India was 5,000 years early to the wellness movement.
- Restaurateur Basu Ratnam
A lot of us know Indian food as the deliciously rich cuisine you eat when you don’t have to worry about fitting into your jeans the next day. But lately, wellness trends are pointing to traditional ingredients from the subcontinent as the answer to common health and dietary concerns. I spoke with Sahara Rose, author of Idiot's Guide to Ayurveda and a new Ayurvedic cookbook, to learn more about the fundamentals of healthy South Asian cooking.
Ayurveda: Eating for Wellness
Did your mom ever advise you that “you are what you eat?” Well, Indians have a whole system around this notion called Ayurveda (the science of life). And not to play the “ancient Eastern wisdom” card, but this system is about five millennia old. It’s only recently that Westerners have taken notice with foods like “golden lattes” and khichdi lining the shelves of health food stores.
Ayurveda is a complex medicinal, spiritual, and dietary practice with its roots in ancient Hinduism. It’s based on the idea that food is medicine. Ayurveda recommends eating sattvic foods — those which are pure, energy-containing, and balance your body’s doshas or energies. This diet is based on the consumption of whole, plant-based, and seasonal foods, and is deeply entwined with the Hindu concept of nonviolence (so you won’t find meat in a truly sattvic diet). Sattvic foods include nuts, seeds, cold-pressed vegetable oils, some dairy products, whole grains, legumes, seasonal fruits and vegetables, and spices.
The South Asian Diet is Steeped in Ayurvedic Principles
When I asked Sahara Rose if Ayurveda and Indian cooking are still entwined, she explained that it’s impossible to untangle the two. Ayurveda is a “kitchen science” that evolved in the home, with everyday ingredients. As such, it still influences the way South Asians think about food and health.
So what does a traditional Indian diet — one based on the principles of Ayurveda — look like?
In Ayurveda, you eat according to your dosha — your unique body type and constitution. You’re encouraged to follow the dietary recommendations for your dosha, adapting what you eat to the seasons and your specific health needs.
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In this sense, the Ayurvedic diet has built-in flexibility that makes it suitable for a variety of constitutions and dietary restrictions. For example, despite their emphasis on dairy products like milk and ghee, Ayurvedic meals can easily be made vegan. In Eat Feel Fresh: A Contemporary, Plant-Based Ayurvedic Cookbook, Sahara Rose gives traditional recipes an additional health boost with plant-based superfoods like flax milk, tempeh, and sesame oil. Legume-based brownies, chickpea cookie dough, and adaptogenic fudge fill out the dessert section of her book, showing that Ayurveda is as much about balance as it is about wholesome ingredients.
It makes great use of the health-giving properties of spices, oils, and herbs.
One could convincingly argue that the Indian diet incorporates a greater variety of spices than any other. What you might not realize is that every spice, herb, and even vegetable has a unique purpose, from ridding the body of toxins to promoting mental clarity. That’s because where Europeans traditionally viewed these ingredients in terms of how palatable they were, Ayurvedic practitioners spent millennia observing and noting their effects on human wellbeing.
It’s intuitive (sort of).
According to Sahara Rose, eating according to Ayurvedic principles might not feel intuitive at first: “A body out of balance will further crave the foods that knock it out of balance, and likewise a body that’s balanced will crave foods that keep it in balance.” It isn’t until you start eating according to what’s best for your body that sensing the connection between what you eat and how you feel becomes more intuitive.
It works, but it’s not a quick fix.
Unlike some principles of Ayurveda, which can be complex, single ingredients like spices and herbs are easy to incorporate into any diet. It’s no surprise, then, that the wellness industry has embraced trends like golden milk and nootropic herbs.
However, Ayurveda is about balance and intention. Adding the stress-reducing herb ashwagandha to your morning tea or popping a bacopa supplement to help you focus at work aren’t bad ideas, but they should be accompanied by a holistic approach to self-care. Ayurveda is about cultivating a lifestyle based on understanding your body and filling it with nourishing foods and healthy mindsets. It’s not about cherrypicking ingredients that promise to resolve a specific health concern.
In Sahara Rose’s words, “you can have all the golden milk in the world but if you have a toxic mind it won’t fix your problems. What Ayurveda teaches us above all is that the mind, body, and spirit are connected and that we must balance all of these in order to have health.”
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