For the busy New York City professional, it’s difficult to imagine finding the time to cook, never mind whipping up a healthy and delicious vegetarian meal. But recently many have found that a balanced meat-free, home-cooked diet may not be so far out of their grasp.
The answer lies in Manhattan, where vegetarian cooking classes offered twice a week at the Bhakti Center—a spiritual educational facility based on the principles of Bhakti Yoga—are drawing ten to fifteen people per two-and-a half-hour session.
Teacher Divyambara Dasi, who has been practicing Bhakti yoga for twenty years and cooking for just as long, expects students to be able to cook their own dishes at home after only four classes. This is no cooking demonstration—it’s a hands-on experience, designed for maximum learning.
“I begin each class by introducing each dish we’re going to make and the main ingredients we’re going to use in a very visual, interesting way,” Divyambara says. “For example, I will say, ‘Today we’re going to cook quinoa.’ Then I will show it and my assistant, who is a certified nutritionist, will explain how it is the grain richest in protein. Or I will say, ‘Today we’ll be cooking a zucchini dish,’ and I’ll explain how it’s a good summer vegetable—cooling, refreshing, and easy to digest.”
Divyambara then splits her students into teams of two and has them cook a full six-course dinner. Each team focuses on a different dish—rice, vegetable, bread, drink, salad dressing, or dessert. They begin by reading their recipes, all of which are quick to make, nutritionally balanced, and promote long and healthy lives—there’s no refined products like white flour or white sugar, no fried food, and very little dairy.
Next, Divyambara spends some time at each team’s separate station to supervise them and explain step by step what they need to do.
“Many of my students have never used the kitchen at all—some don’t even know how to boil water or cut up vegetables,” she says. “But I’m right next to them and show them everything, they do it, and they pick it up quickly.”
Once in a while, amid the flurry of cooking, Divyambara will ring a bell, and everyone will stop what they’re doing and go quiet.
“I’ll say, ‘Okay, rice team! Tell us and show us what have you done so far,’” she explains. “In this way, by first reading about the recipe, then cooking it themselves, and finally explaining how they did it, they learn and retain a lot. What’s more, each team also becomes familiar with the different steps involved in the dishes the other teams are making.”
Divyambara has two reasons to ask her class not to taste anything while they’re cooking: one is purely hygienic, while the other is in preparation for blessing the finished meal. In the Bhakti tradition, she explains, we ask God to bless our food. She then chants Sanskrit prayers, and welcomes her students to offer their own prayers according to their faith. Sometimes she invites students—such as, on one occasion, a Jewish Rabbi—to say the main prayer.
She also evokes a feeling of gratitude by asking God to bless not only the meal and the cooks, but everybody else who contributed to the meal—the cows who gave the milk, the farmer in Peru who provided the quinoa, the truck driver, and the shopkeeper.
Finally, everyone sits down and eats together. “Because we’ve been consciously cooking together as an expression of love,” says Divyambara, “It’s a very beautiful atmosphere, and a very bonding experience.
During the last session of every month, Divyambara takes her class on a shopping excursion to the nearby health food and Indian grocery stores. “There are many spices and ingredients in the cooking that they’re unfamiliar with,” she explains. “Most of them don’t know what asafoetida is, for instance. So I show them how everything looks and smells, what is good quality and what isn’t.”
Most of Divyambara’s students are not vegetarian when they begin her classes, and are doubtful that they could sustain themselves on a meat-free diet, even if they wanted to. So Divyambara’s ultimate intention for her classes is for them to go home with an exceptional experience of a tasty vegetarian meal, and knowledge of how to prepare it.
“One woman told me when she came in, ‘Please forgive me, I don’t know anything—I mean anything,’” says Divyambara. “But in her first class, she made an amazing dish. Then she made the same thing for her boyfriend at home, and it turned out amazing again. It was the first time she had cooked anything on her own. She told me how empowering it felt to be confident that she could actually cook for herself and be a healthy vegetarian.”
But for the New York professionals who attend them, Divyambara’s classes are more than just learning how to cook. There’s a great sense of community, people connecting with one another, and spiritual nourishment. “I love the whole experience of teamwork,” commented Donna LeBlanc, a bestselling author and life coach for CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. “And the food tastes so magical. I swear that God enters it!”
“What you’re doing is more than just cooking,” said a PR professional for a major company. “It’s bringing people together on a higher level.”
Former students—who now number over 150—are keen to keep experiencing these things, even once they have completed the four-session program. So when some expressed this desire to Divyambara, she began to invite them to come and cook together again on one Sunday every month, and to invite their friends to come and eat.
“As in the classes, I split them into teams, and each team focuses on making a different dish,” Divyambara explains. “I am still there to guide them, but I have less of an active role, as we cook dishes they are already familiar with. The amazing thing was, the first time we did it, I was sure it would take at least three hours for the eight students to cook for the forty people that came. But in two hours, they had finished everything and left the kitchen completely clean!”
The food and the event was a success, as people bonded and students from different groups got to meet each other.
Divyambara hopes to make the monthly meet-ups a steady program, with possible plans to branch out to various locations around the city.
“I hope we can continue connecting with people and growing this community,” she says.