Rooibos Masala Chai

Let’s talk about tea, and more specifically caffeine.

The last few years, I’ve taken a semi-annual mini break from my morning (caffeinated) black tea ritual. In part because caffeine can be both good and bad, helpful to athletic performance and health, but also contributing to imbalance.

The bad includes disrupting female hormone metabolism and stress hormones, providing another chemical for our often overloaded livers to break down and excrete, drying out the body over time leading to constipation and dryness, raising blood pressure, and being just a little too stimulating on certain days when we’re already naturally over-stimulated (hello, way too many open tabs and general 21st century overwhelm).

Perhaps because of my history with disordered eating and controlling-my-food tendencies, I also think it’s a good idea to periodically question what it is we’re attached to. Why are we attached to it? Can we loosen up the mind’s attachments, and then the body’s? Is it contributing to some of our other health symptoms?

My planned caffeine break coincided with just having finished reading Michael Pollan’s latest book, This is Your Mind on Plants. In his typical great-storytelling pattern, Pollan takes us into the history and politics of caffeine use in one third of the book, as well as his own personal experience going off, and then back on, caffeine. It made me even more curious about my — and our — attachment to the daily cup or two of warm and fuzzy stimulation.

In my case, going off my not-that-much-caffeine daily tea ritual was much more symptomatic than the idea of it I was attached to. (It turns out when you decide to change your mind about what you’re attached to, you’re already no longer attached to it). And though my mind was not suddenly cloudy and unable to do anything productive without caffeine – like Pollan’s– it also wasn’t suddenly more focused and productive when I added a little back in after a couple week break.

While I was on break from black tea, I began making this Rooibos Masala Chai instead, and still am most days. Its’ simple, lightly spicy, and nuanced. Red rooibos is a popular caffeine-free herbal option from South Africa, and is often pronounced “Roy Buhs.” Rooibos literally translates to “Red Bush” in the Afrikaans language, so think of that if it helps you to remember it’s pronunciation.

This is a nice break from caffeine option or when you’d like to enjoy a quick at-home masala chai. When making the masala chai spice blend, using freshly ground spices will result in the best, most potent flavor. Diaspora Masala Chai blend is an excellent alternative to purchase and supports the real cost of spices (premium quality, fair trade / fair wages).

Prep:  3-5 minutes   | Infuse: 10 minutes  | Serves: 1

12 oz. water
1 Tbs. red rooibos tea (loose-leaf)
1/2 -3/4 tsp. Masala chai blend (see below)
Non-dairy milk of choice, optional

Masala Chai Blend (makes enough for about 13-18 cups)
1 Tbs. ground cardamom
1 Tbs. ground ginger
1 ½ tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground fennel seed
⅛ tsp. ground black pepper
1/16 tsp. ground cloves

  1. Bring water to a boil in a tea kettle or in a small pan on the stove. 
  2. In a tea basket, measure out the rooibos leaves and masala chai spices. 
  3. When the water has boiled, pour it over the tea and infuse for 10 minutes. Then add a couple splashes of non-dairy milk and enjoy warm.

To make the Masala Blend: 

  1. Combine all freshly ground spices in a small container with a tight-fitting lid. Stir to mix thoroughly or cap the lid and gently shake.  

Sushi Rice with Red Lentil Miso Soup, Carrots and Turmeric Daikon

I heard an idea I really agree with this morning, a snippet of a conversation on a podcast while I was in between places. Fittingly, it was the idea that we really like beginnings and endings in our culture. But not so much the middle.

We really get into the beginning of a new project, a new adventure, a new wellness routine or dietary protocol, a new workout routine or training plan, a new way of being…

And we relish the celebratory endings. The race after all the weeks and months of hard work, the “after” photo to a renovation project or “our new self,” the feeling of triumph when we turn a big project in on the deadline day. The feeling better after months or years of feeling run-down, depleted, and in pain.

