What's on your lips
“Happiness is temporary, but peace is eternal”
Food should not make you feel guilt or shame. Food is nourishment, energy and happiness, believes chef and cookbook author Nira Kehar who for nearly a decade managed the Chez Nini bistro in New Dehli.
In 2018, her world was turned upside down as she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The illness helped her to find her way to a state of peace and balance of both body and mind which she believes is the purpose of life.
How did your interest in food and gastronomy come about?
I graduated as a computer engineer in Montreal where I grew up. One day after a long day at work, I fell and injured my hip and spine. I was 24 years old and couldn’t walk, sit or lie down. The fall triggered a huge identity crisis for me. When you’re young, you just live and use your body. Being temporarily disabled was very shocking. My intuition told me that I had to enter the pain, that my body was trying to tell me something, and when I look back at that episode, the accident was a blessing in an ugly disguise. It triggered this intense need to be creative. I wanted to do something else with my life, and I started to think about what creativity meant to me.
To me, creativity was something warm and loving – a link between love and the act of creating. As a child, I played piano and danced, but I was born into an Indian immigrant family where creativity wasn’t seen as a profession – it was seen as a hobby. While I was laid up in bed and had all the time in the world to think, I started to wonder whether my life could be full of what I’m most passionate about? Could it become my job? The thought started to expand within me and generated an excitement that meant that my pain almost made sense.
The language of love in my family was food. The way my mother showed my sisters and me love and care was by providing nourishing meals. My mother’s kitchen never slept. Wonderful, and sometimes strange, smells always streamed out of her kitchen and materialized on our plates. There was always a story being told by the food in the pots, and I realized that food made me feel loved.
Luckily, I’m slightly mad, and when I want something, I go after it. So I applied to the culinary school in Montreal and felt that everything just fell into place.
When I was young, I spent most of my time studying in the library, but at culinary school a whole new world of friendships, cooking times, carving and endless plasters on my fingers from cutting mishaps opened up. I went out, drank, surrendered myself to taste universes and discovered a whole new side of myself. A world that wasn’t only intellectual, but also sensuous. I entered into my own body.
One of the teachers at the school told me:
“Your parents are from India, you look Indian, but you know very little about Indian food culture. Why don’t you do some work experience in India?”
I thought he must be crazy. What would I do in India? Cook French food? But I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind. Because India is, of course, a piece in the personal jigsaw that I was now working on. Maybe I could learn something about myself if I connected with that part of me.
I arrived in New Delhi in June. It was 40°C and there were mosquitoes, traffic and billions of people everywhere. Total chaos. I had found a work placement at a hotel and worked in a basement with 160 men and one other woman. It was such a crazy challenge. They didn’t understand what I was saying. But when you’ve grown up in an immigrant family and your parents came to Canada with five cents to their name, you have an implicit understanding that you just have to succeed. Giving up is not an option, and today I’m so thankful for that fighter instinct. I boiled and sweated my way through my chef’s jackets from morning to night on my little station, but I stayed there – and kept extending my stay – without really being able to explain why. I ended up staying there for nine years. I married an Indian man and opened a restaurant called Chez Nini, a cozy little bistro on the French model which became my baby. Then I got divorced. My heart was broken, and I used the despair and grief as my fuel to focus on my restaurant. It was such a healing process where I grew and went through a great transformation. Though, after 6 years I was physically and emotionally exhausted and realized that the time had come to close the restaurant and leave India.
You are very much into the holistic health system of Ayurveda. Can you explain a little bit about what it is and why it makes so much sense in your universe?
Ayurveda (5000-year-old Indian health system – ed.) is a great big monster made up of natural science, psychology, humanism and spiritualism. Ayurveda is no quick fix. It isn’t something you can just sit down and learn. You have to be patient and take it all in bit by bit. When children start to learn to read, they start by learning the alphabet. Then they learn to put the letters together and, finally, they are able to read words and sentences. It’s a process. But what you get out of it in the long term is the most trippy, beautiful, satisfactory experience.
I initially encountered it when I was ten and found Paramhansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi from 1946 (an introduction to the Oriental spiritualism – ed.) at the local library. It became my Harry Potter, my truth. I wanted to be a yogi.
I’ve always had a drive and a curiosity about where we come from. When you come from a home full of problems, you try to find ways to reduce the pain. Ayurveda became my rescue that helped me to keep my head above water. I didn’t become a yogi, but with Ayurveda as my guide I identified my personal way of cooking.
