There is a pristine beauty to whole foods and simple, healthy dishes that often gets quashed under our massive playbook of culinary tricks and embellishments. Take a ripe mango versus an extravagant piece of chocolate cake. Nine times out of ten, I’m gonna choose the chocolate cake. It’s far more glamorous and considerate of my chocolate and flour addiction. I don’t really care, in the moment, that it’s going to go down like a sandbag compared to the mango, or that the mango offers the purer experience, a cleaner essence of flavor and a more direct connection to the earth. My humble goal in the next year is to choose the mango five times out of ten.
One thing people tend to discover later in their food life, is that simplicity and limitation (a small repertoire of ingredients) is not only a virtue in cooking, it can be an act of reverence–for food and body both. It is also a fact of reality for a large part of the world–after eating dal bhat (lentil stew and rice) meal after meal in Nepal while trekking in the Annapurnas, I swore that all anyone needs to be happy in this life is fresh air, an Everest beer and a plate of well seasoned grains, legumes, and greens. It was a cheap, simple, nutritious and uncannily delicious meal. I vowed to go on a long dal bhat bender when I got home, but then I set foot in the Willy-Wonkaish American groceryland of endless choice. This is one thing I appreciate about the Edible community–its reverence for whole foods, and a range of options limited by what is seasonal. The ironic flip side of that is the high cost of local produce pushes it beyond reach of lower-income Americans.
So how does one eat healthfully and at least partly locally on a shoestring? My strategy that I keep trying (and failing because, oh look…donuts!) harkens back to Nepal–legumes and rice, with simple, local, vegetable side dishes. That’s what you’ll find in this week’s blog–cumin basmati rice, yellow mung dal and carrot coconut salad. You’ll also get a glimpse into the arcane and fascinating world of Ayurvedic cooking.
I asked my friend Mari Pfingston-Bigelow to share about her foray into Ayurveda, a spiritual and alimentary practice that horns in on limitation and body awareness, taking the food-body-mind connection through the roof, far beyond “that chocolate cake made me feel bad.” Whether or not you can bypass your scientific rationalist hang ups, to embrace a 5,000 year-old practice recorded in Sanskrit, the crux of Ayurveda is greater food-body awareness and balance, something we could all use a little more of.
Mari is not a chef, entrepreneur or flaming foodie. Like most of us she is a home cook who relishes nutritious, flavorful foods. Unlike most of us, she can make sense of the menu at Annapurna’s World Vegetarian Cafe. Oh look, here she is!
Mari moved to Albuquerque last fall from New York City, lured by good friends who waxed poetic about the large holistic and alternative health scene. After traveling around Central America, she was longing for something familiar, someplace warmer than the cold turnstiles of New York. She enrolled at the New Mexico School of Natural Therapeutics and began working for the Ayurveda Institute as the student clinic coordinator. When I asked her how she became interested in alternative health, she points to her undergraduate studies in environmental and social science at Binghamton University. This is where she first really grappled with social justice and environmental issues–food politics, the drug war, prison system and health care.
She found health care issues particularly compelling–the astronomical cost of our system and its blinkered concept of “health.” She saw low-cost, non-western health care as a way to “move away from a really expensive health care system and address the root causes of health imbalance in a relatively low cost way.”
“So many of our health issues come from stress and relational stress,” says Mari, an issue inadequately addressed in western medicine.
So Mari found her niche in Albuquerque: a course of study in alternative medicine, a job at the Ayurveda Institute and an etsy shop for her woodblock art to help pay tuition.
Ayurveda-ish: Mari is a neophyte in the practice of Ayurveda and not a strict adherent. “I eat desserts and consume alcohol. I eat yogurt with berries, that’s a big no-no.” But she is a believer. After reading Prakriti: Your Ayurvedic Constitution by Dr. Robert Svoboda she says something “clicked in my head, a way of being okay with myself and my imperfections that I hadn’t had in other health care contexts. It was a powerful and profound experience reading about different doshas and what happens when certain doshas are out of balance…the text was explaining myself to me. The fact that Ayurveda is the oldest continuously running system of medicine in the world also makes it seem pretty profound and special.”