But we don’t love the messy middle. We get sidetracked or completely turned off course here. We lose motivation. Nothing is glamorous. It’s just work and there’s often nothing to show for it. Or none that we can see.

I’m personally starting to really lean into the messy middle more in the last few years.

Chalk it up to having a Taurus sun (incredibly stubborn and will not give up, ever), or the literal get-back-in-the-saddle, work’s not done until it’s done mentality that must have been instilled in me since birth or before by way of my upbringing. In any case, I first remembering enjoying the messy middle in my first couple marathon training build-ups. I realized I just loved the training process, the stacking bricks that was happening over weeks and months and then years, followed by both the routine and shifting nature of it. If you’re a runner or athlete, you might relate.

Or at least maybe you’ll relate when those bricks are being stacked instead of taken away?

In the nutritional realm, the messy middle is often where all the magic happens, and unfortunately, it’s where most of us just plain give up or get distracted.

If the goal is to feel better…or perform better…or look better, the messy middle is the training plan that works like magic only because of it’s consistency.

So this is my little mid-week reminder for you. Keep up the better-lifestyle eating and cooking practices you know are the right ones for you right now. If you feel stuck or circling, just choose one thing to focus on. And focus on it until it’s routine again.

For you, that might mean making a meal plan again and shopping so you have a stocked kitchen when weeks are busy. Or it might mean closing the laptop, and the phone, and the TV…and the tablet. And sitting down with yourself at your table and just eating your meal, chewing each bite.

And it might mean returning to making and eating balanced meals when you’ve gotten off track. Getting off track here is one that used to happen so much with me, and still does sometimes. But I’ve been working on it and thankfully, creating balanced meals has become more or less ingrained as routine.

In that light, here is a balanced meal I’ve been making lately in the past few weeks. Initially, I simply called it a Sushi Bowl. But it didn’t really remind me of sushi in any way other than the light touches of seasoning and sticky rice. To make it more of a sushi bowl, add some seaweed if you’d like, and roll all the fillings up inside. I basically never do that. So we’ll just call it what it is.

The idea with this recipe–and making any balanced meal–is that there’s a protein source, a grain, a vegetable component that’s sweet, and a vegetable component that is more pungent, astringent (drying), or bitter. Like dark leafy greens! Or radish! And those components are all in proportion.

For this version, I’ve used a variety of daikon radishes called Baby Purple Daikon. We grew three successions this summer and something about the location and timing of the weather and planting has made for an incredibly robust and delicious third crop. Daikon can be found at nearly any specialty/natural foods grocer, especially in the fall and winter when they’re at their peak. We love them best cooked as they are here, simmered in a little oil, spices, turmeric, and water until they are soft all the way through.

If you make no other component of this meal, try the daikon and add it to your fall and winter meals!

And try to enjoy that messy middle.

Sushi Rice with Red Lentil Miso Soup, Carrots and Cucumbers, and Turmeric Daikon, serves 4

Lots of substitutions can be made depending on your ingredients to create a balancing sushi-inspired meal. For the soup, use either red lentils or split mung beans. Adjust your vegetables depending on the season, omitting the cucumbers in cool late fall and winter by adding a couple additional carrots. Additionally, the daikon can be interchanged with early summer asparagus, cabbage or broccoli. If you do not have access to many different oils in your cooking cabinet and/or do not eat ghee, choose untoasted sesame oil throughout the recipe. Using toasted sesame oil throughout will overpower the recipe. 

