And among the people helping to popularize the idea of raw food, there are few enjoying more success than Ani Phyo. She's the geek-girl-turned-healthy-living-entrepreneur behind SmartMonkey Foods, which bills itself as "the premier resource for vegan, raw, and living cuisine."
Phyo is also a familiar face to YouTube viewers, with a series of well-received raw cooking videos drawn from her raw food cooking show. And now — with the publication of her new book, "Ani's Raw Food Kitchen" — Phyo has firmly established herself as a leading authority on the raw lifestyle.
We thought it would be fun to catch up with Ani during World Vegetarian Awareness Month.
Lighter Footstep: OK, Ani — let's start with the basics. So what, exactly, is raw food, and how is it different from traditional vegetarian or vegan cuisine?
Ani Phyo: Raw food simply means whole, fresh, unheated ingredients, preferably organic and local when possible. I use only fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
Raw food differs from cooked because it's whole and fresh. It's not heated, so it retains water and fiber, which act to fill us up and detoxify our bodies. Nutritional value is lost in cooking foods, so it's more nutrient dense when eaten raw. This means we don't need to consume as much to give our bodies all the nutrients it needs to function. Also, there's no place where a food manufacturer can slip in a toxic chemical preservative, emulsifier, coloring or flavoring into the mix. Plus, the green benefit is that eating raw will decrease garbage in your kitchen. Notice how most garbage is from processed food packaging!
I see the terms such "raw food," "living food" and "live food" tossed around more or less interchangeably by some people. Do they all mean the same thing?
Most people may be using the terms interchangeably. However, to me, a food can be raw but may not be living. Living foods contain higher levels of enzyme activity. For example, an almond may be raw. But soaking the almond for 8-12 hours activates the enzyme inhibitors and begins the nut germinating. It's preparing to grow a plant or tree. Now that's living!
The first book I ever read from you was about website design. How did you come to raw foods and starting SmartMonkey Foods?
I was raised on a lot of raw foods as a child. My father was into it, and my mom made us mud sludge veggie juices daily. In the '90s I lived in multimedia gulch and the dot com craziness of San Francisco, where I discovered eating gourmet raw at Juliano's first restaurant. I realized this way of eating gave me mental clarity, focus, the ability to sleep less, be more productive and avoid getting sick ever. So I began using gourmet raw foods to fuel my performance. When I moved to Los Angeles around 1999, there were no raw restaurants at the time yet, but a raw community needing to be fed. I offered weekly live food dinners and events for 50-100 folks, sometimes twice a week, to support our community. But really so I would have food to enjoy during my week in the media and design world.
So SmartMonkey Foods began as a catering and events company. Customers would order multiple meals, eat one at our event and take the rest home for the week. Soon customers requested weekly take away meals, which lead to prepared packaged foods of dressings, sauces, breads, crackers, cheezes, pates, desserts and more.
I moved to Portland, Ore., in 2003 to focus 100 percent on SmartMonkey Foods. And continued to offer weekly cafes, events, dinners, monthly classes, catering, and really created a raw food movement up there. I'm thrilled to know it's still going strong. It got to be too much to do everything, so the past year or two, we decided to focus on the furthest reaching products, which are our bars.
Now I'm focusing on writing books and feature articles, shooting uncooking shows, and consulting on health, nutrition, fueling optimal performance and conscious skin care and beauty.
Living food – why? How is it better for you than other forms of veggie fare?
Living foods are more nutrient dense, and provide us with vitamins, minerals, amino acids, antioxidants and more, in its natural unaltered form, while eating less. The enzymes aid in digestion, leaving our bodies with energy to fight disease and look our best. It's packed with structured water to keep us hydrated. And uses less resources to prepare and clean up is a snap.
Let's say someone really wants to embrace living foods. What do you consider the basics for a raw kitchen? Are we talking about a lot of new equipment and tools?
The two main tools are the food processor and the blender. I start folks off with the food processor first, as they cost less. Get one that's at least a seven cup, so you can make large enough batches at one time. Next is the blender. I love my Vitamix because it's powerful and aerates, so you can make light fluffy cheeses, for example. There's lots of other fun gadgets, but these are the two basics to start with.
Give us an example: What would be a balanced living foods meal — dinner, for example?
In the beginning, I would balance off a triangle throughout my day of sweet fruits, dark leafy greens, and plant fats, including nuts seeds and oils. Lately, I've been enjoying less sweet fruits, actually, and eating more veggies. I do think our bodies tell us what we need to eat, and it changes with the seasons and over time.
It's very important to mix up the foods you eat, and to not get into the rut of eating your favorites every day. This ensures you get a wide array of nutrients from different foods. Eating locally and seasonally is helpful, too; it ensures we eat produce at the peak of flavor and nutrition.
Any of my main dishes or soups in my book coupled with a salad works great. Here are some examples:
- Thai spring rolls with dipping sauce served with a Thai salad mix with kaffir lime leaf dressing
- Sun burgers on black sesame sunflower bread with sun-dried tomato catsup served with a cabbage kale slaw in simple Greek dressing
- Garlic walnut soup served with shaved fennel with blood oranges, poppy seeds, and micro greens
The desserts are just amazing. Dessert that's actually good for you — and you can eat it as a meal in and of itself! Add dessert to any meal. For example, you can have all-American apple pie on its own, or add on vanilla macadamia ice kream served with carob or cocoa sauce.
Mediterranean dolmas, because of the ease and flavors of sweet from sun-dried tomatoes and raisins, fresh from the fresh dill, and creamy from the pine nuts. They are beautiful bright green from the collard leaf.
The sun burgers on black sesame sunflower bread with sun-dried tomato catsup on the cover of the book are my favorite, it really hits the spot for comfort food.
And, the angel hair squash pasta in pesto sauce: I love for the freshness of the basil, the pasta texture of the squash without the starchy wheat or flour, the richness of pistachio, plus the dose of omegas from the hemp oil. Yummy! And it's so fast and easy to create.
You see a strong connection between greener, Earth-friendly living and a vegetable-based diet, don't you?
Absolutely. Eating more whole, fresh produce, seeds, and nuts, you'll for sure notice a decrease in the amount of garbage you create in your kitchen. Instead, you'll be left with organic compost, which creates rich soil to grow more plants. The biggest burden we place on the planet is through our diet choices. Livestock eat a huge amount of our grain crops, require million of gallons of water, and create waste that pollutes rivers, groundwater and soil. And, beyond the greening issue, we waste two-thirds of our agricultural land to raise livestock when we could be growing food to feed the world instead. The developing world's undernourished millions are competing with the developed world's livestock for food.
So your book is out and on store shelves. What's next for you?
I'm working on several other books, writing features for magazines, shooting more uncooking shows, and focusing on getting this message out there. Everyone I meet wants to be healthier, look better, have clearer skin, lose weight and feel great. They may have illnesses like heart disease and diabetes, or be obese, and just don't know what options are left. It's my passion to show people how easy it can be to incorporate more fresh, healthy, whole foods into any diet, to help them feel better and better.