What to eat at home—and where to order in—to stay healthy during COVID-19

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Plant-based Ethiopian cafe Bunna Café serves dishes with the kind of healthy characteristics also found in Ayurvedic cooking. Photo: Bunna Cafe

Listen, friends: If you want to stay healthy right now, you must cover your face, keep your hands clean, and stay far away from top-ranking government officials. Full stop. There isn’t a food, drink, or magical tonic that can prevent COVID-19.

That said, nourishing your body and eating delicious foods can bring comfort among the chaos, bolster your mental health, and put you in a better place to deal with whatever nastiness comes your way. When I started this story, I just wanted to pound out a list of healthy ingredients (Ginger! Kimchi!) and the best restaurants to mainline them (The Sweet Ginger Juice at Kokomo in Williamsburg! The Kimchi Jjigae at Insa!) but then I started talking to some experts and learned that eating for immunity goes deep. During a season when everything feels out of control, I found some simple ways we can care for ourselves—with the help of some local chefs, herbalists and restaurants.

Private cook and health coach Jess Blackman makes home-made Elderberry syrup and Fire Cider to ward off colds. Photo: Kara Zuaro

Try a tonic

“It’s Elderberry and Fire Cider time again!” Jess Blackman, a private cook and integrative health coach, announced on my neighborhood moms message board. In a group that’s been awfully argumentative lately, it was amazing to see a long thread of positive comments. I immediately reserved a pint of each (pictured above), priced at $20 a pop.

Blackman explained, “Fire Cider is an old-world tonic that infuses the powerhouse nutrients of turmeric, ginger, garlic, onion, horseradish, spicy peppers, citrus and a selection of herbs in organic raw apple cider vinegar…Keep it in the fridge and take a tablespoon a day to keep yourself right. If you feel a cold coming on, take a little more.” The fire cider is so vinegary and spicy that it burns a path down to my stomach and leaving a tingle in my skull and shoulders, similar to the effects of a pickleback shot—even though it’s booze-free. You can mix it with honey if it’s too much, but personally, I’m into it.

In contrast, the elderberry syrup is plum-colored, sweet, and warmly spiced, bringing to mind the color-changing medicine that Mary Poppins doles out before breaking into “A Spoonful of Sugar” and watching the kids’ room clean itself. Blackman’s syrup doesn’t offer magical tidying, but it may conjure up better health. Blackman said, “Elderberries provide immune-boosting benefits from its natural antioxidants and Vitamin C.” Her syrup pairs organic berries with “spices that offer antimicrobial and antibacterial properties, mixed with raw honey for additional support.” Blackman recommends one teaspoon a day for kids and a tablespoon a day for adults. (If you’re interested in getting in on Blackman’s next batch, or inquiring about her outdoor fermentation workshops and yoga dinners, you sign up for the waiting list on her website.

Get a bacteria boost

After sampling the cider and syrup, I asked Blackman for some more tips on bolstering immunity. “Healthy bacteria is a huge part of our immune system and also contributes to a healthy digestive system and even good moods. Especially now, in the days of sanitization and isolation, where we would otherwise get healthy bacteria by being out in the world, we need to supplement in other ways,” Blackman said. She recommended using probiotics: “Try to eat some every day. Yogurt (plain whole milk), pickles (not with vinegar or shelf-stable, but from the fridge case and only with salt) are good options. It’s even better if you make them yourself. If you buy anything in a jar off a shelf, the bacteria has died in the packaging already.”

Seek out spice

In her home cooking, Blackman focuses on whole foods and nutrient-dense meals, but takeout isn’t off the table. “For immune-boosting, I love spice! Spices are great for health,” Blackman says. “If we want to order in but keep it healthy, Indian food is our answer. I love Kanan on 3rd Ave in Gowanus. Vegetable Vindaloo is my dish and they make it so spicy, which is how I like it. They are consistent and quick and I love them.”

