Atina Foods was into wellness before it was cool.
Way before it was cool, in fact.
Owned by husband-and-wife team Suresh Pillai and Carrie Dashow, the brand roots itself within Ayurveda, a longstanding (read: more than 3,000 years old) Indian tradition of holistic healing that focuses on the balance between the mind, body, and spirit. Depending on a person’s ayurvedic tendencies — toward kapha, pitta, or vata, the three Ayurvedic elements — certain foods and lifestyle practices aid in healing and overall wellbeing.
In other words, food is kind of, sort of like medicine.
“We like to say, ‘eat the food that is good for you,’” the couple explains. “This is to say in whole form rather than popular extractions which separate us from the magic and wholeness of the plant.”
Pillai and Dashow in the kitchen / Photo courtesy of Atina Foods
With Atina Foods, which the two founded in Catskill in 2015 after meeting in India and later tying the knot in the Hudson Valley, they operate under the notion of food as medicine and medicine as food. Using all-natural, high quality, whole fruits, roots, and spices, they combine them into fermented and preserved condiments that are just as healing as they are delicious. The idea came to them shortly after they relocated to the Hudson Valley in order to become closer to the earth and seasonal growth cycles. After beginning with gardening, they moved to preserving local vegetable in the way Pillai remembered from his childhood in South India. Having cooked since the age of five, he has an innate sense of food and the harmonies that exist between certain ingredients.
“He has an exceptional gift in the alchemy of spice and flavor pairing,” Dashow enthuses.
Atina Foods began unofficially when a healthcare professional asked the couple to prepare meals for a terminally ill cancer patient. From there, the duo secured a small booth at the Catskill farmers market and organized family-style weekly dinners on their property. Around the same time, they also constructed an outdoor kitchen with stones, clay, and a wood-burning stove that can cook 150 pounds of food at a time. Although they prepare their products for Atina in a commercial kitchen, they explain that the outdoor space comes in handy for events and demonstrations.
By the time they realized Atina Foods was ready to become a full-fledged business, Dashow and Pillai were dedicated to the idea of deepening the regional understanding of food as a life-giving resource connected to the sustainability of the planet. After testing and retesting the historic South Indian recipes of Pillai’s childhood for two years, they hit the jackpot with the master mixes they continue to use today.
Photo courtesy of Atina Foods
Currently, Atina Foods produces a range of herbal jams, pastes, and pickles for consumption with meals or on their own. The couple sources ingredients from regional farms like Honey Dog Farm in Hillsdale, Samascott Orchards in Kinderhook, and Shaul Farms in Fultonham. Although the ingredients are as fresh and local as it gets, the recipes are old — thousands of years old. Take the Inji Puli, or the Ginger Tamarind Herbal Jam, for instance. A combination of inji, or ginger, and puli, or tamarind, the jam aids digestion with its perfect balance of astringent, bitter, hot, salty, sour, and sweet notes.
“Since we now live in the Hudson Valley, we have created a regionally specific version of this special condiment using locally grown rhubarb to replace the tartness of the tamarind, since in Ayurveda it is important to find the health benefits where one lives locally,” they explain.
While the rhubarb is a Hudson Valley addition, the ginger, which remains the focal ingredient, is true to the origin of the recipe. Atina’s version combines organic ginger with whole black peppercorns, a medley of spices, jaggery cane sugar juice, fresh tamarind juice, and a trace of salt. The process is time-intensive, with in-between steps like dry-roasting peppercorns and mixing spices, but the result is well worth the effort. Once complete, Inji Puli can last for years, since it develops nuanced flavor as it ages.
While Inji Puli a top-shelf condiment for Atina Foods, it ranks closely with the Turmeric Ginger Herbal Jam and — for true garlic lovers — the Preserved Whole Garlic in tamarind, jaggery, and black pepper. Atina excels on the fermenting front and crafts everything from lacto-fermented green tomato pickles with ginger garlic brine to garlic scape pickles and turmeric ginger salt pickles. With all the products, the brand offers recommendations on how to incorporate them into everyday cuisine.
“We suggest…Turmeric Ginger Herbal Jam on a heavy seeded bread with avocado and a piece of Swiss cheese…a quinoa salad with fresh greens and Garlic Scape Pickles and a dressing made of Turmeric Ginger Salt Pickles…[or] Whole Garlic Preserve tossed on grilled veggies or roasted potatoes or steak,” they say.
With all their products, Dashow and Pillai explain that the key to wellness is the use of whole ingredients for maximum nutritional benefits.
“Our food products are preserved using natural ways to retain full potency and health benefits to be eaten as tasty accompaniments to one’s regular food,” they explain. In particular, they love pairing Atina condiments with hard-to-digest dishes like meats, cheeses, beans, and even chocolate. Dashow makes a mean chocolate cake, complete with a buttercream frosting, that incorporates Inji Puli for an unexpected spice.
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In the Hudson Valley, Atina Foods retails at locations like Mother Earth’s Storehouse in Kingston, Sunflower Natural Foods Market in Woodstock, Random Harvest in Craryville, Otto’s Market in Germantown, Taste NY at Todd Hill, and the Capital Region Welcome Center off I-87 . It’s available online and at market locations throughout the year as well.
Dashow and Pillai love collaborating on Atina Foods, and they hope to expand the brand to include educational luncheons and cooking classes in the future.
“We feel there is a need to develop a deeper understanding about food, the material which keeps us alive and from which we are literally made,” they explain. “Ayurveda is not place-specific; it is a mindset. Our practice is to live locally and listen to the plants as much as we can hear them.”
1 stick of unsalted butter (your choice, includes vegan options)
2 c powdered sugar
1 tbsp milk
1.5 tbsp Atina Foods Inji Puli, Ginger Tamarind, or Rhubarb Ginger Herbal Jam
1 tsp vanilla
Sit butter at room temperature. Whip all the ingredients together.
Use as icing and piping for cakes, cookies, and cupcakes. Dashow’s favorite is on a plain chocolate cake. Gingerbread and banana bread would also be great.
Store remaining frosting in the fridge. To use again after refrigerating, bring to room temperature and lightly rewhip.