PhD Candidate + Lover of Bean Salad
Who are you? I am Nani. Age: 25. Profession: graduate student and teaching assistant of writing composition at Rutgers University. I was born in Hawaii, grew up in Connecticut and then in Nashville. I went to college in Maine, lived in France for a while, and now I live in New Jersey.
What’s your favorite green and what’s your favorite grain? My favorite green is arugula. And my favorite grain is the humble oat, of which I am a proponent. Lately I have found it really useful to put steel cut oats in savory dishes. For example a soup. Or a coconut curry with veggies—kinda like rice, but more texture.
Why did you start eating vegetarian? It’s a very millennial story. I saw a bunch of documentaries and read a bunch of different articles and just realized it’s probably terrible—not just for the environment, but also for people—to be eating meat. I decided with Basyl, my boyfriend, that we would be weekday vegans over the summer and see what happened. But no, I couldn't quite do without cheese at this point in my life, although I am a nutritional yeast enthusiast. I eat vegan very frequently, but I’m in a flexible phase. I identify as veg-curious.
What are the three most important staple items on your grocery list? I travel a lot, so shelf-life is important to me. I love canned beans. They’re good for everything, you just have to give them a rinse and then they can be a bean salad, which is my particular specialty.
The next item on my staples list is herbs. Super easy to grow (although I don’t because I kill everything I touch; my mother would be ashamed). Everything that you put herbs on is fancy automatically—even if that thing is just rice or that thing is just a salad dressing. So it makes me feel rich.
And the last thing I like is yogurt, which I know isn’t vegan, but it can be! Friends, I have sampled the vegan yogurts, and I’m here to tell you...well, that nothing is like the real thing unfortunately. But coconut yogurt is good. Almond milk yogurt tastes like boogers though, so don’t ever buy that.
What was growing up in your mom's kitchen like? I never really knew where my mom got her food philosophy from, because she grew up in the Berkshires, eating Wonder Bread. But I just discovered that my mom worked for the Cambridge CSA, when she and my dad were living in Boston in the 80s. She would take home whatever was in season and find a way to cook it! She says she cooked her way through the (vegetarian) Moosewood Cookbook in her 20s and has most of the recipes committed to memory. Mom has an amazing green thumb. So when I was a kid, we had giant patch—it was literally a farm—in the backyard in Connecticut.
It was probably ten feet by ten feet, and we grew all of the vegetables. I would grow carrots for the summer, and Julia, my sister, would grow the parsley and the basil, which I was always jealous of, because you don’t have to do sh*% to grow herbs. It’s so easy. It’s not easy to grow the other stuff.
Do you cook from recipes or do you wing it with whatever you have on hand? I firmly believe that you don’t need a recipe for most cooking. You do need a recipe for all baking. (I bake for my students sometimes, especially when they’re about to get bad grades.)
I know when to follow a recipe, and I know when to diverge from a recipe according to what’s on hand. More often than not in my daily life, I just improvise. I start off with an ingredient that I like, and then I give it the things I want to eat on it.
Do you and Basyl cook together? We do. We love to cook together. Although maybe one of my culinary goals this coming year is to be less obsessive and insistent in the kitchen. I do like things chopped in a certain way, and I think that chopping sizes affect how things taste...so I can be a little bossy...which can make things less fun. So even though I said that I’m super cool and easy and I love to improvise in the kitchen, things need to be chopped properly.
What’s your favorite family recipe? It’s my grandmother’s recipe on my dad’s side, and it’s called Oatmeal Bread. It’s very New Englandy: it’s a molassesy, oatmealy bread, and it’s the world’s best vehicle for butter. But you can’t put anything on it other than a light spread, because the journey is the reward. If you could veganize that recipe…
Are there any foods that you wish that you loved but that you just can’t get behind? Yes. When I was a young child, my picky thing was that I didn’t like red food. (I didn’t like tomatoes. I used to not even eat red apples.) And I got over everything, but I can’t get over berries. I never have liked them, and I continue to not like them. I especially don’t like raspberries and strawberries. It has never been a problem though, because other people always eat them for me.
When did you first start thinking about nutrition? It was in high school. It’s actually kind of a weird way I came into it, because my mom was also a super hippie yogi. (Yogini, I should say, which is the feminine...does that sound more feminine to you?) She gave me this book on macrobiotics that she had just read. I think it was called like The Hip Chick's Guide to—it was something super Barnes & Noble gimmicky, but I read it, and it was so interesting! I had always cared about what was healthy, because it tasted better. But it was the first time I ever thought about food having a connection to your mood. Macrobiotics is all about finding a balance in what you eat, so that your mood doesn’t get out of whack.
And it keeps coming up in different ways. A couple of years ago, I was learning about the Ayurvedic Doshas, where everyone has one of three Doshas: you’re Kapha, Pitta, or Vata. What you eat has an effect on that personality type. You could get yourself out of balance if you’re Pitta (which is the fire sign; you’re very ambitious), and you’re always eating super spicy, irritating foods. Instead, you need to eat foods that that are cooling—e.g. bitter, sweet, astringent.
What’s your Ayurvedic Dosha and what do you need to eat? I am Pitta-Vata. So sometimes, head up in the clouds (Vata’s the wind sign). I have really dry skin, which is a Vata sign, but my skin tends to be red, which is a Pitta sign. And Pitta is fiery, very ambitious, very organized, and you get angry...which...you know I have a temper. I think I’m more Pitta than I am Vata. What it means is that I need to eat foods that are a little more basic...And to a certain extent all of this is BS, but these are just metaphors with which to think about why it matters that you eat what you eat.
Are there words you live by (or eat by)? The axiom, maxim, truism I live by is..."an apple a day." I do eat literally one apple per day.