Meditations on the Buddha Bowl
A first-person account of why this is the most zen of food fads in this day of imbalanced eating
In the dystopia that is healthy eating, removing entire food groups and exaggerating others, a bit of everything is the anomaly. Some swear the kilos peel off with the Ketogenic diet, a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet with blobs of ghee or butter in coffee to make it, and you, apparently bulletproof. In Paleo, you revisit the meals of your cavemen ancestors, foraging in supermarkets for things you are permitted to eat: fish, meat, vegetables, nuts and seeds. A few years ago, I did the Whole 30 for a month, eliminating sugar, dairy, alcohol, grains, legumes from my diet, resisting the Diwali season to lose 7kg. But with skewed diets, that which tilts one way will inevitably tilt another, and at some point, that’s you, the leaning tower of imbalance.
As much as you may love meat (protein-rich diets), forcing yourself to eat it for every meal can make even favourite foods seem like a chore. It is also not healthy for the environment and self, with hormonally fortified meats.
Is there not some way in which to achieve a happy intersection of health and taste? “Aha, the thali exists for that purpose”, you will no doubt say. But multiple forms of carbohydrates occupy the largest space on the thali and unlimited refills make a mockery of portion control. And the elaborate prep for each item is tiresome.
I stumbled upon the Buddha bowls, much like everyone else, on Pinterest—ombre avocado slices on crisp kale in a bed of wild rice spotted with pink pomegranate and drizzled with tahini, such pictures are all over the internet. No one knows how it started, but the bowls mimic the alm-seeking of Buddhist monks and the resulting vegetarian minimalism (though today everyone adds what they want to).
I appropriated it further. The bowl is simply a convenient way to eat. Pre-filling it saves me from dealing with disproportionate leftovers. The difference from a traditional meal-in-a-bowl format is that in this, all the parts don’t have to complement each other. The food itself is minimalist, with an emphasis on nutrition. Here are my learnings from building my Buddha bowl.
Harmony in a circle
First, place the raw salad vegetable in as it is the easiest to assemble. Second, greens. I use lettuce to save time cooking, but also spinach, fenugreek, radish, amaranth and mint. Third, protein—egg, meat, fish, paneer or legumes. Fourth, any cooked vegetable. Save the fifth, grains, for the end. Varieties of rice, broken wheat, barley, millets, quinoa, etc. Next, I sprinkle toasted seeds and nuts like almonds, cashews, sesame, sunflower or flax. The seventh component is a sauce. I stick to simple assembly sauces—tomato salsa, a vinaigrette, a Kerala kadala curry, thuvaiyal (a south Indian chutney), a mint-yogurt raita, or coconut milk seasoned with garlic and green chillies. You could make an elaborate one if you have the inclination. The process naturally balances nutrients, textures, flavours, and colours. A glance will suffice to tell you if a bowl is in balance, or not. A too brown bowl would indicate excess of carbohydrates. Too green, and you’re probably not getting enough energy-giving carbohydrates and it won’t sustain you through the day. Too white would mean no micronutrients (vegetables, sprouts, greens, seeds and pulses). No reds or oranges, and you’re probably missing out on beta carotene. The absence of or too much of one colour helps you understand what’s missing from your diet.
More is eating less
At first, you will most likely put too much of one category, and take some out. The circular arrangement only accommodates a few spoons of each item. If you would normally eat a whole egg, you will find yourself fitting in half. Where you once used two cucumbers in a salad, you’ll find less than one fits. If you cooked 250g of a vegetable, you will find 50g going in. But the bowl looks stuffed to the brim, more than you would pile it with if you were putting a regular meal into it. The sum of the parts is truly greater than the whole.
In time, you find that you begin to shop for specific components. You are able to skip all the aisles of processed foods and head straight to fresh produce. What’s in your basket is now one tenth of what you used to buy. Sometimes people say that eating healthy is costlier. You’re buying more vegetables, sometimes reaching for more exotic ones, like broccoli or avocado. The trick is to replace, not add. Cut out the things you don’t need, and in comparison, your kitchen shrinks, your cooking time shrinks, the vessels you put to wash reduce and your waistline shrinks.
