fitness · food

Stretches for my taste buds and exercises for my palate

Two weeks ago, when so many people were at hundreds of Women’s Marches all over the US and the world, I was at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Wellness with my friend Norah. While she was doing a yoga nidra and deep relaxation workshop, I was busy in the Kripalu demo kitchen, learning and chopping and observing and smelling and stirring and tasting.   The course was called “5 ingredients, no time”. How could anyone resist such a title?

Since my relationship ended about a year and a half ago, I’ve been cooking on my own. I enjoy cooking, and often have people over for dinner or host parties with nibblies and cocktails. However, cooking for myself day in and day out proved difficult. Getting used to cooking for one most of the time was hard, and a reminder of my changed status. I see cooking as a form of self-care, and my self-care skills were not in great shape for some time. Plus, I tend to gravitate toward carbs for comfort in times of distress. In short, I was not eating in ways that felt healthy-to-me or caring-for-me.

Over time, the shadows of post-relationship sadness have lifted. Hallelujah! Happiness is once more my default state (more or less). I told my therapist recently that I didn’t think I was depressed anymore; I found myself singing songs in the morning. Of course, not like this:

Cinderella singing to birds and mice

But I have felt more of a spring in my step, and I guess also a song in my heart these days. Go me!

However, a change in emotional state does not automatically or effortlessly result in a seamless transition to new and healthy-to-me habits. I know this from past history. I started my current job in fall of 2001. I had been unhappy in my previous job, and in fact got denied tenure. However, I was very lucky to find another faculty position, and in the very city where I most wanted to live. Again, Hallelujah! Let all the people say Amen!

Yellow and black graphic of choir members with arms raised in joy

But it took some time to shift my habits of coping during periods of unhappiness and stress to new habits once the stress had eased.

Back to the present: I had gone to Kripalu in May to do a course on mindful eating, which was helpful. But I was feeling a bit stalled and bored about what I was eating.

Enter the Kripalu weekend cooking course.

I already know my way around a kitchen, and in fact fancy myself a pretty knowledgeable cook. The course went over knife skills and also organizing techniques for efficiency and good time management. Yeah, already knew that too.

But what really surprised me was this: I got reintroduced to taste. I mean all kinds of tastes—sweet, sour, bitter, salty, pungent, and astringent. Kripalu does a lot of menu planning and cooking based on the six tastes of Ayurvedic cooking.

Spices representing six tastes of Ayurveda

Chef Jeremy Rock Smith put together a variety of tastes in combinations that reflected different cooking traditions (e.g. Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Asian). And he created simple recipes that featured these tastes using vegetables, proteins, and salads. He recommended the book The Flavor Bible for anyone interested in exploring flavor combos in more sophisticated ways. I have already ordered it.

The book The Flavor Bible

For proteins, Chef Jeremy offered recipes that would work for tofu, chicken, fish, and other meats. For the most part we cooked with tofu and fish, but did a few chicken dishes as well. One of my favorite new-to-me tastes is courtesy of Za’atar, a Middle Eastern combination of spices that can be used mixed with oil and used as a dipping sauce, used on vegetables, or (as we did in our course) coated on protein for pan sautéing. Here’s a yummy and easy recipe:

Za’atar-crusted tofu/chicken/tempeh with pomegranate molasses

Za’atar spice (you can order it or buy it at spice shops or fancy grocery stores)

Olive oil

3 Tsp pomegranate molasses (same as above)

Dust protein with Za’atar generously (no need to coat it with anything, just dredge it as is). Heat pan, then add olive (or other) oil. Saute protein for 3—5 minutes on each side (more if it’s chicken, less if tofu or tempeh). Remove from pan and let sit for a couple of minutes. Then drizzle with 2 tsp of pomegranate molasses over each piece of protein (slab of tofu or tempeh, breast of chicken, etc.)

The Za’atar plus pomegranate molasses provided a wow combination of flavors that really woke up my palate. I found myself intrigued, and was looking forward to more taste exercises.

I wasn’t disappointed. My taste buds got a real workout over the weekend! Here are some of the dishes we made and sampled:

  • Creamed leeks with coconut milk and shredded coconut—oh man, they were soooo good. This could be a nice sauce accompaniment for fish or tofu, too.


