‘Mindful munching’ can help you feel your best

Anita Balakrishnan (left) and Nalini Mehta of Route to India found a niche in the “functional snacks” market with a snack they grew up with as children. CONTRIBUTED BY ROUTE TO INDIA

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Anita Balakrishnan (left) and Nalini Mehta of Route to India found a niche in the “functional snacks” market with a snack they grew up with as children. CONTRIBUTED BY ROUTE TO INDIA

They’re called “functional snacks” — snacks that tout their antioxidants and minerals, support your digestive health, or supply an extra boost of protein. They may be trending, but the idea of functional snacks is an age-old approach to health and wellness, recognizing that food can be medicine.

Anita Balakrishnan and Nalini Mehta of Route to India  are passionate about helping their clients feel their best through food.

Mehta turned from a career in fashion to sharing the benefits of ayurveda, an ancient system of health and wellness. She and Balakrishnan made their way to Atlanta in 2015, when Balakrishnan moved for a career opportunity with Newell Rubbermaid.

For more than a dozen years, Mehta had been teaching ayurvedic cooking classes, catering dinners and speaking on the benefits of ayurvedic cooking. She was hosting pop-up dinners and, while planning her menus, developed a crunchy snack that could be served with a mocktail or cocktail before dinner. The snacks were made from popped waterlily seeds, roasted and tossed with a mixture of seasonings that did more than just satisfy the need to crunch.

“These popped waterlily seeds provided a blank canvas,” Balakrishnan said. “Nalini ‘dressed them up’ by combining ingredients that would help balance the three doshas.”

Ayurveda is built on the concept that health comes from balanced doshas, or mind-body types: vata, pitta and kapha. One way that Mehta dressed up the seeds was with a caramel seasoning mix that combined sweet spices with jaggery (evaporated cane juice with a rich caramel flavor). The jaggery is high in iron and minerals, and serves as an energy booster, while the cardamom, cinnamon and cloves she used help calm the nervous system. Together, the ingredients are meant to balance the pitta and vata doshas.

Her impromptu cocktail snacks were so popular, they became the basis for a line of functional snacks, Yoga Pops, available in three varieties: Curry Dusted, Truffle Tantra and Caramel Jaggery.

Working in a shared kitchen near downtown Atlanta, Mehta and Balakrishnan may roast 300 ounces of popped waterlily seeds in an evening’s work. But, making Yoga Pops is not just a matter of opening packages, stirring ingredients and tossing things together. They are intentional in their work, recognizing they might not always come to the space in the best of moods, and believing that would affect the snacks they’re preparing. They play chants to calm the spirit, and appreciate the connection their business brings to the farmers who provide the ingredients.

“We are looking for harmony in our cooking, just as we are looking for harmony in life,” Mehta said.

The popped waterlily seeds are an ingredient that both natives of India grew up eating as a snack. “We saw our mothers and grandmothers use it throughout our lives,” Mehta said. “As kids, we would find it in our lunch boxes, sprinkled with spice. The crunch reminded us of popcorn, and, as kids, that’s how we related to it.”

Waterlily seeds were especially valued during times of fasting. “They keep you satiated,” Mehta said.

Preparation of the seeds is done in India. The seeds, which look like coffee beans, are beaten and then puffed, creating a ½-inch ball that is smoother than its popcorn cousin.

“When they are puffed, the seeds are chewy, almost like Styrofoam,” Balakrishnan said. “They have to be roasted to make them crunchy.”

Depending on the flavors they’re preparing that day, the couple might be melting butter for ghee, or hand-mixing the spices while the puffed seeds are roasting.

“Because the seeds are such a beautiful blank canvas, everyone seasons them differently,” Balakrishnan said. “What makes our Yoga Pops unique is that we flavor them in a dosha-specific way.”

For example, the Curry Dusted variety combines ghee, a fat essential in ayurvedic cooking, with turmeric, coriander, cumin and cayenne. The hot spices help balance the earth element, kapha, with the air element, vata. The Truffle Tantra variety is made by combining dried porcini mushroom powder and truffle oil, ingredients high in antioxidants, and good for the immune system.

The result is a healthy treat that satisfies the craving for something crunchy. And, because you choose a flavor to balance your doshas, it’s also personalized food.

“You are enjoying food as medicine,” Balakrishnan said. “We think of it as mindful munching and personalized snacking.”


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