In the West, Ayurvedic cooking is often being associated with intense Indian spices and food. Since it originates from India, that’s partly true. However, that’s just one small part of the whole story behind Ayurvedic cooking.
The core of Ayurveda and Ayurvedic cooking is knowing oneself and knowing Nature. The idea is to consciously use Ayurvedic practices (like cooking) in our routine. By doing that, we are supporting our unique nature and thriving as the best version of ourselves.
Food is our main source of energy. What we eat and the way we eat forms our relationship to food and thus relationship to ourselves. We are what we do every day, so the food we eat every day becomes us and builds our body, mind, and spirit.
However, Ayurvedic or “healthy” diet is not the ultimate “goal”. It’s just a technique for creating a safe, fertile ground for conscious living. When we have a good source of energy, we can start cultivating it and integrate it into things that truly inspire us.
It doesn’t matter where we are from or where we live. All of us can apply Ayurvedic principles in cooking because, at the core, they represent continuous learning about Nature elements and observing them in oneself. Observing their combinations and interactions, amplifying their strengths, and alleviating their weaknesses (in food, and ourselves).
When talking about our relationship to food, Ayurveda takes into consideration various factors, such as: eating according to the season, eating according to our nature, current physical, mental and emotional state, time of the day, food combining, the ways of cooking and eating.
The first staple of Ayurvedic kitchen is cooking with fresh, organic, locally produced whole foods, mostly plant-based. Of course, the suggestion is to buy groceries from verified sources and on the farmer’s market, not in supermarkets. The very act of buying food directly from the farmer makes our relationship with food stronger. We are being reminded to slow down and consciously choose what we want on our plate and in our bodies. Just by the simple act of observation, we start learning more about what type of foods are available at a particular time of year. We connect with our senses and with the needs of our bodies and get inspired to cook. Once we learn to distinguish the elements each food type embodies, we intuitively connect with their Prana (life energy), and we don’t need recipes and a shopping list – our senses will guide us to the right choice and inspire us for intuitive cooking.
1. Eating according to the season
We can follow Ayurvedic principles no matter which part of the world we live in. Our body is connected to the elements of nature, and thus to the elements of plants that bear fruit in a certain part of the year, containing the energy of that season. We can use that energy to introduce more (or less) of an element into ourselves, depending on what we need.
For example, in the summer we will enjoy cucumbers, watermelons, zucchinis, and melons in general, which are more cooling and contain a lot of water – perfect for the summer. During the winter it’s advisable to choose root vegetables which usually take longer to cook – such as sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkins, etc. By cooking these (mostly) root veggies, we are bringing the element of earth and fire into the body, which is needed to balance the winter days. Similarly, we will use more spices during the winter because they are warming up our body and stimulating Agni (digestive fire).
2. Eating according to one’s nature
In the previous blog, I wrote about the importance of an individual approach from the aspect of Ayurveda. This can be applied to nutrition also. Besides eating seasonal foods, the diet should also be adapted to one’s unique nature. According to Ayurveda, we all have a unique combination of elements that constitute our nature since our birth. Those elements (fire, water, earth, air, ether) determine our character and metabolism.
However, this unique ratio of elements is always influenced by various factors, so one should be careful when thinking about nutrition and always look at the bigger picture. For example, although it’s advisable to eat spicer food in the winter, this may not suit a person who is very physically active, has a lot of fire element, a very fast metabolism, and tends to be aggressive when falls out of balance. Due to the fiery nature, the advice would be to include more cooling foods. That means that the previously mentioned cooling spices suggested to be used in the summer (parsley, mint, coriander, fennel) will be a good choice for this person also during the winter days.
3. Eating according to current physical, mental and emotional state
Our food needs differ depending on our current condition. For example, the same person mentioned above will have different food cravings and needs depending on daily activities. The same person can be sitting in the office 8 hours a day, then going for a long vacation, or choosing to start with intense physical activity daily. Ayurvedic nutrition recommendations will differ depending on each activity because they affect our whole system differently. The same goes for mental and emotional exhaustion – there is food that can raise or lower our energy, depending on whether we want to uplift ourselves, or slow down (ground ourselves). Here Ayurveda comes into play, with various spices, herbs, and ways of preparing food in general.
