Ayurvedic Cooking

Time to cook Ayurvedic stuff!

I loved macrobiotics – the theory made sense to me and the food was very grounding. But at times I found myself craving some pungent spices and heat. Garlic, cinnamon, chiles, and sweet fruits are not things you get in large quantities in macrobiotics.

Ayurveda, on the other hand, comes from India, where spicy foods rule (or so I’m told). Depending on your dosha, you may be encouraged to pump up the salty, sour, pungent and sweet.

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One of my first tasks in our Ayurvedic cooking labs was to make a chutney from cilantro, chiles, salt and coconut. Yes! Yes! Yes!

Chutney is a salty, sweet, spicy condiment. Kind of like a jam or a sauce – it can be sweet or savory. More on chutneys in a later post…

Below: Blending up a chutney.

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Ayurvedic Food Philosphy – Introduction

We started our study of Ayurveda with a visit from Felicia Tomasko, an expert from Los Angeles on Ayurveda, an Ayurvedic counselor, and a yoga teacher. Felicia is also editor of LA Yoga, which you would certainly have heard of if you do yoga in Los Angeles. Similar to Warren Kramer, it was really nice to have a person teaching us who has a national reputation in their field.

Below: Felicia Tomasko (far right) discusses Ayurveda with Natural Epicurean students.

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Ayurveda – A First Impression

Similar to macrobiotics, Ayurveda is a study of the energy of everything and naturally food is a key part of how that energy is transferred to our bodies. So according to Ayurveda, food is very much tied to health – imagine that! One of the things we students have observed and enjoyed about Ayurveda is that spices are a key element in the energy of a particular food. Cinnamon, cloves, ginger, turmeric – we’ve been playing with these any many, many more. In fact, Ayurvedic food is very much about the study of the taste of food.

Below: Spices for in-class tasting. 

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Ayurveda – The Basics

Ayurveda is “the science of life” (ayur + veda = life + study) and dates back around 2,000 to 5,000 years. Ayurveda identifies three doshas, or types of energy which are constantly varying in intensity within the universe and within us. Each of us is born with a given balance of these doshas:

  • Vata – governs movement, lightness. Is ephemeral and active, and prone to dryness and coolness.
  • Pitta – governs transformation, digestion, discernment. Is fiery and driven in energy.  Tends to be hotter and brighter.
  • Kapha – governs growth and lubricating elements of the body (e.g., joints). Is more settled and steady in energy. Is colder, heavier, and wetter than the other doshas.

Doshas are prone to fall out of balance, in fact that is where the word “dosha” comes from – that which can fall out of balance. Since vata energy is more active and ephemeral, it is the most likely to get out of balance. What can throw your doshas out of balance?

  • Food (e.g., too much spicy food can aggravate pitta’s already fiery nature)
  • Weather (e.g., too much cold weather can aggravate kapha’s coolness)
  • Physical activity (e.g. too much movement/travel can aggravate vata’s tendency to be overactive)

So where it gets interesting is that physical problems are tied to doshas. For example:

  • Feeling tired and sluggish? Kapha dosha is likely overactive. Pungent, bitter foods may help lighten you up.
  • Feeling acid reflux or burning in your digestion? Pitta dosha is too increased. Cooling sweet or astringent foods may be helpful.
  • Dealing with dry, flaky skin? The dryness of vata may be aggravated. Moist oils or sweets could help.

Food and Doshic Balance

How can you know which foods will keep your doshas in balance? Ayurveda starts with the flavors of food, of which there are six:

  • Sweet
  • Salty
  • Sour
  • Bitter
  • Pungent
  • Astringent

Each of these tastes affects doshas in different ways because each taste carries energy of it’s own. An example is that pungent food is fiery and hot (e.g., jalapeno peppers). When you combine pungent food with a person with a strong pitta dosha, which is already fiery and hot itself, the person’s doshic balance is harmed – the person will tend to have overactive pitta-ness. To calm that over pitta quality, you could eat tastes which are more cooling – astringent and bitter (e.g., eggplant, leafy greens, turmeric, cucumber).

