Six Tastes of Ayurveda

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During a recent week at La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad, California, I participated in The Chopra Center’s week-long Panchakarma and Perfect Health sessions, and indulged in two rich Ayurveda lunches catered by a local Indian restaurant.

These abundant meals included multiple components soup, dahl, vegetable curries, traditional Indian breads such as chapati or paratha, chutneys, raita, and sweet desserts and guests were encouraged to have a bit of everything. It seemed like a heavy lunch during a week of detoxification, but it was a practical exercise in understanding the six tastes of Ayurveda, one of the concepts of healthful eating that we explored during the week.

In a series of lectures, we gained a basic theoretical understanding of the six tastes sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent and were introduced to the concept that a balanced, satisfying meal includes all six. In addition, we were taught that we should favor some of the tastes and go easy on others depending on our specific doshas the Ayurvedic concept of an individual’s constitution, which is based largely on physical characteristics and temperament. Indeed, within the Ayurvedic system, all lifestyle choices should be made in accordance with one’s predominant dosha, each of which is characterized by a combination of the five elements.

The tastes of Ayurveda can also be characterized by the elements. To maintain balance and promote physical health and mental clarity through diet, individuals should focus on foods characterized by elements that are not dominant in their constitutions. This will pacify the predominant dosha; overemphasizing foods characterized by the same elements that comprise one’s dosha can lead to imbalance and disease. So, for example, since my dominant dosha is kapha, my ideal diet, Ayurvedically speaking, would emphasize dry, light, warming foods that are pungent, bitter, and astringent. An example of a meal balanced for my constitution would be a spicy bean dish with kale and ginger, plus small portions of bread and yogurt to include all six tastes.

The emphasis on balancing the six tastes is meant to promote proper digestion, which is the foundation of health from the Ayurvedic perspective. According to this system, strong digestive energy and metabolism, called agni and metaphorically viewed as fire, supports efficient elimination of waste and the creation of healthy tissue, and promotes strength, immunity, and clarity. When agni is weak, poor digestion creates toxic residue called ama that obstructs the flow of energy and nutrients, leading to disease. Emphasizing different tastes depending on an individual’s dosha recognizes that different people have different digestive qualities. For some, agni burns too hot, which can result in diarrhea, irritability, and excessive thirst and perspiration. For others it is weak, which can produce gas, constipation, and general sluggishness. All food, drink, and spices are viewed as having medicinal properties within Ayurveda; all can kindle or dampen agni.

A thorough understanding of the Ayurvedic way of eating can take years of study. A food’s characteristics can change depending on whether it is eaten raw or how it is prepared. In addition, in certain situations, it may be beneficial for a person to eat foods they normally eschew. John Moore, a consultant with The Raj Maharishi Ayurveda Health Center in Fairfield, Iowa, describes how as a firey pitta he thrives on cold, sweet ice cream, but when he has a head cold he gravitates toward heating foods, such as ginger and honey, that normally aggravate his constitution.

Within Ayurveda, certain foods and cooking methods are considered sattvic promoting clarity, harmony, purity, and balance; while others are rajasic stimulating to body and mind or tamasic dulling and/or ama-producing. “Sattvic is always recommended,” explains Moore. “Rajasic can be useful in situations, but tamasic [should be avoided]unless prescribed for a specific medial condition. Even foods that are considered bad for you can be a perfect food for you at a specific time.”

Ayurveda shares some precepts with other conscious-eating regimes, such as adapting diet for the season and time of day; avoiding leftovers and processed foods; drinking liquids warm or at room temperature not chilled; eating only when hungry; maintaining a daily routine including an early dinner and bed time; and making sure mealtimes are peaceful, unrushed, in pleasant surroundings, and focused. Fresh, organic, local foods are best. “The bottom line,” says Moore, “is [that]it has to be fresh, it has to have that life force, prana.”

To eat properly among the six tastes of Ayurveda, one needs awareness of one’s basic constitution and any doshic imbalances. As Moore says, “Each constitutional type needs to be nourished by the tastes that will keep them in balance.” This can be complicated, because imbalances change over time.

