There’s a LOT to say about Ayurveda’s dietary recommendations, which are intended to address each individual’s unique constitutional make-up, and right any imbalances that might be at play. I’m sure I’ll probably touch on some of this in future posts, but for now I’ll leave it to the experts, and recommend this book as a (gorgeous! Glossy!) gateway primer. As much as I’ve been having my own little nerd-fest filling my fridge with Vata-pacifying foods-- I'm a textbook imbalanced Vata case-- I’ve also been inspired by Ayurveda’s suggestions for how one can enhance the actual experiences of eating and cooking so as to derive the maximum benefit from these activities. Ayurveda is a whole-life system of health; it encompasses everything that’s going on for a person and contends that all of it— environment, work, stress, seasonal change — exerts some influence on the person, whether balancing or imbalancing. And just as what one eats can restore health and balance in the individual, the Ayurvedic approach to diet also accounts for how one prepares and consumes that food—and asserts that this how actually affects the food’s healing properties. Does the cook feel relaxed? Is the cook having fun? Is she using appropriate tools? Ayurveda offers up some ideas on making our kitchens into pleasant places for preparing health-promoting foods. And in the case of food preparation, both place and mindset matter.
On that note, let’s dive in to Kitchen Ayurveda 101: some basic recommendations regarding one’s environment, tools and approach to cooking to establish balance, health and—simply put—happiness in the cook and her dining companions alike. I've listed some ways that I've incorporated these ideas into our modern (and yes, hectic) life, and will be curious to hear if you're rockin' any of these strategies, 21st century-style, too.
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We humans may think we’re separate from all of that ‘nature’ out there, but, well, we’re not. We are as much an integral (if… uh… cancerous) part of the Earth as everything else on it is. We’re literally made of the elements that compose everything else around us; we eat what’s grown in the Earth, and use that food to carry out our cellular processes, including building new cells. Thus, the planet at large is an extension of each of us. By caring for it, we care for ourselves.
Bringing this awareness into the kitchen, for me, means creating meals from local produce that didn’t travel for miles (burning fuel all the way) to reach me. It means using natural cleaners and recycled paper towels. It means recycling whatever packaging comes through our door, and composting whatever food scraps are left in my stead so we can feed them back into the earth and use them to grow new food. Being ‘green’ is, in an Ayurvedic sense, a mindful expression of our very real connection to our immediate and greater environments.
Please Your Senses
Make your kitchen speak to you. Picture it clean, organized and inspiring, then make it that way. Hang art you love. Place flowers where you’ll see them. Listen to music while you cook. (I’m lovin’ The Shins lately). Sing along. One’s state of mind is, according to Ayurveda, transferred to the food in the process of preparation, so make your kitchen a place you’ll feel present and relaxed in. Then feed whatever you create there to people you love.
Good knives, a food processor, sturdy pans, a spice grinder (or coffee grinder you’ve dedicated to the purpose), a mortar and pestle… Have these on hand. You’ll use them a lot.
Use Non-Reactive Cookware and Storage Containers
Plastics leach toxins into food, and certain metals—or materials like Teflon—are similarly sketchy. Stick with stainless steel, cast iron, and ceramic cookware, and go for airtight glass food storage containers. This way, you’ll maintain the purity of your food, and avoid ingesting unwanted stuff that’ll clog up your system and ultimately make you ill.
Drink (and cook with) Filtered Water
Water, similarly, often comes laden with all kinds of stuff you don’t want to eat. Flouride, a chemical many municipalities add to water, is not good for people and other living things. Drink, and cook with, filtered water and you’ll keep your body and food much more clean.
Back Away From the Microwave
Ayurveda's all about eating food with its integrity intact. Foods that have been frozen, or otherwise preserved, have less life force (or Prana) in them than fresh foods do. Microwaves are basically Prana-blasting boxes of doom. They heat food by messing significantly with its molecular structure... Weird, right? Given that it's generally understood one shouldn’t stand in front of a microwave while it's cooking, let's go ahead and draw the conclusion that eating 'nuked' food is similarly ill-advised.
Plan ahead for your meal and know what you’ll need. Look over recipes and get a sense of their orders of operations. If you’re a seasoned cook, you can probably orchestrate the cooking process so as to chop and prep as you work, but if you’re new to cooking, or if you simply have the time, the cooking process will be far more relaxing if you do your chopping and organizing before firing up the stove.
Lunch Is Your Friend
Try to eat your biggest meal of the day in the early afternoon. This is when the digestive fire is strongest, and your food will be assimilated in your body most readily, whereas eating heavily at night can disrupt sleep processes and generally contribute to poor physical function. If you work in an office and are in the habit of eating lunch at your desk in front of your computer, you probably already know this isn’t ideal, because it doesn’t feel good (I used to do this). Find a pleasant environment to eat in instead, like a nearby park.
Eat Dessert First
Okay, so this is a dietary recommendation, but I like it so much I’m sticking it in here. A bit of sweetness at the beginning of a meal will nourish your feelings and set the stage for a pleasant dining experience. It’s also easier on the digestive system than eating sweets on an already-full stomach. This isn’t a green-light to eat crap, but an invitation to try re-ordering your usual sense of mealtime. You don’t need a large quantity of sweet, either, to kick things off, so this may actually reduce the amount of sugared things you’re eating, while providing more fulfillment from them. (As a side, Ayurveda definitely recommends eating natural sweeteners, like raw sugar, raw honey or maple syrup, over processed cane sugar).
Think Complementary/Contrasting Food Pairing
Colors, textures, flavors—all of these should be balanced in a meal. If you're serving a heavy main dish, include a light salad to complement it, etc. This goes for heating and cooling foods, too (you'll need to read up a little on this to have a sense of which foods are which). Think balance, and tune into your instincts around what feels balanced to you. This concept applies to preparation, too; if one dish will take a long time to prepare, make the others easy and fast.
When You’re Eating, Just Eat (The Zen of Mealtime)
Take a moment to slow down before eating, and bring your attention to your food, your company, your senses. Try not to jump up every five seconds throughout the meal, or to read/watch TV/talk on the phone/do your taxes/etc. while you eat… This is, of course, all easier said than done (especially if anyone in the house is potty training... I leave the table about, I dunno, 500 times after sitting down to eat for one reason or another), but being present when you eat will calm the mind and body, and aid in optimal digestion.
Consider yourself crash-coursed in Kitchen Ayurveda 101. It’s all pretty intuitive, common-sense stuff. The benefits of eating healthful, whole foods (especially those that suit your doshic balance) contribute in obvious ways to health and well-being (every kind of doctor ever will agree on this). The pleasures of preparing and serving food, too, while certainly more subjective, will yield benefits of their own. They're very much worth discovering for oneself.
Is your kitchen an inspiring place to cook? Do you follow any of these principles already? Do you cook according to Ayurvedic principles at all? Do you geek out on this stuff, too?