I have a vivid memory of the value of food. Many years ago I spent an extended period in an Indian ashram. The ashram food hall was a huge open space where we sat on the floor in long lines. The “food wallahs” ran back and forth dishing out steaming mounds of rice, piquant concoctions of dhal and chutneys that innocently accompanied your rice, waiting to overpower your taste buds with the first bite.
As the food was served we would chant to Annapurna, the Indian Goddess of food; a gentle, rising and falling chant that seemed to settle us into a meditative state where the food became an offering to the god within rather than a simple hunger appeasement.
I was a regular; one of many Westerners who had taken a sabbatical to imbibe the philosophy of yoga. Our day consisted of work, work and more work, interspersed with spiritual practices. We felt very special and even a little superior to the short term stay local ashramites, who had to go back ‘out there’ after a stay of even one day.
It was lunchtime like any other day, but the old man who hunkered down next to me was not a regular. I had never seen him before. It was hard to say how old he was. His gnarled hands meant he was probably a farmer. His thin once-white dhoti confirmed the view, along with his thin frame, his weathered face and his dirty Nehru cap that he had lay by his food tray. It was a face, I knew, that had seen tragedy, and had seen love. He looked at me with a glorious toothy smile and attempted to touch my feet in respect. I touched his hand to stop him; I needed no reverence from this old soul.
The food was, as usual, hearty and excellent. I was on dish-wash duty after lunch and so I ate with gusto. He, on the other hand, ate very slowly, masticating every mouthful that he tossed into his mouth. He would scoop up a mixture of rice, chapatti, and dhal and with an obviously practised technique, roll it into a ball as he carefully chewed the previous mouthful. After each infrequent swallow, he would whisper “Ram” to himself.
I sneaked a look at him every now and then. He seemed as thin and sinewy as a Banyan tree, and his skin was as leathery as the water buffalo that was strolling along the street outside the ashram. His feet were like hoofs; hard, and terribly cracked. I looked at his hands; I could see every bone under his tightly stretched skin. This man had known something I had never known; real hunger.
I finished far earlier than him and as I attempted to arise from my cross-legged position, I brushed against him. It seemed like just a touch, but this small wisp of a man, about to pass food to his mouth, was jolted, dropping just six rice grains on the stone floor.
It was my turn to apologise, and I touched his feet in a gesture of apology. He stopped eating and gave me a look I still remember. He looked right at me, with hugely open eyes and the most beautiful wide smile creasing his weathered visage. He returned his attention to his food. The first thing he did was to reverently pick up the six grains of rice from the floor one by one, passing them to his mouth one by one, and whispering “Ram” after each grain.
I scrambled to my feet and made my way to the dishwashing area, a steamy dungeon of clanging steel dishes, deep hot water tubs and shouting young men. Yet in that cacophony, I felt still and calm within all the movement and noise, touched deeply by the old Indian farmer who had taught me the true value of that amazing gift from god called food.
Yesterday I read a wonderful article on macrobiotics by Vikki Sky. In it she said that macrobiotics, the Japanese system of food that attempts to balance the yin and yang energies in the body (acid and alkaline) is far more than a diet. She said it was all about harnessing harmonious existence, spiritual development and healing all conditions via natural food with the science of thorough chewing for optimal health and rejuvenation. I remembered my old eating partner when she talked about the need to chew our food.
I admit at this point that I am a failure at food mastication. In my rush to get this article into print, I gobbled down a gorgeous breakfast of pawpaw, passionfruit, banana and orange juice that should have been a culinary eroticism. By forgetting to appreciate the ‘now’, I completely missed the experience of all that beautiful food.
However there is more, much more, to chewing our food than just the joy of appreciation. In the ashram, my spiritual teacher said we should chew food 32 times. Macrobiotic founder Herman Aihara, author of the book “Acid and Alkaline” says we should chew each mouthful at least fifty times – up to one hundred. Macrobiotic retreats all around the world give great amounts of teaching time to conscious chewing, often with participants experiencing major changes of awareness or seemingly spontaneous healings.