Learning how to identify tastes was one of the more enjoyable parts of my time at The Natural Epicurean – we spent a lot of time in the past few weeks focusing in on flavors. I think that it’s going to make me a better cook primarily, and secondarily will help me a better healing cook.

Note – foods can have multiple flavors at once. For example, oranges are both sweet and sour. Bananas are sweet and astringent. Tomatoes are sour and sweet. Onions are pungent, and their sweetness intensifies when they’re cooked.

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Summary

Ayurveda is a really old way of planning for health. Although it is not intuitive for Westerners, the more we work with it the more we’ll understand it. Then, we can incorporate Ayurvedic philosophy into our daily lives more easily. And one does not need to live and eat Ayurvedically all the time, agonizing over the doshic balance of every meal – you can use it as part of your overall health plan.

I’d like to write more about Ayurvedic philosphy and food, but I’ll save it for another time!

What Do I Want? Absolutely Everything

I’ve decided that when someone asks what I plan to do when I finish cooking school my answer will be “everything.” I want to do it all. Catering, restaurants, cafes, personal chef, wellness coach – I want to do all of it. With so many cool people around me, it all feels possible.

Friday Lecture

Friday we heard from three instructors who scratched the surfaces of Macrobiotic, Raw, and Ayurvedic cooking and philosophies. Chef Rachel Zierzow, Chef Alicia Ojeda, and Ellen Stansell gave us just a taste of these food and health modalities and I found each talk equally stimulating.

Macrobiotics

Macrobiotics is amazing because, as I first wrote about in one of my earliest blog posts, it takes a broad view of life beyond food. As Chef Rachel put it, one goal of macrobiotics is to “make your dreams come true.” How about that? And one of the chief ways you accomplish this is through good food choices, because macrobiotics believes that your food really does influence your life and your way of thinking.

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Raw Food

Chef Alicia Ojeda, one of the key people behind the development of the menu at Beets Cafe and former head chef there, is a true leader in raw food and her energy in speaking was a great sales pitch for raw foodism. Raw food is food that’s never brought above 118 degrees, which means that it is living food. Food that sits on the shelf with an expiration date two years in the future is inert and dead. Raw food – fruits, vegetables, nuts, etc. – is alive and it provides clean nourishment to the body. And to make things even more interesting, Chef Alicia looks at least 10 years younger than her actual age. Hmmm.

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Ayurveda

Lastly, we heard from The Natural Epicurean’s curriculum director Ellen Stansell. Ellen has a PhD in Indian philosophy from UT Austin and she gave us a primer on Ayurvedic wellness theory. This theory is the one that was most unfamiliar to me upon entering the program. To sum up, Ayurveda calls upon each person to keep their body in balance by being mindful of the environment and food one eats. Your personal characteristics and environment will help dictate what food will lead to optimal health at any given moment.

My favorite part of Ellen’s talk was where she compared the Western worldview to the Ayurvedic worldview. In the West, matter is merely physical and life is simply a collection of molecules that behaves in a “lifelike” way. The Ayurvedic view is that the physical world, living and non-living objects, and food are all imbued with spirit; they are joyous and blessed. An especially cool moment was when it began to rain very heavily and many students stopped their assigned activity and went to the back to watch the downpour. Ellen actually encouraged us to watch, noting that it is inherently human to be fascinated by such weather (especially in typically arid Austin, TX). How cool is that?

 

Diet Is Correct

The source of this blog’s title is from an Ayurvedic saying:

When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use. When diet is correct, medicine is of no need.

This quote has significance for me for a couple of reasons. Chief among them is that I believe food is by far the main cause of health issues in the US. Diet has a powerful ability to heal, connect, and inspire.

The second reason I find this quote meaningful is because when I asked myself in what direction I wanted to take my new career, focusing on food and wellness was the answer – diet is correct.