A way of eating that goes back more than 3,000 years is no fad diet. That's how long Ayurveda, an ancient holistic approach to health that originated in India, has been around. Ayurveda means "knowledge of life" and is based on the belief that disease is caused stress. Practitioners believe an Ayurvedic cooking style can be used both to prevent disease and treat it.
What is Ayurvedic cooking?
Ayurveda isn't just a way of eating, it's a way of life. However, a key part of an Ayurvedic lifestyle is eating the right types of food at the right time and in appropriate portions. Unlike other approaches to eating that may require counting calories or tracking protein, Ayurveda does not have a one-size-fits-all approach.
The goal of Ayurveda is to feel balanced in mind and body. That means an Ayurvedic diet is highly dependent upon what each individual needs to achieve balance at any given moment. What someone might need to feel balanced in the morning may be something the same person should avoid in the evening. And, what helps someone achieve balance in the cold, dark winter months will probably be very different than what they need to feel balanced on long, sunny summer days.
Ayurvedic chef, Divya Alter, didn't grow up with an Ayurvedic lifestyle. As a child, she lived under Communist rule in Bulgaria with limited access to world cuisine and culture. Alter says she didn't even have olive oil to cook with until she was a teenager.
When she was 17, she found an underground ashram (an Indian monastery). It was there she had her first Indian meal with sumptuous spices that were new to her. Alter interned at the ashram, working in the kitchen and learning how to cook vegetarian meals. She then moved to India to study yoga, continuing to learn to cook along the way. "It's part of Indian culture to cook every day, every meal and there were no cookbooks then," she tells Yahoo Life.
Today, Alter owns Divya's Kitchen, the first Ayurvedic restaurant in New York City, and has written two cookbooks based on Ayurvedic principles. Her latest, Joy of Balance, was inspired in part by the suffering she saw in New York City and around the world at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. When friends who were sick called Alter for advice, she recommended foods like turmeric broth and immune-boosting tea. Alter believes her friends got better with her help, leading her to include these recipes are in her new cookbook.
Alter notes that during the pandemic lockdown a lot of people slowed down, thought about how they wanted to change their lives to be happier and started focusing more on their health. But many people don't know how to be healthier. Alter hopes to fill that gap. "Making Ayurvedic food accessible is my mission in life," she says. "I want to help people feel better."
How to get started with Ayurvedic cooking
Although Ayurveda is a complex system of wellness and healing, Alter says no one needs to learn the entire science to start following an Ayurvedic way of eating, just the main principles.
What to eat — and when to eat it — to achieve balance becomes intuitive very quickly. Anyone who wants to eat using Ayurvedic principles should remember a "golden rule" of Ayurveda: opposites attract when deciding what to eat.
For example, on a blistering hot summer day, it's natural to choose something cooling, like a glass of coconut water or zucchini, to achieve balance. On a cold, rainy day, a spicy food will help warm you up. A root vegetable, like carrots, is also a good choice on cold days because they're heavy and take a long time to digest, which warms up the metabolic system.
Any cuisine can be Ayurvedic
Because Ayurveda's focus is on food that fully nourishes the mind and body, it can be applied to any type of cuisine. The menu at Divya's Kitchen includes Italian-inspired lasagna and risotto, Asian-inspired stir-fry and soup and American-inspired soul food like buttermilk biscuits and sautéed leafy greens. Even sweets aren't off limits: Joy of Balance includes recipes for fudge, cookies and cake.
Alter says keeping the golden rule about balance in mind is key, focusing on what makes you feel good, both now and for the long term, whether you're eating Mexican, Indian or Japanese cuisine.
How much should you eat on an Ayurvedic diet?
With an Ayurvedic approach to eating, the goal is to feel full and satisfied without feeling heavy and sluggish. As a general rule, start with a portion that's double the amount that fits in both palms. A tall man, for example, will have a much larger portion size than a child.
At the end of an Ayurvedic meal, the stomach should be about half full of solids, one-fourth full of liquids, like drinks or soup, and one-fourth empty to allow food to churn in the stomach.
However, since the true key to determining the correct portion size is feeling full, it's important to pay attention to your body. A teenager going through a growth spurt may need a much larger portion while someone feeling ill, or just not very hungry, may feel full with a smaller portion.
"You know you are doing it right if you feel full but energized," Alter says. "You should feel really good after a meal." She cautions that many are tempted to eat more if the food is very good, but even in her restaurant she discourages overeating because it will lead to discomfort later.
What to eat on an Ayurvedic diet
Because Ayurveda is a way of life, what to eat depends on what you need to achieve balance at any given time. The modern approach to Ayurveda involves eating whole foods, often organic. An Ayurvedic diet can be vegan or include dairy.
