The internet proliferates with recipes for Ayurvedic foods. You can find ‘Ayurvedic’ recipes for everything from smoothies to popsicles to kale chips. What makes these recipes particularly Ayurvedic? Is it the spices, the ingredients or the combinations? How can you determine whether a recipe is Ayurvedic or not?
In order to be Ayurvedic, food does not have to be Indian—any cuisine can be Ayurvedic. But, it should follow the basic guidelines of Ayurvedic dietetics set out in the Samhitas—the basic texts underlying all of Ayurvedic medicine. So let’s investigate: what makes something Ayurvedic?
Basic Ayurvedic Dietetics
Food is understood to have some rudimentary characteristics. Taste (rasa) is separated into six categories: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent. These tastes exert different effects on the body and the doshas, Food and herbs also have the ability to perform a specific action, i.e, to heat or cool, to moisten, to dry, etc. (virya). This is a strong, dominating quality, so strong that even the digestive fire (agni) cannot change it. The most dominating qualities are hot and cold—different foods exert a heating or a cooling effect on the body.
Ayurvedic medicine has a unique understanding about the post-digestive effect (vipak) that food exerts. This post-digestive effect develops as a result of the digestive process and exerts an effect on mind, body and the doshas.
- Sweet vipak usually comes after the tastes sweet or salty are digested
- Sour vipak usually comes about after the sour taste is digested
- Pungent vipak usually comes about after the pungent, bitter or astringent taste is digested.
Food also has qualities (gunas) that characterize it like heavy to digest, light to digest, dry, moist, sharp, etc. These qualities affect the process of digestion and the body, mind and doshas. These gunas are, perhaps, the easiest to assess besides taste, as they can be pretty apparent—i.e. feeling sluggish and dull after eating a heavy food or breaking into a sweat after eating a dish full of hot and sharp chilis.
A healthy person should have all six tastes in their diet with a predominance of the sweet taste. Ayurvedic recipes try to balance the rasa, virya, vipak and gunas so that foods become easy to digest and so that they are appropriate to the season and to the person eating them.
Ayurvedic Rules For Eating
There are some very definite rules for the types of food that should be consumed regularly—the texts are very clear that food should normally be consumed at a warm temperature because this ignites the digestive fire, eases the digestive process, helps in the proper movement of the Vata dosha and reduces Kapha dosha. Thus, any recipe for food that is to be consumed at a cold temperature should not be consumed regularly. To put it simply: as a general rule, food should be cooked, not raw.
Food should be unctuous or contain some fat (Snigdha). This also ignites the digestive fire, eases the digestive process and helps Vata dosha to flow in its proper direction. Foods that are excessively dry, like kale chips, should not then be consumed regularly, especially because dark leafy greens possess the bitter taste which in combination with the dry quality would be very aggravating to Vata dosha. Dried vegetables are also considered to be a cause of simultaneous aggravation of all three doshas (Sannipata). Some other causes of Sannipata are bad quality alcohol, barley beer and dried meat.
Food should be light and easy to digest. Thus, foods that are heavy and cold, like smoothies, should also not be consumed regularly.
Food should not increase sticky secretions in the body (abhishandi) or cause burning (vidahi). Abhishandi foods are those that combine the heavy, sour and oily qualities which then increase sticky secretions in the body. An example of this is molasses. Yogurt is said to be abhishandi. Tomatoes and white potatoes are quite possibly abhishandi. Vidahi foods combine the sour, pungent, heavy and oily qualities and cause burning—coffee and spicy tomato sauce are examples of vidahi foods.
Unwholesome foods (Viruddha Ahar)
Finally, Viruddha ahar should be avoided. Viruddha ahar is unwholesome food and/or manners of consumption or preparation of food that stirs up and aggravates the doshas without eliminating them from the body.
“All drugs and diets which dislodge the various doshas but do not expel them out of the body are to be regarded as unwholesome.”
Charaka Samhita, Sutrasthana 27/85
Charak goes on to describe that those foods that are inappropriate to place and time or inappropriate to the present state of your digestive power or bowel health are viruddha ahar. Those foods that increase dosha through in the following ways are viruddha ahar.
- inappropriate cooking (too little, too much)
- inappropriate mixing (mixing hot and cold virya foods together, mixing things like honey and ghee in equal proportion or making food combinations that are contradictory—like fruit and milk, milk and fish or milk with salt)
- food of inferior quality
And finally, eating before the previous meal is digested or without actual hunger, eating foods that you are not accustomed to or dislike and not observing the rules of eating (some of which are mentioned in the section Ayurvedic Rules for Eating) are viruddha ahar. (Charaka, Sutrasthanha 27/86-101)
What this means then is that intake of a food that increases doshas in the body by magnifying seasonal, climactic or inherent qualities is not recommended and that continued intake will stir up the doshas and cause problems. An example of this might be intake of a dry, sharp and pungent dish in a dry and arid land or season—like taking kale chips made with sharp and pungent spices in the dry heat of summer or intake of ice cream which is cold, sweet and creamy in the cold and wet part of winter. Furthermore, if your digestion is weakened then intake of a heavy food is viruddha ahar and if you have strong, insistent digestive power then habitual intake of light and unsatisfying food is viruddha ahar.
So, what this all means is that you must evaluate recipes and foods based upon what is appropriate to your inherent nature and to the land, season and time that you are in. The food also must be evaluated based upon your current state of digestive power, health and bowel function as well as whether your body is actually ready to eat and that the food you are considering is something you are accustomed too. Look deeper than the word Ayurvedic in the title or that the recipe is on an Ayurvedic practitioner’s website or blog—eating Ayurvedically is something you will gradually become adept in as you evaluate how food affects you and as you become in tune with eating seasonally and appropriately for the environment that you are in.