Interview with a Macrobiotic Chef for In Buddha’s Kitchen by Kiimberley Snow
Companion Site for In Buddha’s Kitchen by Kimberley Snow
Macrobiotic cooking provides a deeply spiritual approach to food, stressing harmonious balancing of yin and yang as well as mindful attention to ingredients and their preparation. Vivian Eggers, who lives on Maui, began her studies at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, and continued them at the Kushi Institute in Boston. She often cooks for religious retreats.
Harmony through Macrobiotics
Kimberley: What’s the theory behind macrobiotic cooking?
Vivian Eggers: Basically, it’s the understanding of the principles of yin and yang and its application to food and the condition of the body. Yin is basically expansive energy and yang is contractive energy, and there are many different words to describe the qualities of expansion and contraction: lightness and darkness, male and female. One of the most basic points for understanding this is through the seasons and the transformation of the seasons. Summer is hot, everything is lush and green, the birds are out singing every day. It’s an expansive time. Then this changes and shifts and goes all the way around to its opposite in the winter when the leaves are gone, it’s barren and cold, the land is frozen. We stay inside trying to keep warm and retain heat. Yin and yang are very real, very manifest in daily life. So when you start thinking in terms of yin and yang it’s like being given new tools for seeing.
Within that energy system, there are many correlations with the body, each organ corresponds to each of the five elements–fire, earth, water, air, and metal. And each element has a particular energy. That’s what one studies in acupuncture or shiatsu as well as macrobiotic cooking so that you understand the sensitivity of the organs to a particular time of year, to a particular time of day, to a particular color, to a particular emotion, to a particular food. In macrobiotic cooking, you study the whole body, not just how to cut up carrots.
K: You just spoke of metal energy. What is it?
V: We’re sitting here now in a country setting where there’s a lot of earth energy, but in the background, we hear a truck on the highway. That’s metal energy. It moves very quickly, it cuts through air energy, through earth energy. Look at these scissors, they’re made of energy, strong, solid, cutting. They’re good example of metal energy.
K: What food has metal energy?
V: Brown rice, for instance. It’s strong, and supports metal energy in the human body.
K: Let’s take one day in the life of a macrobiotic cook. How would you approach cooking for a family?
V: First, an assessment of my own condition, by checking in with myself in the morning to see how I feel. What color is my skin? What’s going on with my eyes? How’s my tongue? Are my fingers or toes cold? All those little things. If there’s a complaint–a headache, menstrual cramps–your body will let you know immediately. So this influences what I’m going to ingest throughout the day. If I’m cooking for children, then I go and be with them: Hello, how are you? How did you sleep last night? What’s going on with your body?
K: You have to be conscious of not only what’s being prepared and how it’s presented, but also who is going to eat it and how it effects them on an internal level?
V: Absolutely. Initially, it sounds like a lot of work, but it’s not. It’s as easy as riding a bicycle. When you first teach a child how to ride a bicycle, you tell her that she needs to sit on the seat, to balance, to pedal, to hold onto the handle bars and steer, go at a certain speed, so on and so forth. But doing it is really easy. And of course, the more you do it, the more you learn. This is a study I’ve been involved with for maybe fourteen years now and every time I cook for a group of people or go through a process with my own health, I’m still learning. It’s an expansion process, like being handed a flower that gradually unfolds over a period of years.
K: What all is involved?
V: In addition to nutrition, macrobiotics deals with the energetics of food, the energy of the cook and how important that is. Being aware that you’re not putting anger in the food, and so forth. Plus the style of cutting and how that influences not only the taste of the dish, but it’s energy.
If you’re cutting carrots, for instance, the way you cut creates a particular energetic quality. If I take the carrot and make big diagonal cuts by turning the carrot every inch, I end up with large triangular pieces, suitable for a stew. If I take the carrot and make quick short cuts on the diagonal, say an eighth of an inch, then turn these pieces over and cut them very finely, I end up with long fine match-stick shaped carrots. Now if I put them both into a large stew pot and cook them for an hour, the large pieces will be tender, the skin of the carrot will have lightly separated from it. However, the match-stick carrots will be completely exhausted. On the other hand, if I saute both of them in a skillet, the match-sticks will be done in a matter of minutes, where the others will be somewhat warmed and seared on the outside, but completely raw on the inside. So one of the fundamentals of macrobiotic cooking is knowing how to use a knife to chop vegetables so there is a uniform cut and consistency to them. Also, when you cut, you put your own ki [energy] into them as opposed to using a Cuisinart where you get a consistent cut, but no ki energy. If you want to give someone your ki, then the stronger food is the one you’ve cut by hand and put your energy into.
