Cooking with Yamuna Devi: Traditional Indian Taste

Chef Yamuna Devi has spent her life developing a culinary style that blends traditional indian cooking with fresh new recipes for great tastes.

| October/November 1997

  • Yamuna Devi
  • Yamuna Devi
  • Yamuna Devi
  • Yamuna Devi
  • Yamuna Devi
  • Yamuna Devi
  • Yamuna Devi

The following recipes, which demonstrate some classic Indian techniques with spices, are from The Vegetarian Table: India, by Yamuna Devi (Chronicle Books, 1997).
Pumpkin and Toor Dal Bisque
Aloo Dum (New Potatoes in Cashew Broth)
Mung and Cauliflower Kitcheree
Tamil Nadu Curry Powder 

Yamuna devi is a chef whose work has evolved over the years to reflect her changing values and life choices. She has merged traditional Indian vegetarian cooking with a culinary style uniquely her own that emphasizes fresh foods and intriguing herb and spice combinations. The result is a sumptuous yet healthy cuisine that is both traditional and altogether new.

In 1966, Joan Campanella met the Indian swami Srila Prabhupada in New York City, where she assisted him in preparing a wedding feast. He soon became her spiritual teacher, she his devoted disciple. She adopted Hinduism and took the Sanskrit name ­Yamuna Devi as a symbol of her commitment to a new way of life. In 1970, Yamuna went to India and remained there for two years. With the swami and others, she traveled the length of the country, attending holy fairs, festivals, and other spiritual events. Along the way, she slept in royal palaces, tents along the riverbeds, and many simple Indian homes.

India is a country of 600 million vegetarians and many different regional cooking styles. At each home in which the travelers dined, the swami would ask Yamuna, “Can you make this?” and then tell her, “Go learn,” whereupon she would go into the kitchen with her notebook and find out how to prepare the dish in question. This quest for knowledge became a mission, and Yamuna subsequently spent seventeen years in India studying the Vaishnava kitchen (Vaishnavism is a major Hindu sect) and regional cooking throughout India.

In 1987, Yamuna completed a cookbook, Lord Krishna’s Cuisine, which has since become a much-acclaimed classic of Indian vegetarian cooking. Returning to the United States, she settled in Key West, Florida, and began a decade-long adventure in fusing her knowledge of Indian, Caribbean, and New York spa cuisines with the abundant seasonal produce now available to her. Today, Yamuna’s cooking is contemporary, fresh, and filled with marvelous flavors and textures, but it is rooted, with respect and love, in the traditions of India. As she explains, if we always hold onto those things in our lives that don’t change, then the meals we serve may reflect the times and trends and our increasing knowledge of fine eating and good health, but they will also reflect those deeper attachments.

Flavors of the temple

The cooking style of the temple—the dishes prepared for the holy men—is the heart of India’s tradi­tional vegetarian cuisine, according to Yamuna. The foods and spices used reflect the beliefs of Hinduism. Temple cooks use no onions and garlic, for example, in the belief that they give rise to passion.

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