  • Braised fennel with orange/yogurt sauce—I didn’t even think I liked fennel very much, and the orange yogurt thing seemed like a weird idea. But it was a taste sensation. We served it with white fish, which was yummy.


  • Brussels sprouts with ginger and (wait for it) kimchi—Whoa! Who would’ve thought this was a thing?   Not me. But it was an explosion of flavor—in a good way.


Since I’ve been back, I’ve done a bit of cooking, but I really got a chance to try out some of the recipes and techniques on friends Friday night after yoga class. I made grilled tofu with adobo sauce and sautéed sweet potatoes and onions with coconut milk. Both were a big hit. (I overdid both the spice and green chilis on the black bean dish—that’s what happens when I go off-script with new recipes, but 2 out of 3 ain’t bad).

So I’m feeling newly energized and equipped to head back into the kitchen with more excitement and purpose, armed with new knowledge and a wider array of flavors to try and enjoy.

So what’s the big deal? Why are a handful of new recipes so important for self-care?

For me, with respect to both eating and physical activity, novelty and variety are important. This isn’t true of everyone, but it is for me. I always have and always will love cycling and water sports, but I like to shake it up and try new things. I want new physical experiences and to tackle new challenges. Ropes yoga is a current novel activity for me (I blogged about my first class here). I’m also starting kayak rolling classes at the end of February, hoping to bring my boat skills to a new level in preparation for a weekend on-the-water course in April.

Why should eating be any different? Yes, I love oranges and avocados and eggs and bacon and tomatoes and arugula and sourdough bread, etc. And I have a bunch of recipes that I enjoy doing—my chicken fricassee is a classic that I love. But I’ve been yearning for something to, well, reward me for healthier-to-me eating that I’ve been trying (but not succeeding) in doing.

The wow-effect of new flavors may just be the reward I’ve been looking for. It requires a little investment of time, of restocking my kitchen with some new things, but it’s gotten me out of my eating rut. It is a source of pleasure, and a lovely act of self-care.

Let me know if you try any of these or if you have alternative ways of doing super-yummy flavorful recipes. If you’re interested I can put recipes in the comments section. And I’d love it if you shared some of your favorite recipes in the comments too!

graphic of bon appetit


4 thoughts on “Stretches for my taste buds and exercises for my palate

  1. It is very true to approach cooking and health also from standpoint of diversifying taste in different combinations. I believe the traditional style of Chinese meal cooking is a dinner meal with several multiple dish flavours for also balance.

    Anyway, not to make things too complicated. Just more exploratory.
    By the way, I seldom cook with recipes. All the Chinese cooking I do is based probably on 5-6 core recipes with multiple variations and flavour combinations. And neither does he. We each have learned 4-5 base new recipes every few years and then we just get creative/change it up when we might get bored.

    So try stir frying cubed butternut squash with onions, garlic, ginger root and dab of chili paste. Throw in a jot of soy sauce. No sugar is ever required. (Please folks don’t stick in honey or sugar with butternut squash!!! Totally unnecessary. Stir frying carmelizes stuff.) It amazes me the technique of baking a squash…waste of oven energy.

    Also stir fried beet greens with tomatoes, ginger root, abit of soy sauce, onions and garlic with noodles is delicious. I made up this dish.

    A comfort food Chinese is steamed savour egg custard. We have to get over what food looks like. That’s why a lot of Asians seem to eat unusual looking’s not. It may just look unusual..but good.

    Sitr fried fennel with tomato, abit of soy and ginger root, is lovely and easy

    I”ve made my own focaccia-flatbread. Even sweet with fresh berries, twirl of honey, crushed anise seeds and ginger root.

    A lot of what we eat is sort of invented…and legacy of each of his and my cultural heritage cooking roots. He creates yogurt based salad dressings and balsamic vinegar dressings, wonderful salads which I can’t seem to create. So he and I complement each other in style and choice.

    Thank you mothers….gives this gift to your children. This is why I hate it when people obsess over calories, etc. : it just knocks down the whole cultural journey and exploration over the years about cooking at home.

  2. Za’atar is wonderful on whole wheat, or white, pita slices. Cut the pita bread like a pie, and split the pieces to form a single layer in a foil lined baking sheet. Simply spray olive oil on the top of sliced pita bread, shake the Za’atar on top, and bake in the oven at 350 degrees F for about 10 minutes. Serve with hummus. Super yummy!

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