4. Mealtimes according to Ayurveda
Since we are an integral part of nature, we are also connected to her cycles. When we are in balance, our digestive fire (so-called Agni) is strongest in the middle of the day (as the sun) and weaker in the morning and evening.
Therefore, it is wise to eat food that is lighter to digest in the morning and evening and eat the biggest meal of the day for lunch. Dairy products and meat can be a problem for some people, especially if eaten cold for breakfast or dinner. In most cases, it’s important to start the day with a light, well-balanced, cooked meal that will gently “ignite” our digestive fire; while dinner should be eaten no later than a couple of hours before bedtime.
However, we shouldn’t take these recommendations strictly. These are just general recommendations, while Ayurveda approaches everyone with much more detail, taking into consideration our digestive capacity, lifestyle, and needs. However, regardless of our lifestyle, we can adjust our meals to general Ayurvedic guidelines and thus optimize our metabolism and energy.
5. Ways of preparing food and cooking
There are various ways of preparing food that we can use as a means to connect with wanted elements of Nature, depending on what we need regarding our current state and the season – cooking, frying, baking, steaming, raw food, etc.
The technique of food preparation we decide to use will depend on our current condition, which is not always so simple to be aware of. For example, during the winter months, a person may feel sluggish and have slower digestion, and therefore reach for a raw meal (e.g. a cold salad with grains and seeds). While salad can help some of us to feel lighter, for others with weak Agni, the same salad may further slow the digestion process. In most cases, we all need a bit of help with our digestion due to today’s sedentary lifestyle, which we do by (longer) cooking and the use of spices (in moderation).
When we talk about health, which from Ayurveda depends mostly on our digestive capacity – it is advisable to give preference to the food that is cooked, lightly oiled, and seasoned in moderation – because all this supports our digestive fire and helps to assimilate nutrients.
Of course, we can still enjoy frying as a way of preparing food now and then. But we can use this technique wisely – specifically on dry, windy days when we need more moisture. Same goes for raw food, we can eat a simple fruit salad during the summer months after exercise in the morning (which is not a complete meal!). However, cooking should be given the highest priority.
6. Food combining
Food combining is closely related to the effect that food has primarily on our body, but also the mind and spirit. When talking about food, Ayurveda takes into consideration several factors, such as 6 flavors (sweet, salty, sour, pungent, bitter, astringent). Each of the flavors is a combination of the above mentioned 5 elements that have a certain effect on the body (depending on our constitution and current condition).
According to Ayurveda, each food has 3 actions closely connected to the taste. First, the taste we feel in the mouth (Rasa). Second, the energy that the food has on the body – cooling/warming (Virya), and third, the post-digestive effect on the body (Vipaka). Moreover, there are 3 main qualities or attributes (Gunas) – Rajas, Sattva, and Tamas, all inherent in different types of food. From everything mentioned above, we see that talking about food in Ayurveda can be quite complex (more about this topic in future blogs).
However, if we are just starting to learn about Ayurveda, we can set aside all of these mentioned concepts, and simply pay attention to food combining. Incompatible food combining slows down our digestion, creates bloating. gas and toxins. Common mistakes are: eating dairy products with fresh fruit, combining different proteins (e.g. meat, eggs, cheese, beans), drinking coffee before or after yogurt or fruit, or eating fruit after the main meal. This can cause various digestive problems and other disbalances in the long run.
7. The way of eating
All of the above factors won’t make any sense if we eat unconsciously. Firstly, we should be in touch with the pure feeling of hunger. We shouldn’t eat when we are not hungry, especially when we are upset or stressed out. Before eating, we should calm ourselves down. We should eat in a sitting position, with a straight spine, without a cell phone or TV. Ideally in silence, or with our loved ones, with gratitude for the meal that Nature has provided us.
These principles can help us become aware of our attitude towards food, which ultimately leads us to become more aware of our attitude towards Life itself. However, the most important thing is not to become obsessive about food, but to follow these principles in a balanced way.