Leaves swirled in the wind outside of the looming Bridgehampton Community House on a recent October evening. Inside, a bartender served sparkling pomegranate elixirs to guests of Tapovana Healing Center of the Hamptons Fall Harvest Celebration.
Corey DeRosa, founder of Tapovana Lunch Box, has been serving South Indian food based on the Ayurvedic principles of vibrant health and longevity to the community for 16 years. The last two, from the Community House’s small kitchen on weekdays.
Paying customers can order from tapovana.com and pick up, have it delivered, or eat inside the 1923 Classical Revival-style’s two-story height entry portico.
DeRosa uses the profits to prepare the same vegetarian meals to donate to local food pantries. Every Wednesday, he takes hot meals downstairs to the Bridgehampton Community Food Pantry in concert with the Lion’s Club. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, he drops meals off at the Bridgehampton Child Care Center and Recreational Center.
Tapovana currently gives away between 100 and 200 meals a month, but there is a need for more, so DeRosa vows to continue to host events in order to raise awareness and money.
Although this was their first charity event, it wasn’t the first time Priest Prakash, a Vedic pandit and resident priest at the Broome Street Ganesha Temple in New York City, made the trip from his home in Queens to bless Tapovana.
DeRosa has known Priest Prakash since the 1990s when DeRosa first began studying Ashtanga yoga with Eddie Sterns at the temple Stern founded in Soho. Priest Prakash also blessed Tapovana’s 2007 incarnation on the Bridgehampton Sag Harbor Turnpike.
DeRosa’s wife, yoga teacher Erika Halweil (married 2013) and their two teen daughters Neelu and Milla, took part in the hour-long ceremony, held in front of an altar in the center of the cavernous space, surrounded by candles and flowers.
The scene was a far cry from the typical Hamptons charity event. Not a cashmere sweater in sight. No gift bags. Not even a glass of rosé.
“Priest Prakash was purifying the energy of the whole project and space,” said DeRosa a week later, standing over a 60-quart pot of chickpeas. “To have the most purifying experience you have to get all of the senses involved.”
The smoke of a small flame, thousands of rose petals and rose water were used in the puja, or devotion ritual.
“We were offering blessings for Ganesh to help us navigate any obstacles along the way,” said DeRosa. “During the goddess puja, we were offering flowers as a gift to Saraswati and Lakshmi to express gratitude for wisdom, creativity and prosperity.”
Tapovana was recognized as a Hindu Temple 15 years ago, with a goal to introduce the ancient Vedic lifestyle and the beauty and benefits that go with it, to people who would not otherwise be exposed to it.
On this particular Thursday morning, DeRosa is preparing traditional chana masala, spiced chickpeas with tomato and ginger. “And then we’re doing a brown basmati pilaf with cinnamon and cardamom, shaved local broccoli and Brussel sprouts with coriander, coconut and lime.”
As DeRosa stirs the pot of tomato simmer sauce and keeps an eye on the chickpeas, which are ready when the skin begins to crack, his young assistant, Corey Gaines, has quickly completed the jarring and boxing of mango chutney to be sold on the shelf outside the kitchen and in other retail spaces throughout the East End. At the moment they also offer apple-pear and date chutney.
Without missing a beat, Gaines moved on to mixing spices for Garam masala. “I just roasted the spices whole and ground them,” said DeRosa, “Cardamon, clove, star anise, black peppercorn, red chillies, cinnamon and fennel.”
But when asked how long the spices were roasted in the oven, DeRosa stops stirring and turns with a sly grin. He uttered the phrase food writers fear most. “It’s a secret.”
“I’ve burned so many spices,” he said, as if it was a consolation prize. “I’m not a cook.”
This is heading in the wrong direction. A beeper goes off, signaling the tomato masala is ready but the chickpeas need a little more time. Sometimes, you just have to believe what you are seeing and not what you are hearing.
In his 20s, DeRosa thought his life was over. The athlete, a star soccer player, had broken his back in a snowboarding accident on the icy slopes of Vermont. Doctors could not guarantee a spinal fusion would be successful.
DeRosa grew up in a large Italian family in Hempstead, Long Island. He was a daydreamer, contemplating the big questions in life, as a small child. As the second oldest of six children, he was taught to take care of himself and others, at an early age.
Instead of surgery, he took up yoga and then, yoga philosophy. “Yoga spoke to me because it went way beyond the physical, to the mind-body,” DeRosa said. “That is when I changed my life completely.”
There was no miraculous recovery, but a disciplined life led to a full life. “I didn’t feel better physically for a very long time but I felt better emotionally and spiritually, like when I was a kid,” he said. “I got something deeper back.”
He started working in New York City restaurants and in the summer of 1995, he took a job at 75 Main Street in Southampton and then worked at Sen in Bridgehampton, until 2008, the first year he went to India.
“In 2003 I lived in San Francisco and did 1000 hours of intensive studies in yoga and philosophy,” he said. “Directly after, I moved full time to Sag Harbor and began teaching at the Sag Harbor gym, and eventually opened Tapovana on Bridge Street in 2006.”
All along, whether it was pre-med at Stony Brook University, drawing and painting or continuing his Ashtanga yoga with Stern, who by the way also taught Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow and Donna Karan, he never stopped learning.
Once he opened Tapovana, DeRosa began to study with Ayurveda practitioners Dr. Robert Svoboda and Dr. Scott Blossom, and was offering seasonal Ayurvedic weeks of living soon afterward.
Seasonal, weekly cleanses have become a staple in Tapovana’s rotation. Cooking and yoga classes are sometimes incorporated within the cleanses and DeRosa is always on hand to lend his guidance.
