Kosa combines Ayurvedic principles with food designed to heal, nourish the body
Cooking relies heavily on medicinal spices
Kosa, Madison’s first Ayurvedic spa and retreat center, celebrated its grand opening earlier this month at its space at the Garver Feed Mill on Madison’s east side. As the long-time dream of founder Shilpa Sankaran, Kosa is based on an ancient Indian healing system that focuses on tuning in to the seasons and your own body’s constitution in order to find balance.
Kosa offers half and full day retreats in addition to wellness counseling and treatments including facials, massage and a bath ritual with herbs and oils. A cornerstone of Ayurveda is food — “food is part of the prescription,” says Sankaran — so Kosa will offer seasonal drinks, snacks and lunch dishes for Kosa guests. “Ayurveda is what science is now calling the brain and gut connection,” Sankaran says. “Everything we digest, or don’t digest — including emotions — will affect our health.”
Born in Bombay, India, which is now Mumbai, Sankaran immigrated with her family to the United States as a toddler, and moved to Middleton when she was 8 years old. “We still had our culture and traditions, but we were assimilated,” Sankaran says. “We had Indian food and we had American food. As the oldest child I didn’t feel completely comfortable in Indian skin — I really wanted to fit in. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about our culture or traditions.”
Sankaran says she followed in her father’s footsteps and got a business degree before moving to San Francisco when the dot-com boom came. After the crash she went back to corporate consulting but then her dad got sick. “I became more aware of my connection to family and health and the planet and thought, ‘what else should I be doing?'” Sankaran says.
She transitioned to doing consulting work for more socially-responsible companies including the National Park Service and also worked on a project which involved the adaptive reuse of a military base into a spa. “I was inspired by that,” Sankaran says. “My father had passed away and all of a sudden I was drawn to individual health and noticing that a sick planet means sick people. We’re not connected to ourselves, we’re not connected to one another.”
Sankaran moved back to Madison to be closer to family with the goal of opening a wellness center. While working as a consultant for the micro-lodge project on the Garver site, Sankaran realized that Garver would be the perfect place for her wellness center and everything else started to fall into place.
“I’m so happy that it evolved into more of an Ayurvedic place because I realized as I dug deeper this is leading me back to my roots,” Sankaran says. “And as I dug even deeper I realized it’s human roots. It’s universal. It’s about connecting with nature. And then I realized this is us, this is our family. I didn’t recruit anybody, everyone brought their talents and we realized we’re just all doing this now. This is where we are. Everyone has a special gift to contribute and it makes the whole of what Kosa really is.”
Kosa’s core team includes Sankaran, her sisters, Nandita Geerdink and Sonya Sankaran, and mother, Lalita Sankaran. Geerdink serves as Kosa’s community connector while Lalita and Sonya head up Kosa’s kitchen. Using Lalita’s recipes, Sonya oversees the day-to-day food operations.
While Sonya is an artist with a background in ecology and marine science, “Shilpa came to me with this,” Sonya says. “And one of the things that called to me was botany — I wanted to study Ayurveda for the botanical connection.” Sonya looks forward to planting a garden at Garver to grow herbs and plants that she can use in Kosa’s kitchen. She is also currently collaborating with Olbrich Botanical Gardens to plan an Indian garden which will bloom at Olbrich in the summer 2020. So far Sonya has embraced her new role at Kosa. “It’s been a blast,” she says. “[I’ve enjoyed] putting together a master menu, being intentional about Ayurvedic principals but also my mother’s culinary history.”
All ingredients for Kosa’s menu are carefully chosen. “Every ingredient is somehow aligned with how to optimize your health based on the season or own your own personal constitution,” Sonya says. “Everything we provide has those principles in mind.”
Ayurvedic cooking relies on many spices known for their medicinal qualities. Kosa’s CCF tea — which stands for cumin, coriander, fennel — is used to kindle digestion before, during and after a meal. A complimentary tea in Kosa’s lounge currently includes rosehip, morenga, lemon and maple syrup. “Rosehips are known in western herbal medicine to be high in vitamin C, lemon is a warming citrus and morenga has protein and is an antioxidant,” Sonya says. “It has a really earthy taste which aligns with the kapha, or winter, season.”
A complimentary snack in Kosa’s lounge is Sonya’s riff on an Indian tea snack. “Often in India if you go sit down with a person at their home for tea they will pull out a couple of crunchy things. Nuts mixed with other ingredients and often tossed with oils and spices.” Kosa’s tea snack has flaked coconut, cashews, puffed rice, raisins and is tossed in sesame oil, cinnamon and turmeric, “which is an amazing anti-everything, anti-bacterial, anti-viral spice,” Sonya says. “Typically in winter you don’t want dry, crunchy snacks, so we offer that crunch but incorporate the oil and warming spices to balance it.”
Kosa offers two main dishes: khichdi and thali. Khichdi is a mixture of rice, lentils and seasonal, local vegetables (for fall think carrots, turnips and squash). “In India it’s considered a comfort food, it’s a real staple,” Sonya says. Cooked in a seasoned ghee, or clarified butter, the dish is also very flavorful, Sonya says. Thali is a traditional plate that contains a balanced meal. A thali at Kosa includes lemon rice, sambhar (lentils with vegetables), sabzi (a seasonal vegetable with warming spices and curry leaves; the dish currently uses beets), inji pulli (tamarind chutney), and mitai, a natural sweet. At Kosa you’ll receive a creamy, almond-stuffed mejdool date as mitai. Lassi, a thinned yogurt with roasted cumin, is also usually drank at the end of the meal to help with digestion.
In addition to all organic ingredients, Kosa focuses on using local and seasonal ingredients; for Ayurveda, it’s a way of life. “A big thing in Ayurveda is prana, which is the life force in your food that is transmitted,” Sonya says. “You want to try to transfer it as purely from the source to the body. Part of the problem when you are eating and don’t feel full might be that you are not receiving all the nutrients from our food.”
Sonya also acknowledges that grocery stores provide foods from all over the world but that people never used to be able to eat like that. “At the grocery store it’s exciting and appalling what we have access to. It brings you back to ‘well, would we be able to have a fresh piece of fruit from any part in the world?’ No, it doesn’t make sense,” Sonya says. “[What we are doing at Kosa] is a different way of thinking. But that’s why we try to do all the thinking for you.”
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