There’s a reason why nature wants us to eat mangoes and watermelons, apart from the humble trio of tinda, karela and lauki in summer.
You are as good as what you eat. It was Ayurveda that first popularised this theory, which is why the Indian science of dietetics is held up with respect around the world. It is time, in fact, to consider the “Ayurveda Diet” as the worthy replacement of the Mediterranean Diet, which doctors around the world have been propagating for the past three decades.
The “Ayurveda Diet”, which is in urgent need of codification by the medical community working in tandem with chefs and home cooks, and regulatory bodies such as the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), is based on the principle of balance and portion control, and you don’t have to be a vegetarian to practise it.
Moreover, as we become increasingly conscious about the carbon footprint of the food we eat, we can go back to Ayurveda for inspiration — generations of Indian vaids and hakims had taught us to eat seasonal and buy local, which has now become a sexy concept because the West is going ga-ga over farm-to-fork and zero-mile diets.
There’s a reason why nature wants us to eat mangoes and watermelons, apart from the humble trio of tinda, karela and lauki in summer. As long as we respected nature’s wishes, without succumbing to the lure of Washington apples, New Zealand kiwis and aloo-gobhi through the year, we enjoyed good health despite being exposed to an array of infectious diseases.
It’s not surprising that the world has finally hailed the virtues of the humble moringa (drumsticks; sajina), or cow’s milk ghee, or millets (bajra and ragi, in the Indian context, which are high in protein and fibres), which are the new ‘super foods’. Our Ayurvedic gurus were drawing on centuries of wisdom when they celebrated these and other gifts of nature.
These thoughts came to my mind deep down south at the Kairali-The Ayurvedic Healing Village in Palakkad, Kerala, where I had gone to attend a chefs’ retreat anchored by Gita Ramesh, co-owner of that swath of paradise and author of the definitive Ayurvedic Cookbook, published by Roli Books, and attended by Manjit Gill, India’s most distinguished chef, Abhijit Saha, one of the earliest proponents of Progressive Indian cuisine who divides his time between Singapore and Bengaluru, Arun Kumar TR, who is the new face of south Indian food, and television chef and Mexican cuisine specialist, Vikas Sethi.
I asked Gita Ramesh, who has a degree in Ayurveda and is married into a family of distinguished vaids, to summarise the dietetic principles of Ayurveda and she said, “Eat everything that is in season, but in moderation.”
Ayurveda is also not against non-vegetarian diets, as is commonly believed, but during treatment, you have to turn vegetarian, which is not very hard to do if your meals have all the right ingredients in the right proportions, so that the medicines prescribed can be absolved easily by your body. Hence the idea of “Healing Recipes”, which was the central thought behind the retreat.
Ramesh reminded that the foundational belief of Ayurveda is that each person has a unique constitution, which is why the ancient science categorises us into three types based on body characteristics (doshas) — vata (must stay away from potatoes and chickpeas); pitha (endowed with a high power of digestion); and kapha (go slow on cold food because of sluggish digestion).
The head of the Ayurvedic hospital at the village, of course, pointed out that each one of us is a sum of at least two doshas, understanding which is the first step of any Ayurvedic treatment protocol. Ayurveda also propagated what is believed to be a modern idea — preventive care, or swastha — and its notion of shodana, or treatment, targets not only the outward signs of a disease, but also its internal causes.
One can write reams on this wisdom, but before anything else, we need to take up the challenge Ramesh posed to the visiting chefs. Good food practices must be made to travel, she said. In Kerala, for instance, a newborn baby is fed ragi porridge after three months. Isn’t that a much healthier alternative to an industrially produced baby cereal?