Another local expert, Brooklyn-based Ayurvedic chef Stephanie Wright of The Wright Methods, also talked about the importance of spices. However, she specializes in creating personalized menus and warned that spicy food isn’t ideal for everybody, and she doesn’t recommend becoming dependent on Tums. Instead, if indigestion strikes after eating spicy food, she likes to toast whole fennel seeds on the stove-top in a dry pan. Once they become aromatic, they’re ready to cool off and chew to ease digestive woes.

Ayurvedic chef Stephanie Wright stresses the importance of eating in-season foods to stay balanced, and recommends Jungle Cafe for its seasonal, vegan buffets. Photo: Jungle Cafe

Dabble in Ayurveda

“It’s amazing how nature supports our immune system as we move through the seasons,” Wright says, with real excitement in her voice as she lists the current crop of greenmarket produce—hearty root vegetables, carrots, apples, and sweet potatoes. “In Aryuveda, the goal is to balance the system through digestion. I like to balance out everyone’s digestion by using local, seasonal food. If you are using food that is sourced from around the area, it’ll help everyone root down into their body again.”

Listening to Wright speak passionately about the magic of food and looking at the dreamy recipe photos on her site, I felt more inspired to cook than I have in months. I’d love to take a deep dive into the 5,000-year-old healing systems of Ayurveda and have Wright develop seasonal menus and cook for my family based on our individual needs, allergies, and preferences. For some readers, this might be perfect timing to learn about your dosha, but at my house, we are currently running two jobs, a 1st-grade virtual classroom, and a 4th-grade virtual classroom from our kitchen table. We’re not in a good place for a big dietary enhancement.

So, Wright kindly recommended some restaurants where we can get a taste of Ayurvedic on a tight schedule. Her favorite is Divya’s Kitchen in the East Village, which is run by her mentor Divya Alter. If you’re in the neighborhood, it’s worth visiting for some Soothing Mung Bean Soup and Heart Opening Rose Tea, but Wright has some favorite spots here in Brooklyn, too.

There’s no specific Ayurvedic restaurant in Brooklyn, but there are restaurants that do a great job of balancing spices, like Bunna Café in Bushwick. If you get the full meal it’s very naturally balanced between heating and cooling ingredients.” At this plant-based Ethiopian spot, the “full meal” includes 5 dishes and 3 rolls of injera, and it’s our go-to eats when we’re looking for feel-good food.

Another spot I really like is Jungle Café in Greenpoint, they have really great and inventive vegan options that are very awesome, and they do a buffet,” Wright adds, speaking highly of their seasonal fare. Their takeout offerings include Jungle Burritos with black beans and seasoned seitan, macro bowls, mushroom ramen, and avocado-kimchi sandwiches.

 

The warmth of ginger and the comfort of cardamom bring depth of flavor to Stephanie Wright’s Vegan Golden Milk. Photo: The Wright Methods

And if you’re looking for something simple, warming, and seasonal that you can whip up at home, Wright’s own Vegan Golden Milk is like “a little cup of sunshine,” infused with ginger, cardamom, turmeric, and citrus.

Get your herb on

For anyone who is feeling depleted, another option is to try some herbal supplements. “Supernatural Café in Industry City is run by an herbalist who sources all her ingredients from purveyors that I really believe in, and she’s an amazing resource of knowledge,” Wright says of owner Rachelle Robinett. “It’s really hard to find pure ashwagandha root, and she has it there for you to buy. It’s a great way to reduce stress—a natural relaxant.”

Another local shop Wright recommends is Greenpoint’s Anima Mundi Apothecary, “They do an amazing job of sourcing their herbs from farmers in an ethical way.” Their online shop has a whole section devoted to immunity support.

Again, none of this natural goodness should take the place of hand-washing and mask-wearing, but it can provide some grounding and focus during a time when it’s feels too easy to spiral into despair. Lately, I’ve been feeling a little overwhelmed by the amount of time I spend planning meals, making grocery lists, and cooking, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Wright encouraged me to change my perspective: “Food should be the most important thing to think about right now because it’s the foundation of our health.”

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