For a city that loves its healthy eating trends, New York has a serious lack of restaurants specializing in ayurvedic cuisine. The original guide to cooking for wellness has been a life’s work for chef Divya Alter, who’s finally opened Divya’s Kitchen in the East Village to bring its ancient principles to modern food.
“Ayurveda is the science that teaches how to maintain balance in terms of three things: diet, routine and environment, the three pillars of health,” she explains. “Food is meant to keep the body in balance, heal it, support our human journey, it’s meant to be our friend.”
Alter should know: The chef learned learned to heal herself with food at an ayurvedic clinic in India after conventional treatment failed to cure a severe gut infection. She’s been teaching the same culinary methods at Bhagavat Life with her husband since 2006 in the same building at 25 First Ave. where Divya’s Kitchen just opened.
Though ayurvedic cooking is traditionally associated with India, Divya’s Kitchen (25 First Ave.) is taking a global approach to its menu. Its seasonally driven menu spans Italy to Asia — “I like to ayurvedize dishes” — from vegetarian lasagna made with almond milk bechamel to paneer in a raisin-cranberry sauce. The restaurant makes a line of fresh juices (which can be served paired with the menu!) as well as several ingredients like coconut milk, ghee and mozzarella cheese in-house (“fresh means it carries living energy”), as well as a menu of fresh juices. The restaurant is vegetarian; much of the menu is also gluten-free.
The dishes at Divya’s Kitchen won’t be individually customized the way an ayurvedic diet would be, which is based on a long list of factors ranging from age to body type. Instead, Alter designed her menu to ease some of the most common problems of life in the city.
“Especially in New York, there is so much pollution, so much stress and noise, and a lot of people suffer from indigestion because of it,” she says. “We try to keep our foods nonacidic and avoid foods that are harder to digest, so after you eat you feel light and energized.”
That means avoiding inflammatory foods and even some cooking methods: Instead of vinegar, Alter uses lime juice, grains and beans are soaked overnight to make them easier to digest, and nothing is deep-fried. Alter relies heavily on a wide range of spices to flavor her dishes, with a lot of “warming” clove, cinnamon, ginger and black seed for the colder weather.
Though there are no strictly good or bad foods in ayurvedic cooking, you won’t find members of the nightshade family like potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant and peppers on Alter’s menu, which can irritate the gut. Also out are onions, mushrooms and garlic, though for an entirely different reason: “Ayurveda recommends them as medicine; if you eat it every day, garlic is a natural antibiotic so it can diminish the friendly bacteria in the gut.”
Alter, a yoga practitioner, has another reason for avoiding them: onions and garlic make the mind restless, which can be good if you need the energy for a marathon, but not at dinner when you’re going to bed shortly afterward. “Modern nutrition is very limited only to the nutrition facts of different ingredients,” she explains. “Ayurveda goes much deeper, it gives us knowledge of post-digestive effects, especially if you combine the wrong foods.”
Divya’s Kitchen is located at 25 First Ave. in the East Village. It’s open for dinner Tuesday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m., with menu prices ranging from $4-$22.