Food preparation becomes a form of meditation because of your focus and awareness and intention to sustain those you feed, not just to get the meal out of the way. When I’m cooking for retreats, it becomes part of my practice. I try to go into the kitchen and remain centered and aware, creating the most peaceful food that I can, even if it’s for a hundred and fifty or more people.
K: So instead of planning the menu a week in advance, you have to be constantly mindful what you need, of what your body needs, what other people need.
V: Absolutely. You develop that, and it’s quite easy. It just comes. I couldn’t go back to the other way of cooking. Now I always consider who am I cooking for and what is the intention. It has become second nature. When I cook I’m always in a place of joy and pleasure internally.
K: How do you know if food is yin or yang? Does it change depending on how it is prepared?
V: Yin and yang are relative to each other. In the Taoist symbol, one area is predominately black, with a little dot of white, and vice versa. This perfectly depicts yin and yang in that they’re connected to each other and even though a particular thing may have a predominantly yang quality, it still has a little bit of yin. Certain substances are very yang–salt and beef, for instance. But when you want to get into a fine comparison, you have to look at one food in relation to another.
The recommendation in macrobiotics is a grain-based diet. The main food you eat are grains, for they are our most gentle, peaceful, nurturing food, the ones with the most to give to sustain and develop human life. Within grains, brown rice is the focal point, the centering food. The rest branches out and develops around it.
K: Was all this developed before the theories about eating low on the food chain?
V: Long before, but it meshes beautifully with it. A cow is a large animal with its own digestive system, with a heart of its own, a circulatory system, a nervous system and so on. Before you can ingest it, you have to take its life in one way or another, then take the meat from its body in a good clean way and prepare it in a certain way, otherwise it becomes poisonous. Look at the activity that’s involved in all of that. Of course in this modern day and age, we just go to the supermarket and run the cart down the meat aisle and choose a shrink wrapped package. It’s not like it was several generations ago when people were involved in a personal way in taking the lives of the animal they would then eat. The modern meat industry has separated us from that process altogether. It’s yet another way in which we are divorced from our bodies.
K: And perhaps from the sacred. Many native traditions honor the deer for giving its life so that the two-leggeds might eat. And from the way you talk about macrobiotic cooking, even vegetables seem filled with an almost animistic energy.
V: Absolutely, the mundane world becomes very precious. Macrobiotic cooking requires constant mindfulness. The meals that I would feed a troupe of exotic dancers from Armenia wouldn’t be the same food that I would feed to group of nuns on retreat. There would be adjustments of the food, of the preparation, and the cooking technique.
Take grain, for instance. Most people take their grain in the form of bread. Even in whole grained-bread, the grain is crushed, ground into flour. Then it usually sits around a very long time until it is baked. By the time you get it, the grain has gone through quite a process. Where’s the chi energy in it? As opposed to going to the store and buying brown rice, cooking it in your pressure cooker, then eating it by crushing the grain in your own mouth.
Digestion begins in the mouth, so macrobiotics recommends that each mouthful be chewed 25 to 50 times to bring out the sweetness of the grain. Also to really taste the grain. Many people completely miss the experience of truly tasting food. There is a textural change that occurs as well in long chewing so that digestion is much easier since the food liquifies. If you take time to just sit and eat slowly, you’ll find that the food you are eating can be better utilized and that you’ll eat less. You can eat smaller portions of food and be satisfied.
Macrobiotics is about having a rich, full, deep, healthy, independent life. Part of the reason for eating this way is to remove yourself from the dependency of drugstores and doctors or even holistic practitioners. In studying macrobiotics, you are removing yourself from all of this for you are studying your body and its relationship to this earth, to the elements. In choosing your foods with such awareness, many deep and profound changes occur within the body.
