthy and nourishing foods, honoring my word, loyalty, building a HOME with Jason and Cosmo, music and written word, education and learning, exercise, fresh air, friends, family… Those are my building blocks and my scaffolding.  That’s where I find the strength and courage to deal with stress, my hormones, broken promises, disappointments, anger, bruised ego, insecurities, road range, hurt feelings, and the mundane of every day life.

That’s my struggle in keeping it all balanced and healthy, as intended by Nature. I don’t mess with religions. If I have one, it’s Love. You find your own way. Everyone has a method. And whatever you do, really, ENJOY Yourself!

Agi Free

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