Ayurveda the Spiritual Practice: Understand that dabbling in Ayurveda is like dabbling in yoga, Ayurveda’s sister science. Ideally, Ayurveda is a way of life, not a passing fad or hobby. As in yoga practice you can always go deeper. Mari admits that Ayurveda is not as tangible as yoga. “Ayurveda is a slower moving system than yoga. Yoga’s a little easier to grasp. With Ayurveda, there’s a lot of attention to the individual person.”
Ayurveda Bare Bones Basics: Ayurveda, rooted in the ancient Vedic culture, is both a prescriptive personal classification system and a life science encompassing not just diet, but meditation, breathing and medicinal treatments with oils and herbs. All people manifest three doshas: vata, pitta, and kapha, each of which are linked with elements: Vata–air and space; pitta–fire and water; kapha–water and earth. Your dosha combination is reflected in your personality, your body type, physical characteristics and basic constitution.
The particular combination of these three doshas determines your prakruti , kind of like the Myers Briggs combinant types (V1 P2 K3, for example). A different diet is recommended for each type.
External factors like climate and emotional factors like relationship stress can knock your prakruti off kilter. The goal of ayurvedic medicine is to return to the balance of your constitutional prakruti and not be bogged down by ama, poorly digested food, visualized as a toxic black sludge. Certain foods are associated with each dosha and can help increase or decrease that dosha. Hot peppers, cinnamon, garlic, onions, pineapple, lemons, cranberries, alcohol and tobacco are fiery for instance. Wheat, rice, meat, mushrooms, beans, dried fruits, nuts and salt are earthy. Foods that produce gas (yep, beans, raw veggies and dried fruits) are airy. Tridoshic foods (look for this on the Annapurna menu) are universal foods, beneficial for all types.
There are convoluted rules in Ayurveda about which foods are compatible and incompatible based on a variety of factors including taste (rasa), virya (heating or cooling energy) and vipaka (post-digestive effect). The belief is that incompatible foods with opposite energies can cause digestive problems that lead to the release of toxins in the body. Bad news for burrito lovers: you shouldn’t mix beans and cheese. Melons and most fruit should be consumed solo (save for dates and milk), and forget your eggplant parmesan or tomato-cucumber salad (nightshades should not consort with cucumber or dairy).
No snacking, eat three distinct meals a day so your body can digest the food in between.
Eat your big meat at lunch because your agni (digestive fire) is strongest in the middle of the day.
Sweets should be eaten with the meal, not as dessert.
Fruit and fruit juice should be consumed apart from the meal.
No ice or cold beverages; they shock the system.
The optimal compositional state of your stomach should be 1/3 food, 1/3 warm water, 1/3 empty.
Where to buy ingredients: Mari points to the Ayurvedic Institute store as the cheapest and most extensive collection of Indian spices available (they also carry body products, supplements and basic staples such as rice and mung beans, fyi). If anyone knows where to get local ghee, do tell. (You can make your own if you keep watch over the butter with an eagle eye.) Ghee, or clarified butter, is a staple of ayurvedic cooking, and is often the only dairy food that some vegans will eat, hence the moniker “gheegan.”
Learning More: If any of this has piqued your curiosity, Mari recommends the very accessible book Prakruti: Your Ayurvedic Constitution by Dr. Robert Svoboda, the first westerner to study Ayurveda in India. To really dig into the Vedic text you’re going to have to learn Sanskrit (a course offered at the Ayurveda Institute). Or you can sign up for a low cost consultation (only $45 smackaroos for a 2 hour appointment) with an Ayurveda Institute graduate through Mari ( 505-291-9698, ext 131). You’ll come away with your prakruti, your current state of balance (your vikruti), and a list of recommended treatments. Mari does mention that ayurvedic treatment is about balance and therefore best suited to addressing chronic ailments.
On the Fork: An earthy and heartening yellow dal soup, fragrant cumin basmati rice, both adapted from the book Ayurvedic Cooking for Self-Healing and Mari’s own refreshing carrot coconut salad. All are tridoshic. Basmati is easily digestible, sweet and cooling. Dal is detoxifying, nourishing and promotes strength. Cilantro and carrots are cooling in the swelter of summer.
Thanks to Mari for sharing these healthy, affordable and delicious recipes. Want more ayurvedic recipes with a fresh-from-the-garden twist? Check out the website joyfulbelly.com.
Then come back in two weeks for some adventures in chèvre with local cheese maker Alexis Corbin.