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A 3,000-year-old way to eat 
The Ayurvedic philosophy comes to Legal Sea Foods' table


The spices are intoxicating, the flavors seductive, but that's not really the point. Or at least not the whole point..

For the next few weeks, Legal Sea Foods is exploring the very personal connections between certain spices and ingredients and good health in mind and body.

The philosophy is Ayurvedic science, a 3,000-year-old set of beliefs designed to balance mind, body, and soul. In Ayurvedic practice, each individual has one of three ''doshas,'' and certain foods and spices are prescribed to keep energy up and balanced. Special menus at all 26 Legals - from Boston to Florida - include South Indian dishes such as shrimp and scallop tanjore in a spicy sauce designed to aid digestion; fish roasted in banana leaves that has been marinated in dill to lower cholesterol, and Mysore seafood rasam, a hot and sour soup with tomatoes, shrimp, and cod. The lentils in the soup are supposed to enhance stamina. One of the desserts is cardamom rice pudding; the spice cleanses the mouth and is thought to refresh the mind.

Bringing in these dishes was not a simple matter of devising recipes and typing up a menu. In a project more than a year in the planning, cookbook author and Salem resident Nina Simonds flew to India, met with U. K. Krishna, an Ayurvedic doctor and authority at a clinic in Mysore, collaborated with chef Suresh Vaidyanathan of the Bombay Oberoi Hotels, and consulted with organic spice farmers in Kerala.

After months of e-mail conversations among Simonds, who has been living in London; Vaidyanathan in India; and Legal's executive chef, Richard Vellante, in Boston, the team arrived here about 10 days ago. In a whirlwind four days, the chefs trained Vellante and the chefs from all the Legal properties up and down the East Coast. After cooking, roasting spices, tasting, and discussing the menu, it was rolled out first at receptions and then in the restaurants.

On the first day, more people ordered from the Indian menu than from the regular menu at the Park Plaza Legal, Simonds says.

To Vellante, who's accustomed to thinking of serving 70,000 diners a week, the Indian chefs' approach to cooking and eating was a revelation. ''It clearly is very foreign,'' Vellante says. ''They're really like chemists'' in the way they roast spices and then mix them together to create very specific flavors and sensations.

Vellante tells of eating with Vaidyanathan and chef Babu Raj Sajipa. ''We were having a pickle that I, at first, didn't find very appealing. Then when the Indian chefs mixed a very small amount with rice, I began to realize how the mixture should taste and why the proportions were chosen.''

The Ayurvedic methods are ''a very scientific approach to cooking,'' Vaidyanathan says. ''You have to understand the chemistry of each spice and also understand your own body.'' Different spices and foods match not only personality types but ages, he says. Tailoring foods to each person is a way to promote good health.

If that sounds a little too scientific, the combinations of spices and fresh seafood make for wonderful flavors beyond the matching. At a reception this week, a rice dish, or biryani, was studded with fat chunks of saffron-flavored lobster, promoting digestion, yes, but also delicious. Shrimp and scallops had been rubbed with ''chettindam,'' a 12-spice mixture, before being grilled tandoori-style. And steamed asparagus, bathed with cardamom-scented butter, probably did cleanse the breath and refresh the mind, as well as tasting great.

Vellante says that the Ayurvedic philosophy goes far beyond spices and preparing food. ''They approach their meals in a very regimented way,'' he says. The diner should allow enough time to concentrate on the food. ''Everything must stop. Americans rush, rush, but they don't set aside the time.'' It's not just a matter of time, however. Simonds stresses that there's not only much appreciation for food and the act of eating in the Ayurvedic philosophy, but also joy in the flavors and beauty of it.

Krishna, who advised the chefs on Ayurvedic properties, is both the chief consulting physician of the Indus Valley Ayurvedic Center and the assistant director of the Institute of Oriental Traditional Medicine in Toyko. Vaidyanathan has just finished 10 months researching the dishes of Southern India, going to villages to cook with elderly women. ''To learn the food of a region, you must know the people,'' he says. He understands why people eat a certain way and how it helps them maintain good health in a particular climate and location.

Vaidyanathan is putting together a reference work on his findings and teaches in the Oberoi Centre for Learning and Development. Babu Raj Sajipa, who cooks at the Oberoi Hotel in Bangalore, also trains chefs in South Indian cooking and has worked with Vaidyanathan on the research project.

Their American venture didn't end with Boston. After presentations at the French Culinary Institute in New York, at a Smithsonian Institute-sponsored event in Washington, and food demonstrations in New York state and New Jersey, the Indian chefs, Krishna, Vellante, and Simonds, along with Legal's Roger Berkowitz, will cook at the company's Florida locations.

The challenge of putting these menus into place in all the restaurants was immense, Vellante says, but worth it as a way to understand another culture. It's the most ambitious project that Legal has undertaken, Simonds says, and fits in with Berkowitz's interest in alternative medicine. Simonds' next book, ''Moonbeams, Dumplings and Dragonboats'' (Harcourt), which she co-authored with Children's Museum official Leslie Swartz, will come out in the fall.

In this approach, there's always more to explore. Vaidyanathan is looking into what direction a diner should face for maximum benefit from the food.

''It's a little like feng shui,'' he says, the Chinese system of arranging a room for comfort and well-being. Maybe after three weeks of Southern Indian flavors and health-giving spices, the staff will move all the chairs and tables around.














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