If you have trouble believing the old adage that food is medicine, don’t take his word for it. Try a Tapovana cleanse for yourself.
The focus of the fall cleanse that DeRosa was preparing in October was to re-balance Agni and Soma, our sun (fire) and moon (cooling) energies.
DeRosa seems to be juggling a million tasks at once. “How long do you cook Brussel sprouts?” he asked. “I like vegetables crisp and colorful.”
Thanks to Dr. M. A. Jayashree, DeRosa did learn to cook, by trailing her at her home in India. “When I got to India to study yoga in Mysore, she had an outside Sanskrit philosophy school and I’d study with her in my spare time,” said DeRosa. “She was a householder. I followed her around the kitchen.”
Whenever one of Jayashree’s children had a baby in the states, she would leave the household and travel the world, making her way to Bridgehampton three times. “I would beg her to come out here when she was in New York City and she came,” DeRosa said.
Ayurvedic meals go beyond healthy food because the philosophy deals with much more than the physical body. Unique spice combinations and food pairings nourish the body and mind while aiding in the digestive process, or fire.
Ayurvedic spice and food combinations are based on science beginning with how the tongue perceives a taste, which sends a signal to the brain to start doing its job.
Mustard seeds, black pepper, cilantro and lime, for example, are all ingredients which detoxify the body by removing impurities. In doing so, it is said that old emotions are also released from the body.
“In India, everyone had a smile. It’s coming from the inside,” he said. “In their culture, importance is placed on inner health and spiritual awakening and so little importance on material wealth. It’s almost exactly the opposite, as here.”
DeRosa removes a bunch of coriander leaves from a glass mason jar and mixes it with the garam masala in a stainless steel bowl. Fenugreek leaves lend to the classic scent of Indian food.
The chickpeas have been soaked overnight and have been cooking on the stove for two hours. “They’re ready,” said DeRosa. “The skin is coming off.”
Once the tomato and masala spices, or simmer sauce, is married with the cooked chickpeas, the combination will cook for another 30 minutes. “So that’s going nicely,” he said.
Gaines is assembling kitchari packets for sale. Kitchari is a mainstay of an Ayurvedic lifestyle, traditionally used for mono cleanses, because it’s very light but highly nutritious, and sometimes as DeRosa’s breakfast. The fermented rice and bean batter packs a punch as a complete protein and powerful probiotic.
Tapovana has made it very easy to make your own kitchari by adding water and two cups of vegetables to the mixture for a one pot meal. Micro and macro nutrients aid digestion, health and longevity in every bite. “Basically it’s a perfect meal,” said DeRosa. “The variations are endless.”
Cumin basmati rice packets, frozen palak paneer, drumstick sambar and pumpkin lentil soup are items to be cooked at home. Chilled masala chai and a variety of refreshing elixirs like lime, mint and ginger are also available.
“Ginger is the number one component of philosophy food as medicine,” said DeRosa. “We peel it, chop it and put it in the food processor each week. We probably go through 10 pounds of ginger a week.”
The tongue perceives all six tastes including sweet, sour, salty, spice, bitter and astringent in every bite. “The main goal is to have all six tastes in an ideal balance,” said DeRosa. “Short term goal is to be nutritious and to digest. Long term goal result is a state of higher consciousness.”
DeRosa recently started making products that he encourages his clients to use during cleanses, such as beet red potassium broth and chyavanprash, a nutritive jam for bodily tissues and mental power. A sesame and sunflower based massage oil is infused with seasonal herbs like tulsi, ashwagandha, cinnamon and cloves, for autumn.
Self massage, or abhyanga, is part of the pre-bathing, Ayurvedic morning ritual. Not only does it keep the skin looking fresh, it soothes the nervous system and relaxes the mind through self care.
“It’s the practice of loving ourselves,” said DeRosa. “We have to do all this work now because of how we were conditioned. It’s corrected therapy for life. We’re trying to clear our minds so we can have our own true experience of life.”
In addition to their lunch boxes and cleanses, Tapovana offers full dinners, or Thalis, which can be ordered at the same time during the day, between 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. from the Community Center.
Tuesday nights are Jazz Nights at the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum, home to the Masonic Lodge where DeRosa serves as a Freemason. He also serves dinner at 6:30 p.m. while professional jazz musicians from the city perform upstairs. Who says there’s no culture in the Hamptons?
Brussel sprouts and broccoli are cooked to perfection in the kitchen. Coconut, tomato, coriander, curry leaves and green chillies are mixed into the vegetable dish, the last step in preparing today’s lunch boxes.
Before you can blink an eye, the meals are boxed and put into large containers to hold in the warmth.
DeRosa loads his car and heads to the Bridgehampton Childcare and Recreation Center where he meets the food pantry supervisor, Ms. Gloria Cannon. Tables are already set with baskets of sweet and white potatoes, peppers, radishes, scallions, parsley and coriander donated by Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett.
“Every Thursday people pick up food donated by local farms,” said helper Harry Campbell. “We deliver to 72 houses and three churches in Bridgehampton, Southampton and Sag Harbor every other Friday in rain, shine or snow. We started during Covid.”
Pre-Covid, DeRosa traveled to India every year. After his first trip, he realized he would never stick to the Ayurvedic lifestyle unless he was completely immersed in it. By sustaining Tapovana and growing it every day, he has completed his task and more. “It was selfish and too good not to share,” he said.
His plan to build a permanent home for Tapovana, which translates to “spiritual practice” or “meditation garden” has been in the works for years. Time is ripe for a community based on health and happiness, but land is limited in our slice of the woods.
Many blessings and prayers. There is no room for doubt in DeRosa’s world.