Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2017
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the joy of not cooking

I have to admit, the prospect of an uncooked meal didn't have me on the edge of my seat. I'd been asked to dinner by a friend and found out only after accepting the invitation that he'd decided we should sample a new concept in healthy eating. "Raw food!" he announced, as we entered the restaurant.

Our starting soup was, of course, cold. But it was also silky and spicy, and slid down very easily. Over the course of the evening, it was followed by all sorts of concoctions I'd never conceived of: "neatballs" rolled from ground nuts; pepper and tomato "raw-tatouille;" and "couscous" made with microscopic morsels of cauliflower. I left the restaurant with a bit of a buzz, feeling very alive, even giddy, and as we walked away I came down with a serious case of the giggles.

My reaction offered at least one clue as to why the raw food movement's hip new health regime has been taking off in cities across North America. That an all-natural meal might be good for me didn't come as a surprise, but just how delicious uncooked cuisine could be certainly did.

Many people will find it hard to imagine that it's possible to eat without heat. It does require a considerable amount of creativity, as shown by a growing number of sophisticated restaurants these days: noodles formed from zucchini spirals, fluffy "cheeses" made of ground nuts whipped in the blender, and pie crusts fashioned out of dates and shredded coconut.

Like a lot of trends, "sustainable eating" or "living foods," as it is also known, started on the fringes and has worked its way in to the public consciousness. Celebrity endorsements, from the likes of fashion designer Donna Karan, actors Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore, and musician Bryan Adams, have helped bring the movement into the mainstream.

The rationale behind the diet is pretty simple: heating food destroys the living enzymes that maximize nutrient absorption and facilitate digestion. The magic number not to be exceeded is 118°F (48°C); food cooked over that temperature demands that your body use its own metabolic enzymes, a process that saps energy and leaves you feeling sluggish.

Adherents tout increased energy, clearer skin and clearer thinking among the effects of the regime; losing weight, it should be mentioned, is not a main objective. Raw foodists claim their lifestyle is good not only for the human body, but also for the planet. Free of fish, meat, dairy and eggs, it emphasizes eating unprocessed, locally produced and organic ingredients.

Haute and Healthy?
While it might sound like a newfangled fad, the raw food movement has been simmering -- at less than 118íF degrees, of course -- in the United States for the last decade. California's Living Nutrition magazine began dispensing wisdom about this form of healthful living in the mid-1990s, joining a slew of how-to guides and recipe books featuring mouth-watering photos and cute titles: one-liners like Rawsome and Raw Power! to The Raw Truth, Eating Without Heating, The Uncook Book and Eating in the Raw, a book penned by supermodel Carol Alt.

Its prescription for a lifestyle that is both sustainable and stylish clearly appeals to urban dwellers. Since 2000, numerous eateries experimenting with raw food have opened in many cities in the United States and Canada. Their kitchens stand out not just for the obvious lack of ovens but also for bringing finer dimensions to vegetarian dining, which is so often associated with hippy communes serving heaping portions of bland, beige-tinged tofu. Raw foodists, it seems, are more likely to wear Brown's shoes than Birkenstocks and prefer to take their salads with sake cocktails.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, a restaurant called Roxanne's is often credited with bringing the raw-vegan trend upscale. Launched in 2002 by millionaires Michael and Roxanne Klein as a place for "people with a palate who don't want to be punished for eating healthy," it boasted a wine list assembled by a master sommelier and inventive dishes like pad thai made from strips of young coconut. Although it has since closed, its fine-dining approach inspired chef Charlie Trotter to offer a raw tasting menu in his eponymous restaurant in Chicago, giving the cuisine more gourmet glam.

In New York City, chef Matthew Kenney and partner Sarma Melngailis launched Pure Food and Wine (54 Irving Place, New York; tel: 212-477-1010; www.purefoodandwine.com) in the summer of 2004. Its health-oriented ethic is not immediately evident from the slick decor or the colourful creations on the plates, like the best-selling, multi-layered raw lasagne. Bringing together the style conscious and the health conscious was a wise business move, however -- Pure has been packed every weekend since it opened. It helps that fermented alcohols are okay by Pure standards (distilled spirits are out), so customers can pair a pineapple and cucumber gazpacho with a Reisling or Viognier wine.

"The whole idea is to make mainstream and approachable appealing," Melngailis says, adding that many of the customers are not raw foodists or even vegetarians, just diners looking for something different. "We get a lot of skeptical people, usually men, and they end up trying it and loving it. In that sense, we benefit from low expectations."

 

Prior to discovering living foods, Melngailis was a skeptic herself, a lover of bistro fare and high-end dining. "I came at it the opposite way, "she says. "Most people are vegetarian, then they go vegan, then they go raw. But for me, it wasn't like that. I ate everything -- fish, meat, dairy, Diet Coke, coffee -- anything."

One evening, she and Kenney found themselves at a tiny raw food restaurant crammed with customers, where they became intrigued by the fare and the philosophy behind it. "We decided to try going raw for two weeks. About halfway through, we knew this was it," Melngailis recalls, adding that she noticed a significant increase in energy and well-being shortly after adopting the diet. If that meant that all her copper pots and Le Creuset baking dishes were suddenly rendered useless, so be it.