The most important principle in Ayurveda is finding balance. That’s the sum of the system. Ayurveda is based on the fact that we’re all born in a condition of health. But as time goes by, things can shift you out of that balance between mind and body – so how do you find your way back again? Ayurveda gives you some guidelines that can help: find out which of the three dosha types of kapha, pitta and vata you are and eat in balance with nature and the seasons, move daily and meditate.
In your cookbook Ojas – Modern Recipes and Ancient Wisdom for Everyday Ayurveda you try to make Ayurveda more accessible. What can people in the modern age learn from Ayurveda?
Ayurveda can teach us a great deal about ourselves. Most of the time we walk around ignorant of what our bodies really need. What does the feeling of hunger or a craving tell us? It tells us something about what’s happening in our body – in the same way as a feeling tells us something about how our soul’s feeling.
We are very concerned about what type of petrol we put in our cars, but our body is the vehicle that we use to transport us to the most beautiful experiences in our lives, but we still eat so much food that’s bad for us. The Internet has contributed to so much confusion about food and health that we’ve become removed from our natural instincts. Ayurveda teaches us that food must constitute nourishment for all of your life – your joy, your cells, your brain, your energy. Eating goes so much further than just the mechanical action of putting something in your mouth.
The idea with my cookbook was to make food based on Ayurvedic principles just as tasty as chocolate or a cake. I wanted to showcase the colors, the joy of the sexy and the delicious. That’s my personal interpretation of Ayurveda.
The book is called Ojas because in Ayurveda ojas is the energy that gives you life. It’s your spark and everything you use to feed your body and your mind. The finest by-product of all the things you consume. The food, of course, but also every table you have sat at, the conversation, the feeling of community, every memory.
Has your way of cooking changed since you were diagnosed with breast cancer?
My illness has meant that I’m concerned more than ever with the type of food that’s good for me. Not understood as a rigid diet because eating shouldn’t be filled with shame and guilt – and many illnesses such as cancer also affect people who live and eat healthily.
Of course, I believe that you should seek out knowledge and eat the type of food that’s good for your body, but I believe you need to be careful about linking food and medication because then you start to eat for reasons other than giving your body the most enjoyment and nourishment. Then the purpose becomes more important than the joy. You don’t go to a concert and wonder how they tuned the instruments. Well, musicians do maybe...
Ayurveda is a system about how we co-exist and harmonize with nature. How we best connect to nature, how it serves us best and how we serve it best. The whole dance, but without that being the purpose of it all. The purpose is that you find a state of peace.
Happiness is overvalued. Happiness is temporary, but peace is eternal. It can be a state of mind. In order to generate that feeling of peace, your body and your mind have to be in balance. Ayurveda helps you to find that balance.
Who are your role models?
Funnily enough, it’s a constellation of different people. An all-star crew of artists – Louise Bourgeois – she’s incredible. Anselm Kiefer, Richard Serra, Pablo Picasso, the way in which he pinpoints the essence with just a single line. Their inexhaustible dedication to art and the creative process have made me realize that becoming obsessed with things is a good thing – become obsessed, dive deeper down into discovering what your passion is and you’ll find yourself there.
What is it about cooking that brings you joy?
I love cooking for people, feeding them. I love celebrating and partying. I want to open up people’s senses. Our senses are the portals to our body and when you’re able to engage people’s senses in a way that you feel you were made to do... It just feels so meaningful.
When I had a restaurant in New Delhi, I loved standing in a corner and secretly observing people when they ate their first mouthful. Just in that moment, the effort, all the washing, cleaning and chopping suddenly became irrelevant.
I believe that the meaning of life is to create. We have a longing to survive, but when our most basic needs have been met, we have a deep longing to create. It’s a way of expressing ourselves. Proof that we exist in this world.
About Nira Kehar
Nira Kehar, 40. Chef, cookbook author and creative concept developer. Lives in Copenhagen with her husband, composer and percussionist Mikkel Hess. Nira was born in Montreal to Indian immigrant parents.
When she completed her training to be a chef, she travelled to New Delhi to find out more about her family background. Author of the Ojas – Modern Recipes and Ancient Wisdom for Everyday Ayurveda coffee table cookbook. Follow Nira on @youarewhatyoufeast.