by April Thompson
“In Ayurveda, food is medicine,” says Susan Weis-Bohlen, the Reisterstown, Maryland, instructor and author of Ayurveda Beginner’s Guide: Essential Ayurvedic Principles and Practices to Balance and Heal Naturally. “How we feed ourselves is the first line of disease prevention and longevity.”
First developed in India some 5,000 years ago, Ayurveda is one of the world’s oldest medical systems. It works to rebalance mental and physical health in coordination with mind-body energy types called doshas. The primary ones—Vata, Pitta and Kapha—correlate to the five elements of space, air, fire, earth and water, and can fluctuate over time.
An Ayurvedic diet can help address dosha imbalances and optimize health and well-being. New York City chef, restauranteur and author Divya Alter embraced Ayurveda while suffering from an autoimmune disorder that conventional medicine couldn’t cure. “Food was instrumental to my healing,” she says.
Eating in Season
“Ayurveda is about living in harmony. Eating seasonally and locally, you not only get the most nourishment but also rekindle your relationship to food and the environment,” says Nishita Shah, of The Ayurvedic Institute, in Albuquerque.
“In Ayurveda, we look to seasons to determine what to eat based on what is naturally available, like eating light juicy fruits in summer rather than the heavy root vegetables abundant in winter,” notes Weis-Bohlen.
Spices and herbs have powerful healing properties that can be combined in different ways to balance doshas in tune with the seasons. “In winter, use warming spices like ginger, cinnamon or chilies, and in summer, season with cooling spices like coriander and fennel, or fresh herbs like cilantro,” says Alter.
Ayurvedic Prep Tips
Proper combination and selection of ingredients are a critical component of Ayurveda, according to Alter, author of What to Eat for How You Feel: The New Ayurvedic Kitchen. She says, “Well-prepared food is easy to digest and protects prana—the food’s living force or energy—so it can nourish and energize.”
Ayurveda also focuses on the “six tastes” ideally present in every dish: sweet, sour, salty, astringent, bitter and pungent. “Western cuisine has a strong salty and sweet bias. Health issues arise from an imbalanced palate,” says Shah.
Alter adjusts taste profiles according to the season and the individual’s dosha. “Bitter foods can be very cleansing and help eliminate winter sluggishness. More pungent foods are good in the spring, when the body may feel congested and heavy after winter,” she says.
To address diners’ differing doshas at her restaurant, Divya’s Kitchen, Alter focuses on seasonal dishes that incorporate all six tastes. “By definition, these are tri-doshic foods which can balance all three dosha types.”
Good tri-doshic foods include asparagus in spring, berries in summer and root vegetables in winter. “Cooked leafy greens can also be tri-doshic,” says Alter, adding that spices can tweak the natural dosha effect of a given food.
Ancient Cooking for Modern Lifestyles
Ayurveda’s rules of the kitchen—such as avoiding cold, raw, processed or microwaved foods, not combining fruits with other foods, and making lunch the heaviest meal of the day—can run counter to the typical Western diet, but with time, Ayurvedic cooking can become intuitive.
Ayurvedic meals don’t need to be complicated or challenging to prepare. “A simple apple or plain rice can nourish us,” says Shah. One of Alter’s favorite recipes is an apple or pear stewed with cloves, prepared and eaten first thing in the morning to stimulate the digestive system. Plain almonds are another good protein snack, especially in aiding digestion when soaked and peeled, she advises.
A “Buddha bowl” packed with colorful, sautéed vegetables, lentils and a grain like quinoa, barley or millet make for a simple, nourishing, well-balanced meal, says Shah. “I try to add just enough spice to enhance the flavor, while still being able to taste the sweetness of a carrot or the bitterness of chard.”
A cook’s mindset is as important as the meal itself, say Ayurvedic practitioners. Alter believes mindfulness while cooking and eating not only enhances our experience, but also our digestion.
Ayurvedic cooking should be fun, ignite curiosity and taste great—not feel restrictive or lack flavor, says Shah. “Food should bring joy, and bring us back in tune with our bodies. Our bodies are smart and will tell us what they need.”April Thompson is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.
The Beginner’s Ayurvedic Kitchen
The rules of Ayurvedic cooking can seem overwhelming, but there are simple ways to start aligning our diet with its principles. “There is a profound knowledge behind Ayurvedic cooking, but the methods of preparation are easy; you don’t need to be a skilled chef,” says chef, restauranteur and author Divya Alter.
