The internet proliferates with recipes for Ayurvedic foods. You can find ‘Ayurvedic’ recipes for everything from smoothies to popsicles to kale chips. What makes these recipes particularly Ayurvedic? Is it the spices, the ingredients or the combinations?
Ayurvedic foods are not necessarily Indian—any cuisine can be Ayurvedic. But, the food or recipe should follow the basic guidelines of Ayurvedic dietetics set out in the Samhitas—the basic Ayurvedic medical texts which underlie all of Ayurvedic medicine. So let’s investigate, in 3 parts, what makes a recipe, or food, Ayurvedic?
In Ayurvedic medicine, food and herbs are understood to have some rudimentary characteristics.
Taste is separated into six categories:
These tastes exert different effects on the body and the doshas. The sweet, sour and salty tastes increase the Kapha dosha and decrease the Vata dosha. Pungent, bitter and astringent foods calm Kapha but aggravate Vata. Sweet, bitter and astringent pacify Pitta while pungent, sour and salty aggravate it.
Food and herbs also have the ability to perform a specific action, i.e, to heat or cool, to moisten, to dry, etc. A strong, dominating ability, so strong that even the digestive fire (agni) cannot change it is known as virya. The most dominating abilities are heating and cooling, i.e. different foods exert a heating or a cooling effect on the body.
Ayurvedic medicine has a unique understanding about the post-digestive effect (vipak) that food and herbs exert. This post-digestive effect develops as a result of the digestive process.
Foods and herbs also have qualities that characterize them like heavy to digest, light to digest, dry, moist, sharp, etc.
These qualities affect the process of digestion and the function of the body, mind and doshas. These qualities are, perhaps, the easiest to assess besides taste, as they can be pretty apparent—i.e. feeling sluggish and dull after eating a heavy food or breaking into a sweat after eating a dish full of hot and sharp chilies.
A healthy diet should have all six tastes with a predominance of sweet taste–foods with sweet taste like rice, ghee, milk and mung beans to help build good bodily tissues. Ayurvedic recipes try to balance the taste, potency, post-digestive effect and qualities of foods, so that they become easy to digest and appropriate to the season and to the person eating them.
In Ayurvedic medicine, there are some very definite rules for the types of food that should be consumed regularly so that it promotes good digestion and the proper nourishment of the body, mind and spirit.
The Ayurvedic medical texts are very clear that food should normally be consumed at a warm temperature because this ignites the digestive fire, eases the digestive process, helps in the proper movement of the Vata dosha and reduces the Kapha dosha. Thus, any recipe for food that is to be consumed at a cold temperature should not be consumed regularly. To put it simply: as a general rule, food should be cooked, not raw.
Food should be unctuous or contain some fat. This also ignites the digestive fire, eases the digestive process and helps Vata to flow in its proper direction. Foods that are excessively dry, like kale chips, should not then be consumed regularly, especially because dark leafy greens possess the bitter taste which in combination with the dry quality would be aggravating to Vata dosha.
Food should be light and easy to digest. Thus, foods that are heavy, cold and sweet, like smoothies, should not be consumed regularly.
In general, food should not increase sticky secretions in the body (abhishandi) or cause burning sensation (vidahi). Abhishandi foods are those that combine the heavy, sour and oily qualities which, in turn, increases sticky secretions in the body. An example of this is yogurt. Tomatoes and white potatoes are quite possibly abhishandi foods too.
Vidahi foods combine sour, pungent and heavy qualities and cause burning feeling like spicy tomato sauce.
That’s why Ayurveda advices that it’s best not to consume them regularly or in large quantities.
Thus, as a general rule, the majority of foods you eat should be cooked, contain some oil or fat and spices that ease digestion. Other foods can be consumed, but not as a regular part of your diet.
Finally, Viruddha ahar should be avoided. Viruddha ahar is unwholesome food and/or manners of consumption or preparation which stir up and aggravate the doshas without eliminating them from the body.
“All diets which dislodge the various doshas but do not expel them out of the body are to be regarded as unwholesome.” – Charaka Samhita, Sutrasthanha 27/85
The Charaka Samhita, the oldest existing Ayurvedic medical text, goes on to describe the following foods as viruddha ahar.
(Charaka, Sutrasthanha 27/86-101)
What this means then is that intake of a food that increases doshas in the body by magnifying seasonal, climactic or inherent qualities is not recommended and that continued intake will stir up the doshas and cause problems. An example of this might be intake of a dry, sharp and pungent dish in a dry and arid land or season—like taking kale chips made with sharp and pungent spices in the dry heat of summer on a frequent basis or intake of cold and fatty ice cream in the cold and wet part of winter.
Furthermore, if your digestion is weakened then intake of a heavy food is viruddha ahar and if you have strong, insistent digestive power then habitual intake of light and unsatisfying food is viruddha ahar.
So, what all this means is that you must evaluate recipes and foods based on what is appropriate to your inherent nature and to the land, season and time that you are in. Your food must also be evaluated based on your current state of digestive power, health and bowel function as well as whether your body is actually ready to eat and that the food you are considering is something you are accustomed to too.
Eating this way will allow you to evaluate how food affects you and as you learn to be in tune with eating seasonally and appropriately for the environment that you are in, you will naturally be eating Ayurvedically.
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