What makes a dish Ayurvedic?
Ayurveda has been preserved and practiced for thousands of years in India: does this mean all Ayurvedic meals are Indian food? These are the questions I had when I started my journey with Ayurveda.
First of all, I was relieved that, no, I don’t have to eat exclusively Indian food to embrace an Ayurvedic lifestyle. Once I understood the basics of Ayurvedic cooking and nutrition, I was able to bridge ancient wisdom with modern living. You can do it, too.
You can prepare Asian-style stir fry, Italian-style risotto, or French-style braised vegetables using Ayurvedic methods. How? By applying ancient principles and selecting high-quality ingredients, these dishes will not only be delicious, but support balance of your body and mind.
To eat Ayurvedically is to eat foods and seasonings that will bring you into balance. When people ask me to describe Ayurvedic food, I explain that an Ayurvedic diet embraces much of what is seen as healthy today—fresh, pure, seasonal, local, predominantly plant-based, nutrient-rich, easy-to-digest, satisfying, energizing, healing, balancing food. However, there are key principles of Ayurvedic eating that set it apart from the herd.
Connect with Ingredients Through More than Just Nutritional Facts
Instead of looking at foods as mixtures of different chemicals, Ayurveda looks at foods as combinations of the five physical elements: space, air, fire, water, earth. These elements and their qualities interact with the same elements and qualities in our physiology.
Instead of simply reading nutrition facts, think about foods in terms of their attributes: sweet or pungent, dry or moist, heavy or light, cooling or heating, etc. Then assess how you’re feeling at the moment and apply the principle of “balance with the opposite.” If your skin is dry, eat moist and hydrating foods; if you’re feeling cold, choose warm, cooked foods over salads; if you’re feeling scattered, choose heavy, grounding foods.
Ayurveda also addresses the vibrational potency of ingredients, not just their physical substances. How fascinating is that!
Digestion, Digestion, Digestion
Digestion is the central mechanism that transforms food molecules into energy and influences our thoughts and feelings. Two basic variables are considered when selecting and adjusting a recipe: the season and the strength of your digestion. Dr. John Douillard teaches us how to do just that in his book The 3-Season Diet.
For example, don’t just choose an ingredient because it’s high in protein. Ask yourself, “Is my digestive fire strong enough to break down this heavy protein?” If not, the semi-digested matter will clog your system. Discovering your Ayurvedic body type (vata, kapha, or pitta) will help you analyze your digestive system and make the right choices.
Samyoga: Select the Best Quality Ingredients + Combine to Support Digestion
If you had to choose between a freshly picked peach and a canned one, which one would you pick? Why? I’m sure we can all understand why fresh, vibrant, clean foods will grant us the most health benefits. The best quality ingredients support the innate intelligence of the body to heal itself.
It gets a little more complex when you have consider personal food compatibility. Eating compatible ingredients will keep your digestion strong. Many people combine “superfoods” based on nutrition facts, but do not consider whether the combination will be properly digested or not. If you ever felt bloated after eating a “supermeal,” it was probably because it included some incompatible ingredients. Some common opposing foods are: fresh fruit and dairy, meat/fish/eggs and dairy, milk and bananas, and fresh fruits with cooked food.
Samskara: Proper Preparation
Properly preparing your food is not just using the perfect technique, but also protecting the prana, or vibrancy, of the food. Steaming, sautéing, boiling, baking, pan frying—all at medium or low heat—protect prana, nutrients, and flavors. Very high heat, deep frying, barbequing, charring, and microwaving can diminish prana. Make sure your food is “prana protected” when you cook.
To consider the vibrational aspect of preparation, one must consider the cooking environment and the consciousness of the cook. These factors imprint on the meal. That’s why I treat my kitchen as a sacred place. When at home, I try to cook with a peaceful mind, keep my station very clean and organized, listen to mantra music and chant along. This is how I use cooking as a way to meditate and tread further down the path to enlightenment.
Use of Spices
In Ayurvedic cooking, we use spices not only to enhance flavor, but to support digestion, eliminate toxins, clear mental fog, and more. The ancients called spices and herbs yogavahi, or “vehicles,” carrying blueprints for healing. Once they enter the body, they start to clean up the digestive tract, paving the way for nutrients to reach their final destination. Start by stocking your cabinet with these essential spices and learning how to use them: turmeric, cumin, coriander, fennel, cloves, green and black cardamom, ajwain, kalonji, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, fenugreek, and ginger.
Find Good Ayurvedic Recipes + Cooking Classes
If all these concepts seem new and confusing, find a couple of Ayurvedic cookbooks to learn from. I learned a great deal that way. To fulfill the growing need for Ayurvedic culinary education, my husband Prentiss and I started Bhagavat Life, an Ayurvedic cooking school, where we offer a variety of in-person cooking classes. We are currently developing a whole online learning program, too!
My goal with the recipes in What to Eat for How You Feel is to help you prepare a personalized meal, without having to guess what your body needs. Giving thought and analysis to my explanations will gradually free you from the necessity of following recipes and will help you deal with the unexpected.
The ancient Vedic texts of India state that our whole life is built around two things: the food that comes into the mouth and the words that come out of the mouth. Both must be healthy and harmonious to ensure the well-being of ourselves and those around us. I sincerely hope that the words coming out of my mouth will inspire you to put the best food in your mouth. Healthy food promotes healthy thoughts, conversations, and relationships that ripple into sustaining healthy families, communities, and societies.
Check out my podcast with Divya Alter!