K: I think that most people’s idea of macrobiotic food is that it is a very boring diet of brown rice.
V: Yes. Everywhere I travel people will say, “Oh, I did that macrobiotic diet.” When I ask them what they ate, they say they cooked brown rice and miso soup. That’s all I hear. Maybe they add aduki beans. That is pretty boring. But that isn’t what macrobiotics is about and it’s a great misunderstanding. Initially, Michio Kushi, who helped to popularize macrobiotics, promoted a basic macrobiotic diet consisting of a certain proportion of brown rice to beans to a sea vegetable to a root vegetable to a pickle accompanied by miso soup. That’s what I call the training wheel diet. So this is a guideline. The foundation is brown rice and miso soup, but true macrobiotic cooking spins out from there very, very quickly. To prepare a macrobiotic meal is a real spontaneous dance.
K: How would someone learn to cook macrobiotically?
V: They could start by seeking out a macrobiotic cook or center. There are people all over the United States. Also books are an excellent starting place. They provide information, bring up questions. The basic recipe book, Introducing Macrobiotic Cooking by Wendy Esko, is a primer that is very easy to understand; it teaches all the dishes in a straightforward way.
K: When I worked as a chef, I’d find myself having long, non-verbal conversations with food. Do you talk to food? Does it talk to you?
Macrobiotic advocates teach that eating in harmony with your environment creates a balance and peace in your life that can be extended to your family, community, and eventually the world. Keep this in mind the next time you sit down at a table for a meal.
Anyone who has ever been on a strict diet is familiar with the following eating meditation:
Take a small handful of raisins or nuts. Eat them one at a time, paying strict attention to taste, smell, texture. Don’t let your mind wander, but concentrate on each little morsel of food as it enters your mouth, as you chew and swallow, savoring the taste. Let the taste sensation completely disappear before you place another bite in your mouth. Compare this with the way you normally eat a handful of raisins or nuts. Try to eat an entire meal with this type of careful attention to what you are eating, chewing, swallowing.
To learn more about the macrobiotic community contact The International Macrobiotic Directory, 1050 40th Street, Oakland, CA 94608.
Michio and Avaline Kushi, who run the Kushi Institute in Boston, have a number of cookbooks out, including Michio Kushi’s Standard Macrobiotic Diet, 1992, and The Macrobiotic Way, 1985.
Other Macrobiotic Cookbooks:
Kushis Macrobi Ck
by Aveline Kushi (Author) (Paperback )
The Macrobiotic Path to Total Health : A Complete Guide to Preventing and Relieving More Than 200 Chronic Conditionsand Disorders Naturally
by Alex Jack (Author), Michio Kushi (Author) (Hardcover )
Cooking the Whole Foods Way: Your Complete, Everyday Guide to Healthy, Delicious Eating With 500 Recipes, Menus, Techniques, Meal Planning, Buying Tips, Wit & Wisdom
by Christina Pirello (Illustrator), Bill Tara (Paperback – March 1997)
Changing Seasons Macrobiotic Cookbook: Cooking in Harmony With Nature
by Aveline Kushi, Wendy Esko (Paperback – July 2003)
by Michio Kushi, et al (Paperback – August 1993)
The Quick and Natural Macrobiotic Cookbook
by Aveline Kushi, et al (Paperback )
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See also Aveline Kushi’s Complete Guide To Macrobiotic Cooking and Lessons of Night and Day. She and Wendy Esko co-authored The Changing Seasons Cookbook and The Macrobiotic Cancer Prevention Cookbook. Cornelia Aihara, who–with her husband Herman–run the George Ohsawa Macrobiotic Foundation and Vega Study Center in Oroville, CA, is the author of The Do of Cooking, Macrobiotic Kitchen, The Calendar Cookbook, and Macrobiotic Childcare. Andrea Bliss Lerman’s The Macrobiotic Community Cookbook features recipes and short sketches of the chefs involved.
For a book from a completely different perspective about the kinds of energy that can be put in food, read Like Water for Chocolate by Lauro Esquirel. Also be sure to see the wonderful film Babette’s Feast which is based on an Isak Dinesen short story.