The Healing Art of Ayurvedic Cooking

Ayruvedic Thali Meal

The organic relationship between the six tastes (rasa) and the three dosha is at the root of Ayurvedic dietetics. Each of the six tastes is capable of affecting the individual dosha (VPK) in a sedative or additive way. For example, foods containing madhura-rasa where both rasa (taste) and vipāka (post-digestive effect) are sweet share the same composition from earthy and watery elements as the Kapha dosha. Thus madhura-varga food, which is capable of providing energy by breaking down into sugar, adds to the Kapha constituency but at the same time sedates the Vāta dosha. This is because the composition of the Vāta constituency is ruled by air and ether elements and is dissimilar to such an extent from Kapha that the same food can be deemed to produce the opposite effect on Vāta dosha. Ayurvedic food preparation is based on the axiom that similar components add while dissimilar detract. Therefore, similarity of components is additive while dissimilarity is sedative.

Cooking is an art. Ayurvedic cooking is the art of balancing ingredients while inducing prāna. Most importantly, all six tastes are balanced during the cooking. Ayurveda recommends light cooking under controlled heat using heavy nonreactive pots and pans. In order to preserve prāna, overheating and losing the original colour and nascent taste of the vegetable is not recommended. The cooked food needs to exude light and be full of energy (prāna) with the vegetables retaining some of their original freshness. For example, the okra needs to be radiant green and not dripping with oil or the broccoli needs to be bright green and still somewhat crunchy!

The modern science of dietetics is somewhat lopsided because of its focus on the class of nutrients based on the quantities of calories, fats, proteins, carbohydrates, etc. There is little or no reference to the seasonal rhythms, geographical location of where the food is grown, digestive capacity of the individual, biorhythms of the eater and other holistic factors. The reductionistic approach is not practical for the consumer, to say the least. Moreover, modern dietary advice is diverse and sometimes contradictory. With confusing notions, it is hard to know what to eat and what not to eat. Food has also become like fashion with changing food fads based on commercially hyped trends. In addition, we can become disconnected from fresh (high prānic) food and resort to eating processed or packaged convenience foods. Ingredients in cooking that come from heirloom varieties, maintaining the organic continuity of their lifeforce, are not worth compromising. The time-honoured wisdom of Ayurveda provides a secure traditional platform in the field of nutrition and health to guide towards a spiritual, mindful lifestyle.

Ayurveda shows how mental clarity, emotional states (moods) and the welfare of the body are linked to diet. Nevertheless, the diet needs to be adapted to the unique mind-body constitution or dosha of an individual (whether pacifying or provoking).

The food we eat is one of the prime influences on our state of health and we have good influence over our food choices. Ayurvedic tenets proclaim that “disease is a result of assault against one’s own intelligence.” Though certain ailments fructify without being self-inflicted in this lifetime, many are the result of making poor or misinformed food choices. We have to face the consequences of those choices sooner or later.

Ayurvedic dietetics explains the thesis of āhār-mimānsā centred upon the agni-bala or the strength of the digestive fire that determines the digestive capacity of the eater. There are of course principle tendencies based on the triple dosha constitution. Associated with Vāta is the vishamāgni which indicates irregular metabolism. Associated with Pitta is the tixnāgni which indicates hyper-metabolism. Associated with Kapha is the mandāgni which indicates hypo-metabolism. Whereas the balanced kind is called the samāgni favouring balanced metabolism. The quantity of edibles (mātrā) that are being properly digested and assimilated into the bodily tissues, and what is excreted are given special importance. You are what you digest! These variables differ with individual constitutions, digestive power, moods and feelings, diurnal and seasonal rhythms among other lesser influences (such as cleanliness, ambience during eating, etc.). Ayurvedic culinary art is unique due to its emphasis on balancing ingredients and spices in a way to achieve optimal digestibility with a diet adapted to dik (direction or locale) and kāla (time of month and day, etc.). The satiating potency and prānic food value are based upon the singular axiom that the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts, just like the wholeness of the body itself. Therefore, cooked food must be much more than the sum of its ingredients.

Vāgbhata, a great Ayurvedācharya (Ayurvedic adept), has enumerated ten pairs of attributes exhibiting opposing qualities that apply equally to a food item or a specific dosha.

Ten pairs of opposing qualities

Guru (heavy, trophic)

 ↔

Laghu (light, atrophic)

Manda (slow, sedative)

 ↔

Tixna (sharp, purifying)

Hima (cold, arrestive)

 ↔

Ushna (hot, diaphoretic)

Snigdha (oily, moistening)

 ↔

Ruxa (dry, absorptive)

Slaxna (smooth, slimy)

 ↔

Khara (rough, scratchy)

Sāndra (viscid, dense)

 ↔

Drava (liquid, solvent)

Mridu (soft, mild)

 ↔

Kathina (hard, solidifying)

Sthira (stable, steadying)

 ↔

Chala (mobile, propelling)

Sūxma (subtle, penetrative)

 ↔

Sthula (gross, obstructive)

Vishada (clear, separating)

 ↔

Pichchhala (cloudy, compacting)

It is worth briefly revising these qualities juxtaposed with observable features of specific dosha.

