Auroville. We were fascinated that there is a place (and people) on this blue earth existing for the sole reason of promoting human unity. We made a brief visit to Auroville in 2014 before returning in 2016 for a better understanding of this unique place.
In order to make the connections we value, we needed to go deep into the community and meet a few residents. We wanted them to be people whose lives centred around growing and/or making food.
Starting out early from Puducherry, we had an appointment with an Auroville community guide. A French expat, her name was Veronique. We met up at a picnic table outside a juice bar in the main visitor area under the shade of native trees. Birds sang and flew about as we began a conversation.
Veronique wanted to know our intentions. Initially, her questions were as sharp as the cheek bones protruding from her face. Her grey hair was shaved close to her head and her eyes were big, round laser beams darting between us. Loose cotton clothing in shades of pink and burgundy hung from her angular frame.
I looked her straight in the eye and was completely honest about our intent. Our goals were (and still are) to breakdown stereotypes about India, increase human connectivity, and to foster understanding of cultures with food as the key to unlocking the door.
Auroville, she explained, had recently received negative publicity from several sources of international media. They had established a community outreach office to increase the accuracy of reports.
Assured that we were only there to learn about the lives of cooks and that our only exposé would be in the form of recipes that reflect Auroville and its unique culture, her shoulders settled into relax mode and a smile crept onto her face. It felt like the ice breaking up on a frozen lake after a long hard winter.
She phoned a friend with a vegan restaurant that we might visit. When we suggested a farm tour and lunch at a permaculture farm we’d heard of, she was totally on side and we were off to the races – almost literally.
Our driver tic-tac-toed over and around the post-monsoon pot holes at an alarming speed to keep up with Veronique’s agile moped on the red mud roads. Our formerly white Toyota sedan looked like it had a bad tie-dye job.
Veronique was happily unaware. Her long flowery pashmina flowed in the breeze she created on her speedy two wheels. Our first stop was Satchitananda Restaurant , a raw food restaurant, and a meeting with owner Anandi Vaithialingam.
Anandi was born and raised in Tamil Nadu. Her father worked for the railway and they moved frequently. With eight brothers and sisters, they learned to make new friends quickly and never got too attached to any one place.
Between the ages of six to 12 she learned to cook from her grandmother and auntie. She says her house was filled with love and school was fun, “We learned about arts and nature.” Her father always treated women as equals. Her mother trained her in house cleanliness and how to chant mantras so she would come to whatever cooking or household work there was and lend it a calm, pure energy.
“My mother said it was Indian standard that I must learn to make 400 recipes and that it was a women’s role to keep a man connected to the home through food.” Happy to have had this training, Anandi went on to say that she also learned some Ayurvedic cures.
“We did not eat garlic or onions routinely. We had castor oil every six months. Garlic rasam with tamarind and chillies was to cleanse the sinuses.”
From their own garden, they grew an unlimited variety of vegetables. “I think this prepared me to cook vegan without fear. I only look at it as freedom. There’s no rules. I cook a lot from memory.”
Anandi always had a love of botany and gardening. Spinning cotton kept her out of mischief. “All these things inform who Anandi is expressing now,” she said, speaking of herself in the third person.
She came to Auroville in 1991, and in 1997 she helped establish the Kottakarai Organic Food Processing Unit (KOFPU). Foods are cooked there. Raw food was not part of her Indian cooking heritage.
A few years later, she cooked for a Canadian visitor to Auroville who was vegan. “He said to me, ‘You’re a natural at this.’ I was not preconditioned to non-veg (eating meat) and was open to trying many things.”
Anandi ate the raw food she prepared for her guest for a week and noticed she didn’t have to eat a lot to feel full, her senses were sharper, her digestion and elimination improved, she had more energy, sleep needs went down and she felt light and more agile. A Swedish woman who was also raw vegan told Anandi about a school in the U.S. that specializes in raw vegan cooking.
In 2007, Anandi applied to “The Tree of Life Rejuvenation Center” with a letter explaining how she wanted to bring the knowledge back to Auroville and spread it. The school immediately replied and offered her a full scholarship. She spent 10 weeks in Arizona studying spiritual nutrition with Dr Gabriel Cousins, the founder of the school. In 2011, Anandi started her restaurant.
In case you are wondering, “Sat”, “Chit” and “Ananda” are three Sanskrit words meaning absolute – consciousness – bliss. Definitely words to eat by, and truly how people are trying to live in Auroville.
We arrived and walked to the front door across a patio scattered with tables and chairs. Inside, we found a big square room reminiscent of a church hall. There was a serving counter on the far wall that was open to the kitchen. Light streamed in from big windows along the side walls.
Inside the kitchen, dehydrators lined one wall where ovens or a cooktop might be in most professional kitchens. There was no need for industrial HVAC exhaust hoods here. A bank of VitaMix™ blenders for the mainstay of the menu, a rainbow of smoothies, was the only potential for din.
The pantry was filled with ripening fruits and Anandi and Veronique sat on the floor while Anandi counted out bananas as a form of payment to Veronique. Veronique is vegan. “Eating an animal would be like eating one of my children,” she said with a shudder.
