Spa cuisine, Samantha Gowing tells the small group of us, started back in the eighties in California. She is about to conduct a cooking class of sorts followed by lunch, all of it based on this type of healthy cooking, at the new Cabarita Ocean Retreat just south of Kingscliff. Located at the end of a tranquil cul de sac at Cotton Beach. Pillared entrance, marble tiles reflecting the potted fronds out the front by the pebble- floored ponds, bamboo and polished dark wood and the ocean beyond.
Nutritionist Sam is head chef. It is here that she is able to ground – indeed to indulge – her passion for the particular type of therapeutic cooking which defines Spa Cuisine. She has, in fact, gone one step further, coming up with a new genre she calls Surf Spa Cuisine. Sam tells us that she had always felt there was something light, insubstantial, colourless, un-nurturing in the very notion of Spa Cuisine: that when she started to learn to surf she wanted to give this style of cooking more depth and interest and colour.
Between Sam and her small audience – five retreat guests and one note-scribbler – a table displays small porcelain bowls of seeds and powders, flakes and pulses. There are fat bulbs of ginger and fresh turmeric and red chillies. Fleshy mushrooms, a bunch of coriander, a line of brown bottles sealing in mysterious fluids. Umeboshi plums, bonito flakes, seaweed, mung beans: a palette, she tells us, of Japanese ingredients upon which our subsequent lunch will be based.
We learn about food synergy, at the very heart of Japanese cooking; the importance of knowing which foods combine best with others; the significance of colour in food (orange foods are good for the digestion; white for the lungs; green for the liver). How mung beans are cooling therefore ideal if you are a hot, inflammatory person; how the value of soy milk, touted as a health food, is actually beginning to be questioned; how too much quinoa, a ‘super-food’, is bad for you.
An hour or so later we have regrouped around a long wooden table. The biggest platter is piled high with fresh tuna that has been sliced, steamed and scented with sesame, soy and chilli; other platters offer a sort of coleslaw and the seaweed noodles, which are studded with shredded nori, wakame and arame seaweeds, almonds, pickled ginger. It tastes wonderful, all of it – the more so because it is so fabulously good for us too!
And I am suddenly reminded of a friend who had spent a week at another retreat and come back raving about the food. ‘It was so gourmet!’, she gushed. ‘It was just like good restaurant food!’ She had even purchased the retreat’s cookbook and for several months after was zealously whipping up dishes from it. (I did notice, however, on my last visit to her, that the cookbook stand where it had so proudly stood now bore another, its smudged pages sticky with lacquered pork belly recipes, cheesy concoctions, breaded deep-fried golden balls of unctuous badness. Anti-spa cuisine!)
Sam’s deliciously nutritious menu is available only to guests of the Cabarita Ocean Retreat. Its website is www.cabaritaoceanretreat.com.au.