Now, Melngailis says she can identify raw foodists by the way they look; those who've cross over to the raw side have something she calls "the glow."

The Raw Deal
The science isn't in on the health benefits of an all-raw intake. Dietitians caution that limiting diet can lead to nutritional deficiencies in the long term; pregnant women, children and people suffering from immune system problems are best to abstain.

Listening to raw foodists describe their experiences, however, is certainly convincing. Like many converts, Tara Bianca Tiller, president of the 170-member Raw Food Society of BC (tel: 604-277-1868; www.rawbc.org), cites improvements in her physical and emotional health, including the reduction or disappearance of allergies, rosacea and other skin conditions. "Our bodies are made to consume whole, natural foods," she muses. "But in the last few centuries, really in the last 50 years, foods have become so refined and processed that basically they're non-foods."

Based in Vancouver, now considered a mecca for the movement, two-year-old Raw BC disseminates information, supports alternatives to mass-produced foods and organizes monthly raw-vegan potlucks to showcase culinary creations. Similar potluck events are held each month in Ottawa, courtesy of Simply Raw (tel: 613-234-0806; www.simplyraw.ca), a consulting service that offers personal coaching sessions or workshops on aspects of raw cuisine, such as how to use the dehydrator -- one tool of the trade that can seem a little daunting to the uninitiated.

Resource groups can be helpful to anyone considering the change; one criticism of raw food is that preparation can be rather complicated and time consuming. Tiller does point out that while some of the processes may take longer -- soaking ingredients over a couple of days, for example -- they don't add up to more time than cooking a traditional meal with an oven. And there's certainly one labour-saving fringe benefit that can't be argued: no more greasy pots and pans to scrub!

Conversion or Curiousity
Converting to a life of living cuisine does mean an investment in other items for the kitchen. Most raw foodists swear by their dehydrator. This device heats ingredients very gently, which allows for concentration of flavours and the alteration of textures while not actually reaching temperatures that will destroy valuable enzymes. Other suggested hardware includes a good knife, such as a ceramic chef's knife that is non-reactive and doesn't need to be sharpened often, a juicer and a turbo-charged blender strong enough to pulverize nuts (the Vita Mix can whip, whiz and whirr anything but doesn't come cheap, starting at about $550).

Another thing raw eaters will tell you is that they wind up paying more attention to how fresh their food is and where it's coming from, preferring whenever possible to shop local. Grocery lists include fruits and veggies, nuts and seeds, sprouts, legumes and grains, plus young coconut milk, macadamia butter and, maybe, miso made from fermented soybeans (technically not raw but certainly alive with enzymes, B vitamins and amino acids). This is also where things get confusing: is that high-quality olive oil cold-pressed? Is that sea salt sun dried? Has the carob or organic cocoa powder been toasted or roasted?

Refined sugar is a no-go, to be replaced by natural sweeteners like raw, unfiltered honey that retains bee pollen rich in protein; dates; maple syrup, if you can forgive the fact that the sap is boiled to refine it. There are also more obscure sweetners like agave nectar, derived from the cactus plant and very low on the glycemic index, or stevia, a South American herb that's related to the chrysanthemum, which is 300 times sweeter than standard sugar yet has no effect on blood sugar. It's just one of many staples, like quinoa, sea vegetables and unpasteurized soy sauce that aren't stocked in most folks' larders.

Like many food regimes, going raw demands time and commitment to make it work. Fortunately for committed carnivores like me, who only flirt with the cuisine once in a while, there are an increasing number of places in Canada offering intriguing uncooked meals.

The six-year old Raw Health Café (2676 West 4th Avenue, Vancouver; tel: 604-737-0420) in Vancouver's Kitsilano district prepares raw pizza with red pepper, avocado, spinach and onion on a veggie crust; mango tango burritos wrapped in a purple cabbage leaf and raw chocolate cake with avocado, banana and carob icing.

In Toronto, Live Organic Food Bar (258 Dupont Street, Toronto; tel: 416-515-2002) recently expanded to a bigger, bolder locale and continues to be popular with the smart set. Chef and owner Jennifer Italiano won top ratings from local critics for her vegan sushi, gazpacho, and Key Lime pie that consists of raw avocado mousse atop a crust fashioned from raisins and walnuts.

In Montreal, Cru (220 Mont-Royal Avenue East, Montreal; tel: 514-844-2950) takes the concept one step further, reinventing raw food with Parisian panache. The menu includes oysters, venison tartare and ceviche, along with vegetable-oriented dishes like finely sliced beets on long skewers. Though not as health-oriented as other venues, it does call to mind just how many tasty things can be served raw.

That's why fans of living foods, like Pure's Melngailis, see a bright future ahead for the movement, whether among converts or the merely curious. "It's absolutely going to grow," she predicts. "It's not the kind of thing where people have to be completely raw, but as a percentage of what people eat, it's definitely increasing."

 

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