Even though her restaurant is raw and vegan, Anandi said she is not fanatical about her food preferences. “Many raw foodists become dogmatic or egotistical about their food choices. I believe everyone should follow their own path. My husband is American and still enjoys meat. I cook that for him out of love for him. It does not interfere with my own path.”
It’s the crack of 11 a.m. when the first of Anandi’s team start to arrive. The restaurant is open 12 to 2 p.m. and 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. We bought Anandi’s raw food recipe instructional DVD before leaving her to consciously enjoy her absolute bliss. Her smile beamed us out the door.
Onward we went deeper into the community. Our next stop was Solitude Farm and a chance to meet owner Krishna McKenzie.
Raised in Britain, Krishna came to Auroville at the age of 19, in 1993. He had just graduated from the Krishnamurti School in Britain. With its philosophy of self-reflection and responsibility, inclusion and experience in growing food and living a vegetarian lifestyle, the school was an incredible launch pad for him to make the transition to life in India and Auroville.
Krishna is a successful jazz musician, music festival organizer and a farmer using permaculture and natural farming methods. Fluent in the Tamil language, he married and has children with a Tamil woman.
He started Solitude Farm in 1996 based on the practices of natural farming set out by Masanobu Fukuoko. Meeting his great mentor in 2003 at Vendana Shiva’s Navdanya farm in Dehradun solidified this approach, and Solitude Farm is now six acres of wild and cultivated food with over 140 fruit and vegetable species.
There is an organic food kitchen and cafe and a community-supported agriculture subscription service that supplies customers with fresh produce two to three times a week. Krishna often posts recipes from the cafe on the Solitude Farm and Organic Kitchen Facebook page.
As we sat to visit, we discovered that Krishna was burning up with a fever. His face was beet red and he was sweating profusely. We felt hot just looking at him.
Regardless, he still took the time to talk with us before heading off to give instructions to the farm’s WOOFer (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) volunteers. He also had to prepare for an upcoming music festival that draws thousands of enthusiasts to Auroville each season.
We talked first about his mentor, Masanobu Fukuoka. “Society is without connection to food. When there’s only a dollar value connected to food, it loses its social and cultural value.” One of Krishna’s favourite quotes from Fukuoka is, “The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”
Krishna’s vision to achieve this goal is a road back to nature with three-prongs. First, Solitude honours all organic matter and returns it to the land resulting in a profit that’s nutritional not financial. “All well-being starts with the soil.”
Krishna also believes that Mother Nature must be honoured by eating all the things she offers. This is reflected in the many wild foraged foods eaten at the cafe. “Eating this food is a way of giving thanks to this earth.”
And finally, he believes in building community through celebration and education about local food. That’s where his love of music is integrated, and the free farm tours each Saturday and regular permaculture workshops as well. “Change doesn’t happen without joy.”
It was hard to keep up with Krishna’s thoughts, even when he was quite ill and it gave us cause to wonder how we would have faired had he been well. When asked how he felt about industrial agriculture he didn’t blink an eye and simply said, “Chemical companies will change when we change. Don’t blame. Just make change through your own actions.” And, with that, he excused himself and we turned our attention to the smells wafting through the air from the nearby kitchen.
Lunch at Solitude
Veronique introduced us to the cook, Sarah. We scanned the chalk board of hand-written menu items. Pauli-Ann chose the daily thali (multi-course meal) and I chose the ragi (finger millet) dosa plate.
While our dishes were being prepared, we admired the vegetables in the CSA baskets and spread out on the counter of the open air kitchen. The colours, textures and variety were of this place and not things you’d ever see in a Western supermarket. Craggy-skinned pumpkins with bright orange flesh, clusters of green berries, and native greens and herbs promised novel flavours.
Flavour in food comes from the variety and amount of nutrients it contains. Our lunch at Solitude Cafe was one of the most flavourful we experienced on our road trips. There is soil science behind this.
Soil Science 101
One teaspoon of organic soil has a billion bacteria, several yards of fungal filaments, several thousand protozoa, and scores of nematodes in it. Those organisms are crucial to the delivery of nutrients from the soil to plants through something called the plant-microbial bridge. Plant roots that are surrounded by microbes in organic soil can absorb the great variety of nutrients the microbes transport. In exchange, the plants take gaseous carbon and feed the microbes a liquid form which they in turn sequester as solid carbon.
When synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are sprayed on the earth, the pH is changed and the microbial life diminishes. When the microbes are not there to deliver nutrients to the plants, the plants become weak and are much more susceptible to attack by pests. Weak non-nourished plants lead to weak non-nourished people. You can now make sense of Krishna’s comment that, “Industrial agriculture is genocide.”
We so enjoyed our lunch that we decide to indulge in pieces of Sarah’s Raw Vegan Carrot Cake. Despite eating a large quantity of food, we left feeling vibrant and alive. We waved goodbye to Veronique, who we’d now become fast friends with, and left satisfied that we had connected with Auroville on a deeper level.
In the next post, we’ll share more about this place, Auroville, and its beginnings and journey towards its goals. We’ll also be sharing recipes for some of the food we enjoyed so much including the Ragi Dosa, Raw Vegan Carrot Cake, Date Laddu, a Green and Minty Smoothie and side dishes like Cassava and Spinach Subzi and Coconut Dal with Spinach.
All words and photos are our own and were not shared with the sponsors before publication.