“One portion of food should fit in your hands when cupped together,” says Nishita Shah, of The Ayurvedic Institute. “Any more is going above and beyond what the body needs and can handle.”
“Energetic imbalances can fluctuate, so what you need now doesn’t have to be what you eat for the rest of your life,” says Alter.
Shah uses color to guide her cooking, declaring a dish done when its greens are at peak vibrancy.
Alter stresses eating according to the strength of your digestion. “Someone with a fiery or strong digestion may need to eat heavier foods and more frequent meals.”
Cooking with fresh, high-quality and ideally, organic ingredients is key. Food should be prepared soon after purchase and consumed soon after preparation to maximize flavors and nutrition.
Ayurvedic cooking enhances natural flavors, while optimizing digestion, nutrient absorption and waste elimination. “How you experience food after a meal is just as important as how you feel while eating it. Deep frying, charring or cooking at high temperatures makes food hard to digest, overheats the liver and causes acidity,” says Alter.
Simple Ayurvedic Recipes
Pitta and Kapha pacifying
While Ayurveda does not promote snacking, sometimes we just need a little something to peck on now and then. Crunchy garbanzo beans (chickpeas) make a satisfying and supremely healthy choice for Pitta and Kapha. As witnessed by the many packaged chickpea snacks now commonly seen in stores, chickpeas are popular, so make this snack for a quarter of the price. Customize the flavors to satisfy a personal dosha, and palate, by getting creative with the spices.
Yields: 5 cup servings
2 cups precooked chickpeas or 2, 8-oz cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 tsp sea salt for Pitta or Himalayan salt for Kapha
½ tsp smoked paprika or ½ tsp ground cumin or ½ tsp garam masala powder (optional)
1 Tbsp sunflower or safflower oil (optional for crunchiness; no oil for Kapha)
Spread the rinsed chickpeas on a baking sheet to dry, about 20 minutes. Preheat the oven to 450° F. In a mixing bowl, add the chickpeas; salt; paprika, cumin or garam masala (if using); and the oil (if using).
Toss well to coat and spread on a baking sheet in a single layer.
Place the baking sheet in the oven and bake for 20 minutes.
Remove from the oven, and use a spatula to turn the chickpeas over.
Place back in the oven and roast for an additional 10 minutes or until the chickpeas are slightly browned. Roast a little longer, if desired, for crunchier chickpeas.
Store the crunchy chickpeas in an airtight container. Do not refrigerate. These are great to sprinkle on salads and rice dishes. Don’t make more than can be eaten in three days.
To cook dry chickpeas, soak overnight, drain and place into a large soup pot. Cover with water, at least double the amount of beans.
Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for at least 30 to 45 minutes.
Check on the beans during cooking. When they are soft, they are done.
Recipe courtesy of Ayurveda Beginner’s Guide: Essential Ayurvedic Principles and Practices to Balance and Heal Naturally, by Susan Weis-Bohlen. Photo by © Nadine Greeff.
Vata, Pitta and Kapha pacifying
Golden milk is an age-old recipe that nourishes the body on many levels. Turmeric helps reduce inflammation, ghee distributes the healing properties throughout the body and tryptophan in the milk will encourage sleep. It is calmative, restorative and delicious. Make this a vegan drink by substituting milk and ghee with almond oil and a dairy alternative such as almond milk, hemp milk or coconut milk made without zinc oxide.
Yields: 1 serving
6 to 8 oz whole-fat goat’s milk for Kapha and Pitta or cow’s milk for Vata
½ tsp ghee
½ tsp turmeric powder
½ tsp ginger powder
1 pinch ground black pepper
1 pinch ground cinnamon
1 pinch ground nutmeg (to promote sleep)
1 small piece jaggery [sugar] (optional)
Add all the ingredients to a small pot. Over medium-high heat, bring the mixture to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for a minute or two.
Pour into a mug and drink before bed. To enjoy this drink during the day, leave out the nutmeg.
Tip: If experiencing constipation, adding more ghee to the milk will help.
Recipe courtesy of Ayurveda Beginner’s Guide: Essential Ayurvedic Principles and Practices to Balance and Heal Naturally, by Susan Weis-Bohlen. Photo by Elena Schweitzer/Shutterstock.com.