ELLSWORTH — It was an unseasonably bitter day in November, with a soft gray sky, threatening snow and red-nosed residents hustling to and from their cars, collars drawn high.
But inside Steamy Buddha Cafe & Yoga Studio on Church Street, one could be forgiven for mistaking it for a morning in Mumbai: on one side of the building, post-practice yogis padded around, faces flushed, clutching water bottles, while just beyond a half-open sliding door, hungry lunch-goers tucked into steaming buddha bowls and sipped homemade Punjabi chai. The faint smell of ginger and cardamom hung in the warm air.
“Food is one of the key tenets of health and balance,” said Natasha Sidhu, who founded the cafe and studio with her husband, Stephen Curtin. Curtin’s son, Keegan, a longtime server and bartender in Portland, worked with Sidhu to design the menu and is managing the cafe.
Steamy Buddha Cafe, which opened last month, is guided by the principles of Ayurveda, a holistic medical system that arose in what is now India around 5,000 years ago.
It is based on two main tenants: that the mind and body are connected and that the mind has the ability to heal the body. Everyone has one of three predominant mind-body types, or doshas: pitta, vata and kapha.
In Ayurveda, dosha influences all aspects of life, from skin type to personality and character, and imbalances in one’s dosha are thought to cause illness.
“This whole place is a center of healing,” said the elder Curtin, a physician who had popped in from his practice next door, at the Sanctuary on Church Street.
“People come here to this whole center for healing on whatever level,” he continued. “Food is a really important part of that. Unfortunately in our medical culture we don’t think much of food.”
Many of the recipes — like the kitchardee stew and its “magic” blend of spices — are family recipes of Sidhu’s.
“I grew up cooking the Chinese way,” said Sidhu, whose father hails from the Punjab region of northern India and whose mother was half Japanese and half Chinese. That meant lots of ginger and garlic.
“When I was 19, I went to live with my Indian side. All we did was sit down and cut onions, because they didn’t have blenders back then. You would sit down for two hours and cut all the onions, ginger and garlic.”
“It took three hours to make a curry back then, and after you made the curry you had to go mop the kitchen floor because the oil was all over.”
Sidhu and Curtin first floated the idea of designing a menu, being a head chef and managing a cafe to the younger Curtin several years ago. Keegan had been living in the Portland area for years, serving and bartending at a variety of farm-to-table restaurants.
“I’d always cooked on the side,” he said, leaning through a cutout to the open kitchen. “The dad needed some help and he was opening a cafe; figured after all these years of him doing things for me I might as well return the favor.”
“Keegan is incredible with foods,” said Stephen. “At first I thought, ‘Oh, we’re going to have to find a chef to do this.’” But then his son agreed to quit his job and move north, in time to help paint and outfit the space, which was finished in early fall.
Moving from the front of the house — serving, bartending — to behind the line has been a good shift for Curtin.
“What Keegan is amazing at is his combination of flavors,” said Sidhu, in between mouthfuls of a savory flatbread topped with arugula, garlic Parmesan and a housemade sweet and slightly smoky balsamic sauce.
“I use food as a vehicle for sauces,” laughed the chef. “You can put your meats on it, your veggies, but what really makes it pop and brings it out is that sauce.”
Curtin’s sauces have found their devotees at Steamy Buddha, particularly the “Awesome sauce” that blankets a quinoa and brown rice buddha bowl. “It’s, well, awesome!” one yogi declared recently, advising an undecided patron on what to get for lunch.
The cafe serves both breakfast and lunch, to stay or to go, with offerings including spritzy homemade seltzers, smoothies and fresh juice as well as Dr. Curtin’s Cottage Cheese pancakes (“no sugar crash here”), grilled Caesar salad and, this time of year, hearty stews and soups.
“Food is enjoyment, nutrition, community,” said the elder Curtin.
“This is a space for healing, and the food is one part of that.”
Steamy Buddha Cafe serves breakfast and lunch Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 50 Church St. For more information, call 322-5777 or visit steamybuddha.com. A sample menu is available online at steamybuddha.com/cafe.
Kooked Kale Salad
Handful of kale
Root vegetables (sweet potatoes and red onions are seasonal favorites)
Heat oven to 375 degrees F. Toss a handful of kale into your favorite bowl with a bit of balsamic or another favorite dressing. Spread kale on a cookie sheet (“Be ambitious,” says Keegan Curtin. “It’s good for you.”).
Top with root vegetables (remove the skin first) and Parmesan.
Cook for around 8 minutes. Plate and drizzle with a bit more balsamic. “As I always say, “put makeup on it.”