Macro is Alive and Well at Mana

9 04 2012

Our Meal: L-R Okinomiyaki Pancake, Sauteed Greens with Shiitakes, Kidney Beans, Brown Rice, Sweet Potato Dumplings, Veggie Dumplings

When I started learning about vegetarianism, way back in the 70’s and 80’s, the word on everyone’s lips was “macrobiotics.” While American vegetarians were eating mac and cheese and pizza, followers of Macrobiotics were into something else. If you are not familiar, Macro is a way of eating that is all about balancing the energy in the food, and balancing your body and mind in the process. It’s based on Japanese ways of thinking about food and the Universe, and the food reflects a deeper Asian aesthetic, as well.

In a macro way of looking at healthy eating, food is analyzed as to its yin and yang qualities. Yang foods are heavy and dense, and bring heat to the body. Meat and dairy are very yang. Yin foods are light, diffuse, and cold. Sugar is very yin. All foods have some balance of yin and yang within them, but generally, whole grains are the most balanced, and therefore balancing, foods. Macrobiotics eat 60% whole grains, 20-30% vegetables, and 5-10-% beans and soy, and sea vegetables, fruits and moderate amounts of fat. Small amounts of fish might be consumed. Foods like miso soup, seaweed, sesame and kanten are important. Eating local, low on the food chain, and organic, with no processed or refined foods is a core principle. A seasonal emphasis also promotes balance, with heavier roots and beans in winter and more leafy, light foods in summer. Certain foods, like nightshades eggplant, tomato and pepper and tropical fruits are not recommended.

Of course, that is just a quick summary, but you get the gist of it. Macrobiotics is very plant-based.

Somewhere along the line, Macro just kind of took a back seat to vegan, in recent years, even though the two have much in common.

I was excited to get a chance to go to a macrobiotic restaurant in New York City, accompanied by vegan blogger Sharon Nazarian (her blog here) and vegan pastry expert, Fran Costigan (her website, here). The restaurant, called Mana Organic Cafe, is run by owner Sung Lee, who graciously introduced herself to us, probably because we were photographing our food. It was a treat to share a spread of modern macrobiotic, vegan food.

Of course, when I saw dumplings on the menu, I had to have them. We shared two kinds, one filled with curried sweet potato and one with chopped vegetables. With dipping sauces, they were wonderfully comforting and fun to eat. I also ordered the Okinomiyaki pancake, in part because I created a recipe for one in my book, Big Vegan, and wanted to see how they did theirs. It was a lovely, dense cake, made up of sauteed cabbage and vegetables and mashed tofu, topped with a sweet tomato sauce and some salad greens. On the menu it was billed as macrobiotic “pizza.”


Sauteed Bok Choy, Broccoli, Kale and Shiitakes

I love it when I can get beans, greens and rice in a restaurant, and it was great fun to share a meal with some vegan ladies. It would have been fun to try some nori rolls, soups, and other entrees, which all looked delicious, as we watched them being delivered to other tables. A specialty of the house is the Mana bowl, a big steaming bowl of broth, noodles and vegetables that smelled divine.

Vegans and vegetarians would do well to take a walk on the macrobiotic side, and get into the centering, nourishing foods at the core of the macro way. It can be fun to eat a vegan version of the Western diet, but if you are eating alot of refined food and forgetting your grains and beans, it’s time to start balancing the yin and yang on your plate.

You’ll feel better for it!

Mana, 646 Amsterdam Ave. (212)787-1110

Mana Restaurant’s Menu


The Secret Ingredient for Satisfying Vegan Food Is….

4 12 2011

jar of magic

Today I wanted to touch on a secret weapon in the vegan and veg cooking arsenal. And that is smoke. In my book and classes, I often talk about using umami to give meatless foods a sensation of meatiness. Umami is abundant in animal proteins, but it can also be found in mushrooms, fermented soy, eggplant, ripe tomatoes, wine, and a host of plant based foods. Well, one of the most intriguing ways to get umami is through the flavor of smoke. It’s not really a food, but the taste and smell of woodsmoke send signals to your brain that it is enjoying something meaty and satisfying.

So, now that it’s wintertime, and your grill is probably either stored away or covered in snow, how do we get smoke into our plant’ based delights?

Easy, with a few smoky ingredients, you can add instant smoky complexity. In fact, you may want to make a few of these simple tastings just to see what smoke does to food. I started with my smoky ingredients. For smoke with no chile heat, I have some fabulous smoked salt from Spain. There are smoky salts from all over the world, and all are unique, so taste what you buy. Most are artisanal salts, which start with a distinctive, regional salt, then smoke it over a flavorful wood, so you may find applewood, mesquite, cherry, or whatever the creatives had to work with. For pure and intense smoke, I have liquid smoke, which is super concentrated, so just use a drop if you give that a try.

Another tasty source of smoke is the chipotle pepper, available in cans in adobe sauce, dried whole chiles, or ground powder. Of course, they add chile heat as well as smoke. You can also get smoked paprika from Spain. If you are not so into hot stuff, the paprika may be for you, as it is milder and sweeter.