Vāta – dry, light, cold, rough, subtle, and mobile
Pitta – somewhat oily, light, sharp, hot, mobile, liquid, and a peculiar unripe odour (āma-gandha)
Kapha – oily, cold, heavy, slow, smooth, steady, and an earthy odour (mritsnā)

As in the assignment of these qualities according to dosha, each kind of food bears such qualities as per the organic continuity of co-evolving natural counterparts. These qualities obviously have a direct effect on the emotions or moods and how the body digests a particular food. One can easily become irritable after eating hot (chili) food. When the qualities of food are similar to the qualities of a dosha, ingestion will tend to aggravate the dosha. Likewise opposing qualities of food will tend to pacify the dosha. Such a basic understanding is therefore helpful in developing a cooking strategy which will be pacifying and not provoking to the mind-body dosha constitution.

In this respect, simple examples of food qualities help fortify the understanding of their selection in Ayurvedic cooking and meal planning.

Light sprouts, popcorn
Heavy whole beans, cheese
Slow yogurt (curd)
Sharp garlic, onion
Cold mint, melon
Hot chili pepper, black pepper
Oily coconut, avocado
Dry rye, millet
Stable ghee
Mobile alcohol, sprouts

Choosing the right combination of food groups and cooking them optimally to retain their high prānic vibration is nourishing when all six tastes are also balanced. The art of Ayurvedic cooking is incomplete without the effort to balance the tastes while preparing a wholesome meal. Often it is only possible to bring about the balance through different items of the meal menu eaten in an order. This is done to retain the flavour and texture of a particular dish. Such an effort to balance the tastes is also a common strategy. The order in which the individual savoury or sweet dish is served or ingested is then adjusted to increase digestion and promote sumptuousness.

Understanding of food passage in stages of rasa (taste), virya (heating or cooling energy), and vipāka (post-digestive effect) are part of basic training in Ayurvedic cooking. The overall result of digestion is controlled by the prabhāva, which is an unapparent result due to the hidden action of food. Each taste (rasa) whether used collectively or individually in proper doses aids systemic balance at the dosha level and promotes health and healing. While taste is felt on the tongue, the virya is felt as heating or cooling energy in the mouth and the stomach. Sweet taste is known to yield cooling energy. Thus, the sweet-tasting food that is pleasing to the Pitta and Vāta types can be Kapha provoking. Bitter-tasting foodstuffs are cooling with the exception of turmeric which is heating. It is good to know the vipāka for each taste group and applicable exceptions to better understand the post-digestive effect of food on the body and mental awareness. As a specific example, pomegranate, which has an astringent rasa, has a sweet vipāka. Tabular presentation summarizing the effect of six tastes on dosha is helpful (shown in the Life Principles section of this workbook) in understanding the healing effect of cooking.

The experience of taste (rasa) that is accentuated a short while later by the feeling of heating or cooling energy (virya) further produces an impact that shows up on the sweat, urine and faeces due to the post-digestive effect (vipāka). Hot chilies will be pungent to the taste followed by a feeling of heat and will then bring about a burning sensation subsequently in urine and faeces. Traditionally, hot chilies are used in specific environments or climates, wherein rājasika qualities are increased in food preparation. Implementing these principles in cooking helps develop a good understanding of how food impacts the bodily systems. What is beyond normal predictability is the prabhāva, which is a dynamic and hidden action of food based on a specific substance or the make-up of the food. The result is somewhat unpredictable because foodstuffs with similar rasa, virya and vipāka can still yield a different action and consequently a different result. An example is the ghee and honey given together to the newborn baby as the first lick besides the mother’s milk. The prabhāva is inferior when they are mixed in equal amounts but acceptable when ghee is double that of honey! This regimen requires deeper study of Ayurvedic food combinations and the art of healing through cooking.

While the selection of the right food ingredients in measured proportions is important, the feelings added by the cook are also important. Subtle feelings of devotion and loving thoughts greatly add to the lifeforce from the heat applied during the cooking. Therefore, the good intentions and good mood of the cook imbue the food with some indefinable vibration that enhances the quality of the eating experience. A mother’s cooking always tastes divine to her children because it is filled with love. As you explore the art of Ayurvedic cooking, you can experiment with recipes. As long as you use healthy ingredients with the right proportions and cook with the right feelings, the meal is going to be healing.


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