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What Is Ayurveda?
Health Benefits of Ayurvedic Cooking
How to Practice Ayurvedic Cooking
If you keep an eye on health and wellness, you may have heard the term "Ayurveda" being thrown as a potential balm for digestive woes, a way to help find mind-body balance, and even a treatment for disease. Far from being just another trendy diet, Ayurveda is an ancient healing modality that offers a surprisingly approachable way to address overall health. And its focus on nourishing and seasonal foods makes it a great resource for home cooks.
"Cooking and eating Ayurvedically is a very intuitive and joyful process. It's a way to practice self-care and self-love and then spill them onto those around you," says Divya Alter, Ayurvedic chef and author of the cookbook, Joy of Balance: An Ayurvedic Guide to Cooking with Healing Ingredients. Alter has taught thousands of people how to incorporate Ayurvedic principles into their meals through her cooking school and also serves up delicious Ayurvedic meals at her NYC restaurant). She shares her top tips to help get started on your own Ayurvedic journey (or at least cook up some delicious food!).
Your Ayurveda Cheat Sheet
If you have no idea what Ayurveda even is, don't worry—we've got you covered. There's a lot of history to catch up on, but the key facts are as follows. Ayurveda (pronounced ai-yer-vay-duh) is the traditional holistic medicine practice of India and has been evolving for about 5,000 years, but still has many modern applications. "Ayurveda helps us understand and maintain our unique reference point for balance and health by offering personalized guidelines on what is favorable or unfavorable for one's life in terms of diet, daily routine, and living environment," explains Alter.
Ayurveda addresses both prevention and treatment of disease based on an individual's dosha (constitution), suggesting everything from dietary approaches to herbal remedies to achieve balance among the mind, body, and spirit. There are three main doshas: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. You can take an online dosha quiz if you're curious about where you fall, but you don't need to know your dosha to benefit from the principles of Ayurveda.
Alter explains that, like yoga, Ayurveda's popularity has grown in the mainstream and medical communities over the last few years. She urges readers not to be scared off by the "rules" or unfamiliar pieces of Ayurveda. "Ayurveda is here to help us heal. Healing calls for a change in our perspective and habits, and it unfolds gradually; it involves our active participation," she says. One of the best and most accessible places to start? Your diet.
Taking the Ayurvedic approach to your cooking and eating has the potential to jumpstart many aspects of your health. One of the main principles of the ancient healing practice is feeling attuned with your body and what it needs. This will automatically help you make better decisions when it comes to food to help you both maintain your health as well as ward off or recover from illness. Alter credits the Ayurvedic way of eating in her recovery from an autoimmune disorder and chronic inflammation, and says that today at the age of 50, she looks and feels better than she did 15 years ago.
Want to get more specific? Ayurveda has been linked to better digestion, clear and glowing skin, a stronger immune system, and faster recovery from illness and surgery. Keep in mind that, while Ayurveda's benefits have been observed by many over thousands of years, only a small number of Western clinical trials have been performed, and more research is needed to understand how and why Ayurveda is beneficial for so many.
That said, the myriad benefits likely have to do with some of the basic principles of Ayurvedic cooking and eating. As Alter outlined in her previous book, What to Eat for How You Feel, Ayurveda offers clear guidance on how to combine food for optimal digestion, such as not combining fresh fruit with dairy or grains, since they digest at different speeds. This helps avoid gas, bloating, and other digestive woes. Ayuervedic cooking also prioritizes preparing food in a way that preserves its life, or prana. That means skip the deep fryer and extremely high heats for more gentle cooking methods. These methods, in addition to using high quality fats like coconut oil and ghee, choosing local and seasonal ingredients, and listening to the unique needs of your body, all add to a pretty powerful recipe for health.
Ayurveda and Your Kitchen
So how can you take the world's oldest healing science and apply it to your very own cooking? It turns out it's not as complicated as you may think. "Ayurvedic cooking is preparing food by following the basic principles that the ancient Ayurveda texts give for digestion, food compatibility, seasonality, and more," explains Alter. The cooking techniques themselves are simple, but they are rooted in deep knowledge about how to optimize the unique vitality of the individual.
Far from being exotic and intimidating, eating Ayurvedic food simply means choosing things that will optimize your health at any given time. "Ayurvedic cooking is not a set diet, but an evolving, personalized way of eating aimed at maintaining balance or overcoming a disease," says Alter. Think about the nourishment that a new mother needs as compared to other phases in her life, or the types of foods you prepare for someone who is recovering from a sickness. With an Ayurvedic perspective, you can choose foods to create health in your body and mind.
Alter mentions celery juice as an example of how to think of the concept of eating and cooking Ayurvedically. Celery juice has an astringent taste and cooling effect on the body, making it balancing for someone experiencing acidity in the body, excessive hunger, or inflammation. But if you're feeling ungrounded on a particular day, or experiencing cold hands and feet, that same celery juice won't balance you out in the same way. "There is a saying that, according to Ayurveda, every ingredient is useful, but whether you welcome it to your plate or keep it on the shelf depends on whether it is suitable or not for you today," says Alter.
Alter offers a few tips to start incorporating Ayurveda into your cooking:
Make the kitchen a space you love to be in: Clean it up, reorganize it, and stock it so that you can flow and be efficient there.
Gradually transition from eating ultra-processed, packaged, canned, frozen foods/meals to using fresh ingredients in your cooking for the highest vitality.
Choose seasonal and local ingredients as much as possible. Shop at the farmers' market, join a CSA program, learn what's the seasonal produce in your area. Using local foods optimizes the prana (or spirit) of the food, not to mention the taste!
Add more spices! "Ayurveda's use of spices is unique in the way of flavoring food and enhancing the healing potency and digestibility of the ingredients," she explains. Ayurvedic cooking prioritizes anti-inflammatory spices like turmeric, ginger, and cardamom.
Finally, if you want to dive in deeper, you can explore how your particular dosha affects the foods you should be eating, and plan from there. Those with pitta constitutions should seek out cooling foods to tame their fiery natures, while naturally cooler vatas will want to stay balanced with warming, nourishing foods. Finally, kapha individuals tend to thrive on a diet of lighter, dry foods. Whichever dosha category you fall into, there is no shortage of delicious recipes to help you stay balanced and in optimal health.