Red Lentil Miso Soup
2 Tbs. untoasted sesame oil
½ tsp. sea salt
1 tsp. dried wakame seaweed or kombu
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. fenugreek seeds
¼ tsp. ground black pepper
¾ cup red lentils
4 + cups water
1 Tbs. light miso 

Sushi Rice
1 cup short grain sushi rice (or half white sushi rice, ½ short grain brown rice)
¼ tsp. mineral salt
½ tsp. ground coriander
2 cups water

Carrots and Cucumber
1 Tbs. ghee (or untoasted sesame oil)
⅛ tsp. mineral salt
1 tsp. minced/grated fresh ginger
½ tsp. ground fennel seeds
2 large carrots
2 large cucumbers, peeled and seeded
water to ¼ the height of veg
minced cilantro leaves

Daikon Radish:
1 Tbs. toasted sesame oil
⅛ tsp. mineral salt
½ tsp. turmeric
¼ tsp. ajwain seeds
Water to ¼ the height of veg
Squeeze of fresh lime
sushi nori , optional

  • First begin with the red lentil soup. Warm the sesame oil in a medium saucepan. Add the salt, chopped seaweed, cumin, fenugreek, and black pepper and stir. Continue to heat just until the spices become fragrant. Then stir in the red lentils and water. Bring to a boil and then turn down and partially cover. Cook for 25-35 minutes, until soft. Then mash in the miso paste. A good way to do this is to take out a couple spoonfuls of the soup into a small dish and then mash the miso into it thoroughly. Then stir the mixture back into the soup and distribute throughout. Remove from the heat and set aside.
  • For the rice, add 2 cups water to a medium saucepan along with  ¼ tsp. salt, coriander, and rice. Give it all a good stir and bring to a boil. Once it’s boiling, turn down to a simmer, cover and cook for 25 minutes. When the rice has finished, take the lid off and allow the steam to escape for a few minutes. 
  • For the carrots: heat the ghee or sesame oil in a sauté pan and simmer the salt, ginger, and fennel until an aroma is present. Then stir in the carrots and stir to coat in the spices. Add water to about ¼ the height of the carrots and simmer until nearly tender, about 15 minutes. Then stir in the sliced cucumbers and stir to mix with the carrots and spices. When the carrots are fully tender and the cucumber is warm, turn off the heat. 
  • For the daikon radish: warm the toasted sesame oil in a small sauté pan and simmer the salt and spices until the aroma is present. Stir in the daikon pieces. Add water to about ¼ height of the daikon. Cover and cook over medium-low until it is fully tender, about 10-15 minutes. Turn off the heat, squeeze in the lime, and let sit for about five minutes. 
  • Serve the rice and vegetable components together, topped with minced fresh cilantro and pieces of nori seaweed, as desired, along with the red lentil miso soup on the side (see notes below).

Notes: Learn more about Ajwain seeds here. You can purchase them from Mountain Rose Herbs or Diaspora Spice Co. Or alternatively, use oregano, thyme, or fennel instead. 

Also, the miso soup can truly be soupy and served in a bowl, or you can cook it longer (or add less water), and make it thick and more of a puree. This latter version would be great if you are actually going to use nori and roll the various components into a sushi roll.

What Does a Balanced Meal Look Like?

How to Make a Balanced Meal  

One of the things I hear on repeat is that ‘meals just don’t taste good’ which often leads to dissatisfaction in a number of ways. Your taste buds aren’t satisfied so you reach for more even after you’re no longer hungry, nibbling on this and that and ultimately being dissatisfied and frustrated at overeating — or in some cases, undereating — because of it. 

OR

You’re needing to eat a certain way to heal your digestive system, but “it’s so boring” and “it just doesn’t taste good.” And you resist the healing effect that should be taking place.   

OR

You want to eat intuitively, but you’re overcome by cravings for “junk foods” and comfort foods and simply don’t want to eat “healthy foods.”

The Balanced Plate

One of the best ways to solve a lot of the problems listed above is to build meals that are balanced. This means your meal includes the six primary flavors of sweet, salty, sour, bitter, pungent, and astringent

But it also means there’s a balance of those flavors, in the ideal-for-you proportions. A way that tends to be both nutritious and simple to apply is dividing those six flavors into categories of building and lightening foods. 

You can ask the question of each food ingredient, will this build my body or lighten it?, to help you.