Simplicity builds its own layers
I only use two or three cooking techniques: chopping, steaming and blanching. Keep raw everything that can be kept raw. Steam everything that can be steamed. And what you’d like to keep a crunch on, like capsicum, for example, blanch or lightly sauté. I toast seeds and crush them in a mortar-pestle. I don’t season anything individually. I do it at the end, a light sprinkling of salt, pepper and lime. If there are things you want to fry or roast, go ahead and do it. Keeping things simple allows you to use fats. If five items in your bowl are steamed, then one section of fried aubergine slices, or cream in the mash, or ghee on the grain, is no problem at all. The only actual cooking is in the final sauce to pour over. The flavours blend into each other as you eat, each distinctly fresh and vibrant.
Use what is at hand
Seeking alms is also about eating what you are given. It is about going with the flow, and making the best of what you have. Some days that’s a watermelon-feta salad with red rice, avocado guacamole and pumpkin kootu, or steamed millets with bitter gourd chips, sliced tomatoes and sundal (south Indian-style steamed pulses with coconut) other times. When we break moulds of expected food collaborations, things come together in unexpected ways. A sweeter salad counters a drier grain, and a tangy sauce balances a bland vegetable.
Balance deters imbalance
The Buddha bowl has become the main meal of the day and everything else has become incidental. I make the bowls in the morning, as a complete meal for my son and myself. One thumb rule to follow is not to overseason with salt as it will make the final dish overpowering. Sprinkle salt on top if you must, use lime on individual portions and reserve the salt for your dressing. Also people tend to panic when they see how easy a Buddha bowl is to assemble. “Is that it?” they will ask. “Add some more meat.” “Add some masala.” Don’t succumb. Keep it simple. Your system will thank you. For children, a great trick is to include some things they like (toss a little pasta into the grain section, or use millets and bring together with a cheesy sauce). Limit to one item they love.
After a Buddha bowl in the morning, you will not be tempted to snack. A nutritionist might know better, but my instinct is that when all your food cravings are satisfied, there is nothing left to crave. In harmonious eating, you are not left feeling incomplete.
As the Buddha bowl becomes a practice, it dictates how you shop, snack and what you view as a complete meal. Its simplicity makes it the yin and yang, in which all the day’s patterns come to balance.
Build the bowl
Ingredients (serves one)
Layer 1: One crisp butterhead lettuce, torn with hands, portioned into two
Layer 2: Four to five portobello mushrooms, lightly sweated in olive oil and garlic
Layer 3: A handful of green peas, sautéed in olive oil and garlic, pureed
Layer 4: A handful of green beans, lightly sautéed or steamed to retain crunch
Layer 5: A handful of paneer, tossed in olive oil and basil
Layer 6: Red/yellow pepper, charred on open flame, peeled, sliced
Layer 7: A handful of steamed rice (or any grain), lightly sautéed in olive oil, basil
Layer 8: Toasted white sesame seeds, sprinkled on top
Layer 9: (optional) Five to six prawns, steamed or sautéed
Layer 10: Vinaigrette of olive oil, mustard, salt, pepper, lime or
Method: Place the torn lettuce in a bowl. Char the pepper, wash off the skin, slice and place in the bowl. In a wide pan, sauté chopped garlic in olive oil. In each corner of the pan place peas, green beans, mushrooms. Remove the peas and puree. Remove the beans and mushrooms once lightly cooked, arrange as next layers in the bowl. Toss the basil in the remaining oil and juices in the pan. Keep the flame on low. First, sauté paneer in it, remove. Then cooked rice, remove. Next, prawns, till cooked, remove. Layer these in the bowl. Do not add additional oil to the pan, use juices released by the vegetables, cover for steam if required. In the end, turn off the flame, put in the sesame seeds, sprinkle on the layered bowl when toasted. Add salt, pepper and lime if needed. Serve with a vinaigrette or sauce of your choice.