My stay at La Costa included a mind/body consultation with David Simon, M.D., co-founder and medical director of The Chopra Center, to determine my dosha, identify imbalances, and prescribe an ideal diet. Simon emphasizes that the most important aspect of eating properly is to make sure that all meals include each of the six tastes. To that end, he calls the recipes in The Chopra Center Cookbook “universal,” noting they can be easily adapted to pacify different doshas. This applies not only to Indian-style meals, but also to Western dishes. For example, a kapha could prepare the Rainbow Risotto recipe below with more vegetables and spices and less rice, while a pitta could decrease some of the spiciness by using less vinegar and black pepper. “Making it more intellectual than that never really works,” says Simon. The same applies to the Quick Kichari recipe from the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. As is, it is tridoshic and meant to be easily digestible since it serves as the primary meal for participants in Kripalu’s panchakarma program, but with familiarity of the six tastes, ingredients can be adjusted to pacify or stimulate different doshas.

The other recipes below include notes on their effects on the doshas. The Spinach Pakora recipe, from Ayurvedic Cooking for Self-Healing by Usha and Dr. Vasant Lad, illustrates how an ingredient can have different effects depending on its method of preparation, and how recipes can be adapted to be more suitable for different doshas. Every spice used in each recipe is there for a specific reason; those not locally available can be found at online sources such as WholeSpice.com or indianfoodsco.com.

This specificity is one reason why it’s advisable to study the six tastes at such educational organizations as the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, (ayurveda.com), founded and headed by Lad, a renowned Ayurvedic physician. But those eager for a smaller nibble of the six tastes can take a workshop at The Chopra Center (chopra.com) or stay at an Ayurvedic health spa such as The Raj (theraj.com). For a headstart, The Raj even offers a free booklet, The Maharishi Ayurveda Approach to Healthy Daily Routine, downloadable from its website. In includes a chapter devoted to balanced diet and the six tastes, providing plenty of information to chew on.

Chopra Center cookbook

Ayurveda Rainbow Risotto – From The Chopra Center Cookbook

Serves 8


INGREDIENTS

1 tsp. plus 1 tsp. ghee or olive oil
11/2 cup leeks, shallots, or onions, chopped
1 tbs. Bragg Liquid Aminos or tamari
1 tsp. balsamic vinegar
1 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. thyme
1 tsp. sage
2 cups arborio rice, rinsed and drained
6 cups hot vegetable stock
1 cup thinly sliced carrots
1 cup thinly sliced celery
1 cup zucchini, cut in half lengthwise, then into 1/4-inch slices
1 cup cooked white beans or 1 14-oz can, drained and rinsed
2 cups arugula, or a mixture of spinach and arugula, coarsely torn
1 tbs. chopped fresh rosemary
1 tbs. chopped fresh mint
2 tbs. fresh basil, thinly sliced
chopped fresh parsley

PREPARATION

Heat 1 teaspoon oil in a 4-quart soup pot over medium heat.

Saute the leeks with the next six seasonings until leeks are translucent. Add the rice and saute, stirring constantly until golden brown or caramelized. Lower the heat. As the rice dries out, begin to add stock, one cup at a time, stirring constantly. Allow the rice to absorb the stock each time before adding more. Keep stirring. Risotto should have a soft (not mushy) texture with a creamy consistency. Be careful not to overcook or let the rice dry out. The cooking process will take about 20-30 minutes total; taste the rice for texture.

Heat the remaining teaspoon of oil in a saute pan over medium-high heat and add the carrots, celery, zucchini, and beans. Add some stock if necessary to keep the vegetables moist. Saute until the carrots are al dente or almost soft. Add the greens and continue to saute until just wilted. Pour all the ingredients from the saute pan into the rice, add the fresh herbs, and gently combine. Place the rice in a festive serving dish and garnish with parsley.

Note: Traditionally, high-quality Parmesan or asiago cheese might be added to this dish to achieve a creamy consistency.

Spinach Pakora

Excerpted from Ayurvedic Cooking for Self-Healing by Usha Lad and Dr. Vasant Lad. All rights reserved.

Serves 4


INGREDIENTS

2 cups chickpea flour
1 tsp. ajwan seeds +
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1 pinch hing*
1/2 tsp. cayenne
1/2 tsp. salt
4 cups fresh spinach, washed, stems removed, chopped medium fine
1/4 cup water
2 pinches baking soda
oil for deep frying

PREPARATION

Add all the spices to the flour and mix well. Add half the flour mixture to the spinach and mix well to coat the spinach. Your hands will do the best job. Add in the rest of the flour; stir and toss well. Add the water, a bit at a time, mixing constantly with your hands until you have a thick, sticky paste. Sprinkle in the baking soda and mix lightly. Set aside for 15 “20 minutes.