Here’s a good list:

Building Foods (comprising the flavors of sweet, sour, and salty)
Whole Grains
Sweet Vegetables (often root vegetables)
Dairy
Oils
Sweeteners
Fruit
Animal Protein

Lightening Foods (comprising pungent, bitter, and astringent flavors)
Beans and Legumes
Nuts and Seeds
Green Vegetables
Spicy/Bitter/Pungent Vegetables – such as radishes, horseradish, spicy turnips, onions, garlic, and hot/spicy peppers, eggplants
Fresh Herbs
Spices

An Ideal Ratio for Your Balanced Plate

What’s an ideal ratio of building and lightening foods? This can depend on the person, but not as much as you might think. For most, aiming for a ratio of 60% building foods and 40% lightening is ideal.
In the process of doing this, you’ll also nearly always incorporate the six flavors, and meals start to taste better, you enjoy them more, and you notice that you’re feeling satisfied without reaching for more — or struggling to eat because nothing tastes good. 

Omnivore Balanced Plate

To make a basic meal that contains meat or eggs, it’s good to think about splitting the 60/40 ratio into the different components. I recommend 20% meat or eggs, 20% whole grain, and 20% sweet vegetables, like carrots, peas, or zucchini. Then the 40% can be mostly leafy greens, like romaine lettuce with a drizzle of vinaigrette dressing, a small handful of chopped nuts or seeds, and a pinch of fresh basil or mint.
When you add in the oil/fat, spice and seasoning components, depending on your preference for the meal, it will be complete, satisfying, and balanced. 

Plant-Based  or Vegan Balanced Plate

To make a basic meal that’s free from most animal products, split your 60/40 ratio into a whole grain, a sweet vegetable, a legume, and a green/astringent vegetable. Start with 30% whole grain, and 30% sweet vegetables, like any of the examples above or fennel, sweet potato, or corn. Then the 40% can be split between 20% legume, tofu, or tempeh, and 20% leafy greens, like cabbage with a nut-based dressing, and a pinch of fresh basil or mint.
When you add in the oil/fat, spice and seasoning components, depending on your preference for the meal, again, it will be complete, satisfying, and balanced. 

One Idea, Many Variations

The beauty of this Balanced Plate idea is that ultimately, it can apply to any type of food, cuisine or flavoring profile. It worked out just fine when I made a Lasagna, rolled up ingredients into a Sushi Burrito, make homemade Pizza, pasta or noodles, and more.

It also helps to keep this idea in mind when you’re eating out. When your preferred dish on a menu isn’t quite as balanced as this, is there a way to make it a little more so by choosing a specific side or leaving off/adding something? 

But I’m an athlete training for a race and need lots of food! Does this balanced meal ratio apply?

Yes, it does! There are two frequent meal scenarios that athletes tend to get into before recovery or performance starts to suffer. Either there’s not enough of the lightening / green vegetable component to most meals OR there’s too much of it, and not enough of the whole grains, root vegetables and (for plant-based athletes), beans or legumes. If you think one of these might apply to you, see if you can add in more of what’s missing, and see how you start to feel. 

One Final Caveat

These percentages are not meant to be exact or obsessively measured. When you look at your plate, does about 60 percent of it contain a grain, sweet root vegetable, and maybe an animal protein or dairy? And does about 40 percent of it look like it’s green vegetables and maybe beans and a sprinkle of toasted nuts? That’s what we’re aiming for here. 

When you begin to eat more meals that have a balance of the flavors in ideal proportions, you’ll also notice that ongoing digestive symptoms may begin to reduce and eventually go away. And because meals simply taste better without being elaborate or extra complicated, cravings and over- or under-eating begins to be less of an everyday issue.

Much of my nutrition practice is focused on individuals and athletes with digestive health issues such as leaky gut, food allergies and intolerances, chronic GI distress, malabsorption of foods and nutrients, and inflammation. If you’re tired, stressed, and not really sure what to eat to help or hurt anymore, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.