By Candolin Cook
Confession: I love food, but food does not always love me. For me, succumbing to cravings for milkshakes, meatballs in red sauce, or chicken tikka masala can only lead to heartache—or heartburn—and a digestive system that rues the day I ever laid eyes on those green chile cheese fries. Although I don’t always eat like a truck driver, my affinity for sapidity generally impedes wise food choices. I recently met with the team at Santa Fe’s Agni Ayurveda, a natural health center that offers nutritional health coaching, prepared Ayurvedic meals, cleanses, and cooking classes (among other therapeutic treatments) to find out about the health and taste benefits of Ayurvedic eating.
Agni’s clinical practitioners Emily Glaser and Lisa Costlow explain that Ayurveda—the science of life—is a five-thousand-year-old Indian holistic healing system that incorporates everything from diet to breathing and massage to skin care. Its purpose is to restore balance in the mind and body. Adherents claim it can help with diabetes, arthritis, celiac disease, allergies, and a host of digestive issues. Usually Agni’s clients come in because they are experiencing a health problem, but many simply want to improve their family’s eating habits, have more energy, or seek a general sense of balance and well-being. “What yoga does for the mind, Ayurveda does for the body,” says Costlow. “They are sister sciences.”
Nutritional coaching at Agni begins with a ninety-minute consultation in which a client’s principle dosha (bio-energy) is identified. According to Ayurveda, three types of doshas—vata, pitta, and kapha—reflect natural elements and energy patterns in the body. Determining which of these energies is dominant in your physiology helps dictate what foods you should eat or avoid to balance your body and mind. Admittedly, I am a natural-born skeptic, but was intrigued when the team quickly identified me as a pitta, whose emotional and physical traits are strikingly similar to mine. (They could even tell by the way I was sitting that my hips weren’t in alignment, making my right leg slightly shorter—something my chiropractor had deduced years ago.)
Ayurveda uses food as tailored medicine, combining specific spices with certain vegetables and grains, and some dairy. “Digestion affects your whole health,” says Glaser, a registered nurse and Santa Fe native. “Ayurveda is all about finding balance through opposites.” As a pitta, fire is the dominant element in my constitution, which means I should seek out cooling foods such as mint tea, coconut oil, cucumber, cardamom, coriander, and turmeric. Of course, once you know what you should be eating, you then need to know how to prepare it, and, most importantly for me, how to make it delicious.
Enter Chef Prakash Jagadappa. He was born in India and grew up in a traditional household that adhered to Ayurvedic food practices. Jagadappa has spent the last twenty years cooking professionally at a temple in Mumbai, and for restaurants in Melbourne, Australia, Albuquerque, and Santa Fe. For two years he has taught weekly cooking classes and prepared daily take-home meals at Agni. He explains that there are six tastes (rasas): sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, and astringent, and that all should be incorporated into every meal. Food combining is integral. Ayurveda contends that certain foods’ tastes and energies digest well together, while others do not.
Jagadappa explains that Ayurvedic eating is “not a diet, it is a lifestyle about how you commune with food and your environment.” For example, don’t eat while arguing, or in a car, or watching TV. Try to eat while you are in a mode of goodness.” Other considerations, like time of day and year, are important, too. “You should eat your biggest meal at noon when the sun is high; this is when your digestion is strongest.” Eating seasonally is also key. “Our bodies have a relationship with nature, and [instinctively] you eat differently on a cold day than you would a hot one.” As such, Jagadappa recommends eating well-cooked, easy to digest soft foods like soups and kabocha squash in the fall and winter; then shift to lightly sautéed seasonal greens like arugula and mustard in the spring; and cool melon and cilantro in the summer to balance internal and external factors. “It is very common sense.”
Eating fresh, seasonal ingredients is central to Ayurveda, says Jagadappa, because food contains a prana or life force. The faster you can consume a fresh ingredient, the more likely you are to capture its life force. He therefore seeks out the freshest, most nutritious, and tastiest local ingredients for Agni by shopping at the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market. Besides the fresh factor, supporting local food growers aligns with the Ayruvedic principle of mindful eating. Jagadappa says, “We always buy organic and non-GMO produce and spices because we want the food as close to nature as possible. You want fewer ingredients, and in their natural form.”
Agni currently offers twenty different cooking classes, including sessions on making chyawanprasha (a sweet herbaceous jam) and churna (a medicinal mixture of herbs and minerals); gluten-free vegetable lasagna; and samosas. The chef’s favorite dish is kitchari: yellow lentils and rice with roasted seasonal veggies (currently turnips, radishes), ghee (clarified butter), and lots of spices (coriander, ginger, mustard, cumin, turmeric). Patrons prepare and eat their meal together in a family-style setting. “I want to demystify Ayurvedic cooking for them,” says Jagadappa, “show them that it can be simple, but creative and delicious. It is cooking from the heart.”
Glaser says she became interested in Ayurveda after years of studying and working in western medicine because she was tired of treating symptoms rather than getting to the root of a problem, or even preventing it in the first place. “Ayurveda is the king of preventive medicine,” she says. “It is way easier to keep people healthy, than to try and fix them once they are sick.” Costlow, who met Glaser while studying at Albuquerque’s renowned Ayurvedic Institute, concurs: “Listening to your body and making simple changes to stay healthy is empowering.” Listening to the Agni team while taking in the colorful sights and enticing smells of their kitchen certainly makes the prospect of trading in gut-busting burgers for more healthful dishes, not only palatable, but empowering.
1622 Saint Michaels, Santa Fe 505-438-1163, www.agniayurveda.com
Candolin Cook is a history doctoral student at the University of New Mexico, an associate editor for the New Mexico Historical Review, and editor of edible Santa Fe. She spends much of her free time washing carrots and radishes at her husband’s vegetable farm, Vida Verde Farm, in Albuquerque's North Valley. Come check out their booth at the Downtown Growers Market, and follow her farm life on Instagram: @candolin and @vidaverdefarmabq.