Heat oil for deep frying; it’s hot enough when a drop of pakora mixture instantly floats to the top. Don’t let the oil smoke. Drop teaspoon-size amounts of the pakora mix into the oil until the surface is covered. Using a teaspoon gives a dumpling shape, whereas dropping the dough from your fingers creates more delicate, interesting shapes. Stir and turn the pakoras until they are brown on all sides, about 4-5 minutes. Drain and serve warm.

Notes: Cooked spinach is astringent, sour, and heating. By itself it is stimulating to pitta but pacifying to vata and kapha if used in moderation. It is heavy to digest and can have a laxative effect. As is, this recipe stimulates vata and kapha.

*A spice from the sun-dried sap of a large Indian plant related to fennel. Has a strong smell and is an excellent digestive. Use in small quantities and use only the compound type sold in tins (often under the Cobra brand). Pure hing is too strong for cooking. Also called asafetida or asafoetida powder.

+ Wild celery seeds from India used in cooking and as a medicinal herb. Especially good as a strong digestive.

Squash Subji

Excerpted from Ayurvedic Cooking for Self-Healing by Usha Lad and Dr. Vasant Lad. All rights reserved.

Serves 4


INGREDIENTS

2 tbs. safflower oil
1/2 tsp. cumin seeds
1/2 tsp. black mustard seeds
1 pinch hing*, or asoefetida powder
4 curry leaves, fresh or dried
1 small handful fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
1/4 tsp. turmeric
1 small green chile, chopped
4 cups any yellow winter squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1/4 tsp. salt
1 cup water

PREPARATION

Heat a frying pan over medium heat; add the oil, then the cumin seeds, mustard seeds, and hing. When the seeds begin to pop, add the curry leaves, cilantro, turmeric, chile, and squash. Sprinkle on the salt and add the water. Stir or shake to mix well, partially cover and turn down the heat to low. Cook until tender, about 25 minutes.

Notes: A good balancer for pitta and kapha. Squash by itself is vata provoking, but cooked with the spices it is all right for occasional use.

Quick Kichari

From Hilary Garivaltis, Ayurvedic School Director, Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health

Serves 4; to serve 8, use 1 1/2 times the recipe’s quantities

INGREDIENTS
1 cup basmati rice
1/2 cup split mung dahl
6 cups of water
2 tsp. ghee
1/4 tsp. turmeric
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. cumin seeds
1/2 tsp. coriander seeds
1/2 tsp. fresh grated ginger
1/2 tsp. fresh chopped garlic
1 tbs. chopped cilantro leaves
1 tsp. salt

PREPARATION

Rinse the rice and dahl, then pour them into the pressure cooker with the water. Cook for 10 minutes, turn off and let the pressure release. In a saucepan, heat ghee, add the spices, and saute briefly or until aroma is noticeable. Add the spices to the rice and dahl, add salt and sprinkle with cilantro. Serve hot. If desired, add 1/2 to 1 cup seasonal vegetables into the pressure cooker.

Note: This basic dish serves as the primary meal for Panchakarma participants at Kripalu; it’s easily digested and very nourishing.

Chapati

From The Raj Maharishi Ayurveda Health Center

Serves 12

INGREDIENTS
2 cups unbleached white flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 -2/3 cup warm water

PREPARATION

Combine flour and salt in a mixing bowl. Gradually add water until dough forms a firm ball. Dust with flour, cover, and let rest for 30 minutes. Cut dough into 12 pieces and form into balls. On a floured surface, roll out each ball into a 6-inch circle.

Place a chapati on a heated griddle. Cook about a minute on each side. Put chapati directly on a gas burner flame and cook until it puffs up.

Note: This recipe is good for vata and pitta.

Raisin-Date Chutney

From The Raj Maharishi Ayurveda Health Center

INGREDIENTS
1 tsp. fennel seeds
1 tsp. cumin seeds
2 tsp. ground coriander
1 cup raisins
1/2 cup dates, pitted and chopped
1/4 cup orange juice
2 tbs. fresh ginger root
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. salt
3 tbs. chopped fresh cilantro

PREPARATION

Dry roast seeds and coriander. Put raisins and dates in a bowl together, cover with water, and soak for 20 minutes or until fruits are soft. Combine all ingredients in a food processor and pulse until coarsely ground.

Note: This chutney is good for pacifying pitta.

Bess Hochstein

Healing Lifestyles & Spas Team
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