The Ayurvedic Culinary Tradition
The Ayurvedic approach to cooking developed over thousands of years, and is based on the experience of millions of people. It boasts a rich understanding of the various effects that foods can have on a person’s health. It also capitalizes on the tremendous bounty of vegetables, fruit, nuts, grains and spices traditionally available in the Indian sub-continent. It views all of these items not just as sources of sustenance and flavor, but as the foundation for good health – physically, mentally and spiritually.
I Am Food
No other culinary tradition so richly embraces the notion ‘let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.’ In Ayurveda, everything that you eat or drink will either support or interfere with your body’s natural constitution. By knowing your constitution, understanding the dietary rules that generally apply to it, and deepening your understanding of any particular health challenges you face, you can begin to know which foods to favor, and which to avoid.
When you start making eating decisions that support a healthier state of being it becomes a little easier to let go of habits that do not serve you. This is part of the same journey towards self-understanding that yoga can help you navigate. As we reduce the level of conflict within us, we become better able to neutralize the sense of separation the ego makes us feel towards things “outside” of us. In Ayurveda, food becomes less an object of desire, or neurosis, and more an expression of a harmonious relationship with the world.
You do not just become the food you eat by virtue of the activity of your digestive system; you recognize that you, the eater, are also the food you are eating.
“Aham annam aham annam aham annam // Aham annādo aham annādo aham annādaha”
“I am food, I am food, I am food // I am the eater of food, I am the eater of food, I am the eater of food”
— The Taittiriya Upanishad
Eating offers a chance to experience the non-dual truth that there is no distinction between you and the world around you. Not only are you what you eat, but eating consciously becomes an invitation to meditation.
What Sattvic food is…
- Ayurveda offers a rich understanding of how our environment affects us, including the impact that different foods have on our overall health and well-being. These effects differ depending on your individual constitution, as well as other factors in your life, such as the climate, or relationships that might be causing you stress.
- While Ayurveda does not assume that everyone is the same, it has identified foods that are easily digested and healthful for most people. These foods include a variety of root vegetables, squashes, leafy greens, well-cooked legumes, some nuts, whole grains and certain mild spices. These foods are called ‘Sattvic’, a word meaning “pure” in the Sanskrit language.
- By eating a Sattvic diet, you reduce the chances that your diet might be contributing to stress or imbalance in your life.
- Foods that are not considered Sattvic include: garlic, onion, and hot chilies. Ayurveda also believes that the way that you cook and combine different ingredients will have an impact on your body.
- Ayurveda believes that to be easily digested and retain their Sattvic character, most foods need to be cooked before eating.
What Sattvic food is not…
- Ayurveda’s understanding of the role food plays in your life goes far beyond achieving a certain body weight, or consuming a specific number of calories. Sattvic food, in combination with adequate sleep, meaningful exercise (like yoga and regular walking) and mindfulness practices can help you establish the healthy relationship with your body that leads to you finding the weight that is right for you. But it is not a weight-loss or weight-gain regimen.
- A Sattvic diet is not a low-carb approach to eating. In Ayurveda, the majority of your consumed calories will come from the complex carbohydrates contained in whole grains, legumes and vegetables. Legumes and grains will also be the major source of your protein.
- Ayurveda recommends eating a variety of whole, organic grains, including whole wheat. However, if you have Celiac disease you can easily make a Sattvic diet gluten-free by eating substituting other whole grains.
- Ayurveda also suggests consuming moderate amounts of whole, organic dairy products – in particular ghee, as well as Indian preparations of yogurt and buttermilk. If you are following a vegan diet you can easily avoid these foods.
- In general, Ayurveda suggests that raw food is more difficult for the body to process than cooked food. While small amounts of raw food may be appropriate for your particular constitution, Sattvic food – which is meant to be healthy for everyone – is almost always cooked. A Sattvic diet is not a raw food diet.
If you are new to Ayurveda, what are the most important first steps you can take to make your diet more Sattvic?
Here are a few suggestions…
- Get processed foods out of your diet – processing robs food of elements that help digestion, and over time impairs the digestive system’s ability to process healthy but hard to digest foods, like whole wheat and legumes.
- Eat organic whenever possible – organic foods tend to contain more of the microbes and enzymes that our body needs for proper digestion and immune function.
- Limit your meals to three a day – a moderate sized breakfast, a larger lunch, and a smaller dinner.
- Try to eat your dinner no later than 6pm.
- Drink plenty of water during the day, but not more than a cup with a meal.
- Take up a regular yoga practice! The digestive system is one of the first of your body’s systems to benefit from practicing yoga.
- Find out what your Ayurvedic dosha (constitution) is, and learn what foods to favor and avoid in your diet.
- Start learning how to cook with the spices that aid digestion, including Cumin, Coriander, Fennel, Ginger and Cardamom.
- If you are ready to take the plunge, pick up a copy of Yamuna Devi’s ‘The Art Of Indian Vegetarian Cooking’, and…
- Take the Plunge! Set aside time to to cook for yourself! Here’s an example of what a delicious Sattvic meal can look like