The raw power of nature

I might be a vegetarian and a hippie at heart, but I've always had a completely unreasonable and largely unfounded prejudice towards veganism and vegan restaurants. I put it down to the mock-meat movement which, really, was just a bit creepy. And I, like many, associate veganism with being a bit bland and far too austere for my epicurean tastes.

So, while I might seem like a good candidate for a raw-food veganism challenge, I start a serious sceptic.

But I have been chatting with Maz Pugoy, who runs Sadhana Kitchen, a raw, vegan cafe in Newtown. She says raw food can be as rich and rewarding as ''normal'' food.

That's a big call and I wonder whether all the fermented cabbage has gone to her head.

Pugoy went raw more than two years ago and says it brought many positive changes, ''from increased energy levels to general feelings of happiness''.

My curiosity has been sparked so she sends me a 10-day plan complete with recipes, explanations and reminders of why I am doing this. She assures me raw can be sexy and sustainable. I am not so sure, but I am glad to see none of the recipes involves bogus beef.

So, along with cheese and many of my other favourite foods, I shelve my scepticism and embark on a two-week challenge to find out what raw foodism is all about, how on earth you eat out and whether it does make a difference.

Day one

I am nervous. Normally, I live on cheese and I love coffee.

But by ditching them, I hope to reap some of the benefits touted by raw-food advocates.

The idea is that food in its simple, natural state contains far more enzymes. Digestive enzymes help break down food into nutrients the body can absorb, which leads to a body that runs better on all levels: better skin, digestion, health and vitality.

So, I muster my enthusiasm and head to the local organic grocery. After some time spent fondling cheese, I get my head into gear and stock up on cabbages and kale, mesquite powder (packed with protein) and coconut milk, frozen fruits and family packs of activated nuts (soaked to release enzymes and then dehydrated to retain crunch). $244.57 later, my enthusiasm has waned and my finances are feeling far less vital.

Day two

No longer does my day begin as it has for the past 10 years: eating a boiled egg with fresh herbs and pecorino on grainy toast washed down with a strong coffee. It's a ritual I enjoy so much it motivates me to get out of bed each morning. Instead, I discover the delights of the green smoothie. On Pugoy's advice, I make a big batch to last me the week. While any fresh food starts losing nutrients as soon as you cut it, ''we're trying to be real here … it has to be easy and accessible if you're going to do it,'' Pugoy says.

There are many variations of the green smoothie, which has recently become sexy in health-food circles.

I blend a bunch of kale, cucumber, celery, wheatgrass and spirulina with frozen mango, banana, mesquite powder and a little coconut milk, and coconut milk yoghurt. It is an aesthetically pleasing - or alarming, depending on your point of view - bright green but, amazingly, I can't taste the greenery. It is filling and tastes … really good.

''Greens are something most people don't really have enough of,'' Pugoy says. ''The green smoothies are an easy way to incorporate greens into your diet and increase the number of nutrients, vitamins and minerals you're ingesting on a daily basis.''

If eating raw all the time is too wild for your tastes, she suggests just starting the morning with a raw smoothie to see if it makes a difference. To prove raw food doesn't have to be boring, she also gives me a slice of her completely raw, vegan lemon blueberry ''cheesecake'' - she uses a blend of coconut oil and cashews to create the smooth creaminess of soft cheese. My taste buds tingle. I can do this. I can even enjoy this.

Day three

A headache and mental fog kicks in that lasts the next week, but the green smoothies are going down a treat. I'm also surprised how filling the food is. Pugoy suggests having a smoothie plus chia porridge for breakfast. I try it for the first two days - while the porridge gives the digestion a kick, I find I don't need it.

I do find my blender is getting a whole lot of love. Instead of cooking everything, I get unnatural enjoyment from pulverising everything. I blend a batch of dressings I use on top of salads or with raw vegie sticks: guacamole, raw pesto, raw hummus, an Asian-style dressing of sesame seeds, garlic, ginger, chilli, coriander root, lemon, coconut oil, coconut sugar, mirin and tamari, and a ''ranch'' dressing, with cashews, lemons, olive oil, garlic, mustard seeds, dill and sea salt. It packs a flavour punch and I have it on broccoli florets with raisins, pine nuts and pepitas for lunch.

I snack on an apple with nut butter and then I'm back to the blender to make peanut butter balls, my take on the superfood truffle. It's a blend of different nuts, shredded coconut, coconut oil, dates, raw cacao, vanilla and a little cinnamon. Oh the pure indulgent pleasure. I munch on these and don't need dinner. However, I may also be the first person to ever give up brie and dinner, take up raw food and still put on weight.

Day six

I meet a friend at a cafe and find myself frothing over his coffee. I restrain myself, but I do slip up over breakfast. I remember to order the bircher (soy) without yoghurt, but I order it with cold rhubarb compote, forgetting compote became that way by being cooked.

I also slip up when I'm out to lunch. My haloumi salad sans haloumi comes with grilled asparagus and green beans. I enjoy every single heated, nutrient-deprived one.

