Seasons by the Sea: A South Indian ‘Miracle’

One of the world’s most powerful mind-body health systems
Ayurvedic Southern Indian food is being served for lunch at Sen in Sag Harbor most weekdays. Below, butternut squash palya is a simple recipe with layers of flavor. Laura Donnelly Photos

It is true that certain foods can feed mind, body, and soul. Think about how you feel after a healthy, flavorful, balanced, and colorful meal. Then recall how you’ve felt after a Big Mac, basket of French fries, and a milkshake. Big difference, right?

Ayurveda, which has been in existence for over 3,000 years, is one of the world’s most sophisticated and powerful mind-body healthy systems. Some of it simply sounds logical: Eat that balanced diet, get adequate restful sleep, exercise, breath correctly, live in tune with nature, and be motivated by love. But this is easier said than done.

Which brings me to the little miracle occurring right now in Sag Harbor. For a mere $15 donation, four days a week at lunchtime at Sen, you can dine on a balanced and utterly delicious Southern Indian meal prepared by Corey DeRosa, who has been running the Tapovana Ashtanga Healing Center of the Hamptons for 13 years. For $5 you can get the “two hour” chai, a seasonal mixture of spices simmered with black tea and milk. On the day I went, the usual combination of ginger, cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon also had fennel, giving it a more mysterious and deep flavor.

The meal was served in the traditional small metal bowls used in India. There was butternut squash palya with coconut and red peppers, lime rice with green peppers, coconut, and toasted cashews, pigeon pea soup with green chili and cumin, and tomato gojju with red peppers and lentils. The butternut squash dish was mild and a bit crunchy from the mustard seeds. The lime rice was complex; the long-grained brown and white basmati rice was slightly tart and sweet, with toasted lentils, rich grated coconut, and roasted cashews. The tomato gojju was spicy, a perfect accompaniment to all the other dishes. For a few dollars more you could order the potato vada, crispy potato cakes with curry leaves, ginger, and black mustard seeds topped with a sweet-tart date and tamarind chutney.

Corey was raised Catholic in an Italian family. From his religious upbringing he always felt that the “seeds of spirituality” were in him. From his family, he learned the importance of food as part of bringing people together, whether to celebrate occasions or mourn losses. Cooking for people you love.

He was always athletic and recognized the importance of a healthy diet. In his 20s he was on his way from semipro to becoming a professional soccer player. And then he broke his back. He realized right away that muscle relaxers were not the best road to recovery. He spent many years as a waiter at Sen, Phao, and Jeff and Eddie’s, and then opened Tapovana Ashtanga Healing Center of the Hamptons.

“I’ve been a vegetarian, a vegan, tried the raw food diet, then discovered ayurveda. Ayurveda made the most sense to me, with the mind-body health connections.”

He learned Southern Indian cooking in Gokulum, Mysore, and began cooking at home and bringing the food for students at the yoga studio one day a week. This became so popular that soon he found himself cooking four days a week for 20 to 40 people. When the Suffolk County Health Department got wind of this generous (yet illegal) activity, he was shut down. Eventually he called his friends Jesse and Tora Matsuoka and Jeff Resnick at Sen and asked if he could use their kitchen to continue serving the community healthy, extremely reasonably priced meals. “We have the best local ingredients out here. We’re not looking at the bottom line, we’re not cooking to make money. The donations are to pay the people serving and helping to make the food [such as Bala Dev, a yoga student] and to pay for the food. Thanks to Jeff and friends at Sen, this is now possible.”

Expounding on the beliefs of ayurvedic cooking and the importance of good digestion, he explained that not only should every meal have the six tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, and astringent) to be balanced, but every bite should. He says he is like a kid in a candy shop this time of year. “It’s harvest time and I love making dosas. The other day I made them with parsnips and Brussels sprouts.” He also makes paneer from scratch. This is the silky, slightly firm Indian cheese made from fresh milk that is the perfect foil to spicy curries. It is obvious from his cooking that he understands the balance of flavors and proportion. “I started practicing cooking this way 12 years ago, and if a recipe was good I kept at it. It’s really a science.”

Corey lives in Sag Harbor with his wife, Erika Halweil, and daughters Milla and Neelu. On the day of my visit, Erika was at Sen enjoying her husband’s food with some mutual friends. She is lovely and funny as heck and also teaches yoga. In our interview, Corey frequently mentioned her and said how he couldn’t have done any of this without her.

The restaurant filled up gradually on this off-season Tuesday afternoon. If environment is indeed conducive to good digestion, then Corey couldn’t have chosen a more serene atmosphere than Sen.

He also teaches cooking classes; the next one will be on Nov. 10. It will 

be a demonstration, an introduction to ayur­veda, recipes, and then the meal. “You can’t learn this kind of cooking from a book, you really need to learn the techniques,” he said.

People (including yours truly) have told him that he could/should charge more for these delicious and perfectly balanced meals but that is not the goal. He is supporting the community that supports him. Maybe someday he will have an opportunity to open his own place. In the meantime, let us give thanks for this little miracle on Main Street in Sag Harbor.

The Tapovana South Indian Cafe at Sen is open Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m

Click for recipes

Corey DeRosa and his yoga student Bala Dev, right, who helps him in the kitchen
Martha McCully, Erika Halweil, and Francesca Abbracciamento enjoyed the Southern Indian lunch at Sen.