Chewing properly is far more than the reduction of food to digestible mush. Proper mastication awakens the endocrine system, supporting rejuvenation and anti-ageing. Proper mastication also plays a vital role in body energetics, for it is the mouth where positive yang and negative yin energy meet.
Perhaps some readers may plug in their skeptic-shield at this point, but the evidence is in: a University of Tokyo study concluded that good chewing activates the parotid glands (located below the zygomatic arch or cheekbones), which release parotin, renewing cells and supporting the endocrine system.
The macrobiotic viewpoint is that by properly masticating at this most important of energy centres, the food becomes a living food; a vehicle of health and vitality by harnessing these heaven and earth energies. They say that the uvula or the soft plaate and the tongue, the gathering points of yin and yang energy, actually charge the food. Better mastication, they claim, releases more energy into the head and body, stimulating the thypothalamus and pituitary glands – the sacred kundalini energy glands revered by Indian philosophy. In Ayurveda, this is called ‘vipak’ energy, a subtle and peace-creating force.
Chewing releases saliva. Saliva kills bugs. So the more you chew, the ‘cleaner’ your food becomes. Our mouth is also a major ‘first post’ message centre relaying advance warnings to the stomach about what it can expect. In effect, the mouth, via saliva as a conductive agent, is telling the stomach “Okay, get ready for a pile of greasy horrible potato chips, two pots of beer and a steak sandwich”. The stomach, in turn, prepares exactly the right amount of acid for what is being ‘sent down’. (If, that is, it is even capable of producing acid any more! Recent studies show very widespread inability to produce enough acid on demand. Sang Whang, author of Reverse Ageing, says that this is because we are too acidic; acid and plaque buildup in the circulatory system does not allow acid to reach the stomach on demand and to order. )
So the better we chew, the more complete a message is given to the stomach. The better the stomach is able to prepare for food, the more complete is the digestion. The more complete digestion, the lesser will be the problem of undigested acid-laden food entering the lower intestine, putrefying, and penetrating intestinal walls into the gut.
There are more benefits to a good chomp. The brain receives more oxygen – up to 20% more. Perhaps this is a reason many adherents of good chewing use the time taken to chew to go inward and meditate. Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, Thic Nhat Hanh, offers a wonderful chewing meditation where he gives thanks to everyone and everything that has contributed to the creation of the food in his mouth. He spends his chew-time progressively offering thanks to the person who served the food, the person who cooked it, the person who prepared it, the person who delivered it, the farmer who grew it, the earth that supported it, the rain, the sun, the wind that strengthened it. No wonder blissful states can come as a result of chewing!
Chewing, then, is about balance. Herman Aihara, in his book “Acid and Alkaline”, points out that food choice in macrobiotics supports balance through correct choice of foods that leave either an acid or alkaline residue of minerals in the body. Good chewing allows us to harvest the full power of these minerals, which in turn allows us to get off the addictive merry-go-round of acidity and stress, which in turn causes acidity, which in turn causes stress.
A good friend recently invited me to attend a meeting of the Slow Food movement. Founded by Carlo Petrini in Italy in 1986, Slow Food is an international association that promotes food and wine culture, but also defends food and agricultural biodiversity worldwide.
It opposes the standardisation of taste, defends the need for consumer information, protects cultural identities tied to food and gastronomic traditions, safeguards foods and cultivation and processing techniques inherited from tradition and defends domestic and wild animal and vegetable species. All great objectives, of course, but the movement’s name just grabs me, conjuring up the idea of a leisurely afternoon repast with good friends on grass by a stream, or at home, spread over a few hours. With the mood and enjoyment fed not just by the taste of food lovingly prepared from organic sources, but by the very process of consumption; the chewing.
Slow Food says it all. Slow down and eat. Slow down your life. Use slow eating to add sacred spaces to your day where your newly oxygenated mind as able to remember what life is really all about; appreciating the present of the present; the divine moment of now.
Share this post