Friday, February 22, 2008

Cooking for a well-fed world

Chef Mirabai brings unique flavor to Winter Feast

Chef Mirabai, left, and Valerie Skonie are united by their faith. Photo by David N. Seelig

The 40-day Winter Feast for the Soul program has succeeded beyond even the expectations of its founder, Hailey resident Valerie Skonie. People are re-upping in their mediation groups and have become part of something they feel is a global movement to connect on a larger level. Bringing global cuisine to the finale of the program is Chef Mirabai, a colorful character who embodies the Sufi spirit of coming from the heart.

Named for a 16th-century Indian princess and poet, Mirabai is a follower of Sufisim, an ancient mystical tradition. She has been on this particular spiritual journey for 33 years.

"The path of Sufisim—the path of the heart," she said. "My personal journey has a strong spiritual flavor."

In the Wood River Valley from her current home in Rochester, N.Y., Mirabai will lead a Middle Eastern cooking class at the Sawtooth Botanical Garden on Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m. as part of the Winter Feast for the Soul.

The menu will include börek, rice, cumin chicken, tzatziki and baklava. She said her teaching style works best while she's actually cooking.

"I'm really good at answering while I'm doing," she said.

On Sunday at 6 p.m., an Indian Feast will be prepared and served at the Light on the Mountains Spiritual Center. The menu is more complex and will take most of the day to prepare: red lentil dahl, basmati rice, chana bhaji, chicken saag, curried lamb patties, naan, squash, curried potatoes and peas. There will be long communal tables set up in both the sanctuary and the social hall.

Both events are open to the public, but require a reservation. The cooking class is $50 and the dinner is $20 in advance, $10 for kids and $25 at the door. If interested call Valerie Skonie at 788-6373.

Mirabai's faith and her vocation are integrated in her practice.

"It's conscious cooking, holistic" she said. "There is a call to awaken globally, to wake up, make peace. Movements like slow food, eating locally and regionally grown food, it's a whole shift."

Skonie and Mirabai met last year at an intensive retreat in Sarasota, Fla, though Skonie said she's known of her for 25 years, as a fan.

"She's famous for her cooking," Skonie said.

If that makes Mirabai sound formidable, she's not. Half of the time, she seems to be holding back quips and comebacks.

"I am a student of gastric yoga," she said in a dead-on Indian accent. Then she laughed. "It is the egg-fold way of life."

Mirabai's career began with "me baking two loaves of bread in a commune," she said. "They were so good. Then in Vermont I started a bread-making business. It all started from there.

"The creative impulse was there. My first professional gig was cooking backstage for the Grateful Dead and crew at the Spectrum Stadium in Philadelphia."

For a while she also cooked at the Eatery, a cafeteria-style, collectively run restaurant in Philadelphia that fed as many as 1,000 people a day. It was good training for all that came next.

Now she travels all over the country to cook and teach, when not in Rochester working with the faith community Spiritus Christi, or writing a cookbook that she started while living with Benedictine monks in 1983.

Before moving to Rochester, she was a part of a Sufi community in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts. It was a good life, but, she said, she spent a "year looking for my next 'yes.'"

"I was outside my kitchen when a friend from Rochester pulled up and basically rescued me. I needed the space to fulfill my life's purpose. My mission is to co-create a well-fed world."

The food she cooks, a blend of Middle Eastern, Ayuervedic and Indian, is a "cuisine that can satisfy many different dietary types."

She likes her volunteer help, and using humor in the kitchen. Bring a knife. It's that thick.

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