What to eat is highly dependent on what you need to feel balanced at any particular moment. The answer to what to eat, Alter says, is always "it depends." According to Alter, "there is no good or bad food," when it comes to natural, whole foods. The question to ask before deciding what to eat is What is good for me at this time?
For instance, many people need a pick-me-up in the morning to feel balanced. Coffee is a popular choice not only because it contains caffeine but because it is slightly bitter and bitter tastes, "help you get going," according to Alter. However, if you wake up feeling energetic and completely refreshed, you probably don't need coffee or a bitter taste to feel balanced. At night, Alter recommends avoiding stimulating foods if you want to feel calm and soothed: A simple kitchari (an Ayurvedic dish made of beans, rice and spices) that is light and soothing might be a balancing dinner choice.
It's OK to break the rules
You don't have to be a purist to follow an Ayurvedic way of eating. Alter admits that, "we all cheat," adding that younger, healthier people may be able to cheat a bit more than someone older with health concerns. She compares the body to a machine saying, "If you don't give it the right kind of fuel it will break down faster."
Want to try an Ayurvedic dish at home? Alter shares her recipe for Walnut-Orange Cake with Honey Syrup.
Walnut-Orange Cake with Honey Syrup
Courtesy of Divya Alter
"This recipe is my version of a sugar-free, dairy-free, wholesome pastry," says Alter, "and once you taste it, it might make you want another piece ... or two."
Makes one 8-inch square or round cake.
½ cup (88 grams) chopped (½-inch pieces) dried apricots
¾ cup boiling hot water
¼ cup olive oil, plus more for greasing the baking dish
2 cups (218 grams) sifted einkorn flour or 1¾ cups (220 grams) sifted spelt flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon fine lime zest
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup fresh orange juice, from 2 to 3 oranges (before squeezing the oranges, zest their peel for the garnish)
1 cup (113 grams) coarsely chopped walnuts
Honey syrup ingredients:
Peel of ½ orange, thinly sliced
1 cinnamon stick (2¾ inches long)
2 dried apricots, chopped
½ cup raw honey
¼ cup fresh orange juice (strained for pulp)
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice (strained for pulp)
½ teaspoon vanilla extract.
¼ cup toasted and shaved walnuts
Thin orange peel curls
1. Put the chopped apricots in a blender and pour the boiling water over them. Let them sit for 15 minutes to hydrate. Blend to a smooth puree.
2. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease an 8-inch round or square baking dish (a glass Pyrex dish works well) with olive oil.
3. While the apricots are soaking, in a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, cloves, baking soda, lime zest and salt.
4. In a medium bowl, whisk together the apricot puree, olive oil and orange juice.
5. Add the wet mixture to the dry mixture and stir a few times, until the sticky batter is well incorporated. Fold in the walnuts.
6. Transfer the batter to the greased baking dish. Bake for about 30 minutes, until a toothpick or skewer inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean. While the cake is baking, prepare the syrup and garnishes. Let the cake completely cool off in the baking dish before transferring it to a cutting board or a serving platter. You may also leave it in the baking dish.
To make the honey syrup:
1. In a small saucepan, combine ¾ cup water, the orange peel, cinnamon stick and apricots, and bring to a boil over high heat; lower the heat and simmer uncovered for 10 minutes.
2. Remove the orange peel and cinnamon stick, and let the cooked apricots cool down to a warm temperature (not higher than 120 F). Transfer to a blender and blend to a smooth, slightly thick consistency. (If there are any little pieces of fruit left, strain them away.)
3. Pour the blended mixture into a small bowl and whisk in the honey, orange juice, lime juice and vanilla.
To assemble the cake:
1. Cut the cake into triangle-, square- or diamond-shaped pieces of your desired size.
2. Gradually pour the syrup over the cake, making sure to moisten each of the crevices, edges and corners.
3. Garnish the cake with shaved walnuts and thin curls of orange peel. Serve within 2 hours.
Notes: If you're not going to serve all the cake pieces at once, pour the syrup and add the garnishes to only the number of pieces you want to serve right now. Refrigerate the rest of the syrup and garnishes until your next serving. Store the remaining cake covered, at room temperature.
To shave the toasted walnuts for garnish, use halved walnuts and grate them on the small holes of a grater.
To make orange peel curls, use a zester or a julienne peeler to peel off thin strips of orange peel, then soak the strips in a cold-water bath and freeze until you're ready to use them. (It takes at least 45 minutes for the peels to curl).
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