While Pugoy eats mostly raw, with the odd bit of cooked food thrown in, pure raw foodies won't eat anything that has been heated above 48 degrees, believing nutrients and enzymes are destroyed beyond that.

This is true of some foods, but not all, dietitian Tara Diversi says. ''Meats, potatoes - starchy vegetables - are not meant to be eaten raw. Eating them raw can cause stomach issues,'' she says. In fact, the enzymes in some foods are activated through the cooking process. For instance, cooking tomatoes increases lycopene (the red pigment), which is linked to lower rates of cancer.

Similarly, the antioxidant value in beans, carrots, spinach and celery increase when cooked, but other vitamins are depleted in the process, so it's a complex issue.

Day seven

I am crabby and emotional. Can a detox make you crazy? Whatever I'm doing, it is not just physical. Pugoy reminds me these are natural symptoms. Diversi says this can be the result of cutting out chemicals and stimulants such as coffee.

She also says it can be a not-so-virtuous result of dehydration or carbohydrate depletion. While she says symptoms are often physiological adjustments, they can be the result of our psychological dependencies on certain foods too.

So, I try to correct my mood with wine. Fermented cabbage, in the form of sauerkraut, is recommended (good bacteria), so I feel confident that wine, which is fermented fruit, must also be OK. I don't feel the need to clarify this with anyone. Interestingly, I notice it isn't going down well with my body. I try to force the issue and wake up with a cracking hangover. Retoxing while my body is detoxing is not my smartest move.

Day ten

I can't help but notice the difference in my skin and I feel fresh. I have a piece of toast (if I'm honest I've had two this week), but I'm enjoying the challenge of creative non-cooking. Today it's nori sheets filled with julienned vegetables, a spicy nut mix, avocado, pickled ginger and tamari.

''Of course you're going to feel better - you're eating less saturated fat and more vegetables,'' Diversi says. ''But not a lot of people go on these diets for life.''

While it is possible to live well on raw food, she says, you have to eat a lot to get enough energy.

''You can eat richly, indulgently on raw food,'' Pugoy says. ''And the richest, whole-food protein source in the world is plant-based - spirulina. Also, hemp seeds, chia seeds and superfoods are amazing. Raw, leafy greens are rich in iron, calcium and vitamin C - things that help you synthesise the protein.''

The verdict

The biggest challenge, I found, is getting diversity of flavours and foods, which is why I don't think I could survive on 100 per cent raw food 100 per cent of the time.

Having said that, I've passed the 10-day mark and I am amazed to say I am still going … gently. I'm not being dogmatic, but I'm enjoying the new approach to eating and how my body responds. I have more energy. I have spent too many years and too much money trying to soothe sensitive, dry skin. Nothing has worked. But, in two weeks, it looks and feels better than I can remember. Psychologically, I feel good because of all the glorious greens I am giving my body. For the first time, I feel I am nurturing and nourishing it properly. And I don't feel deprived.

Diversi says the best thing about raw food is it ''really promotes vegetables, fresh foods and lots of colour - which means different nutrients. This is known to reduce the risk of chronic disease.''

I'm not going to try to proselytise to others, though. I'm going to resort to subterfuge instead. Next time I ''cook'' for friends and family, I will slip in some raw, vegan food.

The proof, I will say, is in the peanut butter balls.

'Pasta' alfredo

You will need a blender and a potato peeler or spiraliser*.

4 zucchinis
2 cups spinach leaves, roughly chopped
1 cup activated cashews
1/2 -1 clove garlic (as much or as little as you like)
1/4 small onion1 tsp miso paste1 tsp dried dill, or use fresh
2 tbsp nutritional yeast (sold at health food stores)
2 tbsp cold pressed olive oil
3/4 cup water
Himalayan pink salt
Pepper

Peel or spiralise zucchini into long, thick fettuccine-like strips using a potato peeler and separate into two bowls. Divide spinach leaves between the bowls, toss lightly with zucchini ''pasta'' and set aside. For the sauce, mix the remaining ingredients in a high-speed blender until smooth and creamy. Pour over zucchini pasta and toss until well coated with the sauce. Finish with a dash of pepper.

Serves 2

*A spiraliser is a kitchen appliance that creates long spiral strands from vegetables.

Recipe from Maz Pugoy, Sadhana Kitchen.

Bare essentials

If you are going to go raw, you have to be prepared. ''You need to make sure you have snacks and recipes at hand and a good range of nutrients,'' dietitian Tara Diversi says. ''You can't just cut out foods and not replace them, and you can't just rely on raw chocolate and peanut butter.''

Books

David Wolfe on Raw Foods; The Beauty Detox Solution, by Kimberly Snyder.

Websites

living-foods.com; rawfood.com.au; sadhanakitchen.com (an e-book and hard copies of Pugoy's 10-day raw-food plan are out at the end of this month).

The story The raw power of nature first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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