For my tasting, I slowly caramelized some onions in coconut spread and served them on a whole wheat roll with a sprinkle of smoked salt. The simple sweet earthiness of the onions, one of my favorite flavors anyway, was instantly enlivened by the smoke and salt. As soon as I took the picture, I ate it all.

simple goes spectacular

I also boiled some potatoes and beets, and cut up cauliflower and baby carrots, and served them with a simple vegan may with chipotle powder stirred in. Addictive. This is an old trick of mine, adding chipotle to creamy dressings is always a hit, whether its a mayo, a sour cream style dip, or a creamy white sauce.

Chipotle Dip to the Rescue

I boiled some lacinato kale until just tender, then stirred some canned chipotle and adobo with olive oil and tossed it with the kale. It was amazing.I knew there was a reason they always cooked kale with a hunk of smoky pork-the smokiness brings out the sweetness of the greens, and adds depth.

Smoky Spicy Kale

For more sweet and smoke, I cubed a sweet potato and roasted it with whole garlic cloves and olive oil, covered, for about half an hour, then served it sprinkled with smoked salt. This could be a great bruschetta topping, tossed with pasta, or just served like this. I loved it.

Sweet Potatoes and Smoked Salt

Any simple salad will come alive with smoked salt, just sprinkle the crunchy grains on just before serving. Any pot of beans will seem heartier with a few chipotles-or you can keep going until it’s chili.

So give smoke a try, and see if it gives you a more satisfying dish. I think you will love it, and its so EASY.

Is Yogurt the Magic Potion for Life?

21 02 2010

Is this the miracle food?

We’ve all seen them, The famous actress over 50, the sassy girls at the wedding, spooning up yogurt and dishing about the health benefits of the special bacteria in there. They promise good digestive health, as they chat collegially about certain, ahem, issues they are having, down there.

Probiotics, the bacteria that are being pitched to you so vigorously in these charming marketing tools, are a vast population of tiny organisms that populate your digestive tract. They are part of a huge growth market, in part because of these high powered sales pitches, and in part because of good science. Unfortunately, buying pills and powders, or eating yogurt, may not be helping you at all.

To clarify, yogurt is just one of the foods that contain live cultures. Fermenting of foods is a natural action that we have been employing for centuries, by basically allowing things to decay a bit, as the ambient microflora population goes to work, or by seeding the food with a chosen bacteria. Fermentation breaks down foods and makes them more digestible, liberating both flavor compounds and health giving chemicals that you would not have been able to get before the bacteria went to work. Examples include sauerkraut and kimchee, beer, wine, chocolate, miso, soy sauce, tempeh, sourdough bread, black tea, cheese, and more. In most of these foods, the fermentation is either halted by killing the live bacteria, by heating it (bread and chocolate) or greatly slowed by cold storage (yogurt and miso).

For more on fermented foods, check out Sandor Katz website:

Foods in which the organisms are live have always been associated with good digestive health. The gut is populated with colonies of bacteria, a number of which actually do the digesting for you. Yes, there are foods that you cannot break down yourself, but you have a friendly group of microbes down there to do it for you. This is the case with the indigestible starch chains in beans, called oligosaccharides. The only downside is that the bacteria digesting your beans for you give off some gas in the process, so it is actually them who give beans their musical reputation. The upside is that the more of these bacteria you have in the gut, the lower your risks of colon cancer, so maybe the toots are not such a terrible thing.

The science so far is pretty solid on a few things with probiotics. Lactobacillus helps with diarrhea and constipation. A few of them help greatly with dermatitis. Claims are made that they build the immune system, and it makes sense that they would, but it’s still being studied. A big issue in all of this is that a study might find that a certain strain does something, but that is one of thousands and most yogurts don’t tell you with that much specificity what is in there.

Still in the age of antibiotics being given to livestock, probiotics seem like a good way to keep your gut populated with the right bacteria in between onslaughts. And for the general population just looking to stay healthy, they can’t hurt at all. But are all these little bugs something we should use to treat actual health issues?

Well, according to Gail Cresci, a dietitian and expert on probiotics from the Medical College of Georgia, Not Necessarily.
While ms Cresci is deep into the use of specific bacteria to treat specific imbalances, she cautions against a one size fits all approach. According to her, most of the supplements that people take are wasted, never delivering live cultures where they need to go. She cautions that antibiotics are a big problem for the gut, but also says something even more refreshing.
She says that what you eat to feed your bacteria is more important than supplementing. She recommends a balanced, real food diet, with 30% or less of calories from fat and less that 10% saturated, 25-30 gs fiber from whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and then some protein, preferably fiber rich plant sources like beans and nuts, and dairy if you can tolerate it.
So maybe it is less about buying powders and pills, and more about eating right? She must not be on the payroll of a supplement manufacturer.

So, eat plenty of fermented foods, especially with live cultures, to keep your internal populations flourishing, and to reap the many other benefits of fermentation. Vegans who don’t want to eat yogurt can eat other live culture foods. Check out kefir and kraut and kimchee.  Don’t fall for ads that claim one brand of yogurt will save you. Eat a good, balanced diet that feeds your friends as well as you.
Kefir on FoodistaKefir