Where master healers are master chefs
In the Royal court and kitchens
Ayurvedic Physicians or Vaidyans educated in the science through the early oral tradition of learning being passed down through generations, were complete men.
Trained not only in the art of healing, they were experts in the fields as varied as astronomy, astrology, vaasthushastra, art of warfare, philosophy, the arts and literature; all part of the learning process prior to becoming an Ayurvedic Vaidyan.
Their skills in these varied areas of knowledge were honed to perfection and the best of them in the land were called upon by the ruling kings and appointed as Royal Vaidyans.
The advice of these royal vaidyans was the final word. Be it deciding the appropriate time and place of a battle or identifying the right land for constructing public works, the kings would make their decisions and declarations only after a private session with the Royal court ayurvedic vaidyan.
But it was during times of peace or a celebration after a glorious victory, one skill of the Royal vaidyan would be put to the test.
The fine art of cookery.
The vaidyans were amazing cooks. From identifying the right ingredients – ranging from the choicest of meat, venison and fresh garden plucked herbs and spices, to overseeing the royal kitchens where chefs and their helpers would be bunched over giant cauldrons simmering over wood fires, churning out delicacy after delicacy for the feasts to be eaten by both the king and his subjects.
A Divine art
Cooking, according to Ayurveda is a spiritual and meditative experience, just as eating the right foods cooked in the proper manner was an act in tribute to Mother Nature.
Cooking transforms into a divine and spiritual act when the cook is able to transcend the ingredients and the activity in the kitchen and work with the uniqueness of his existence and the existence of the earth and the cosmos.
The entire process of divinity starts from the moment each ingredient is gathered. Asking permission of the plant and Mother Nature before they are lovingly plucked. The cook must coax and cajole his team rather than shouting himself hoarse to complete the hundreds of tasks that go into creating a royal meal. The divinity must linger in the kitchen – in the way the gods are invoked while gently churning the dishes or in the smiling, happy faces of the cooks. Happiness is divine and the kitchen is its highest altar.
To the Vaidyan, the kitchen is the holiest of shrines. Equal in importance to the puja room in the house or the sacred grove in the compound, where after the ritual bath at the crack of dawn, the vaidyan does his prayers, coaxing the gods into waking up.
The Ideal Kitchen
The concept of body, mind and soul is the essence of cookery in Ayurveda. The kitchen itself is divided into 3 definitive areas keeping the core elements earth, water and fire in mind. The ideal location for the kitchen is the Northeast corner of the house which is also the fire corner.
The first or outer area of the kitchen is usually open to the air element, where water for cooking is gathered fresh from the well and all the ingredients are cleaned and segregated. This is also the area where used dishes after the meal are washed spotlessly clean, to be used later for the next meal.
The second part of the kitchen, is the space where the cutting, grinding, mixing of the ingredients like spices and pulses takes place. The traditional grinding stone in the shape of Lord Shiva’s lingam and his consort Parvati’s yoni is a testament to the holiness attributed to the kitchen. Like a holy altar, the grinding stone is washed and anointed thoroughly with love and devotion before the start of any activity in the kitchen.
Separated by a wall is the space for storage of dry firewood, vessels, kitchen equipment, pickled foods, dried meats, grains and pulses. The area is well ventilated to keep the foods clean and dry.
The core area of the kitchen is where the wood fires and stoves are placed to evoke the element of fire. The smoke from these fires is gently guided out through chimneys where they would dissipate out into the environment.
The parameters that go into classifying foods in Ayurveda is so varied that they could look confusing to any modern chef.
The fundamental philosophy of ayurvedic cuisine is based primarily on the the tridosha principle of Ayurveda, namely the Vata, Pitta and Kapha doshas. As each individual’s constitution is taken into consideration while preparing and serving a meal, so are the ingredients, as they can either increase, decrease or balance the doshas in the body.
Then, there is the Veerya or the inherent potency of the foods. Therefore foods according to their Veerya, are classified in Ayurveda as either hot or cold. For example, chicken eggs are hot while duck’s eggs are cold.
Prabhav explains the personality of the food source. Depending on its prabhav, foods are classified as having either a purgative or binding action on the body.
Taste has an effect on the body systems. Each of the tastes has a specific effect on the body. Therefore a balanced diet involves foods that possess all the six tastes namely
Every dish is prepared keeping the taste element in mind. At a minimistic level, all the six tastes must be covered in a day’s eating, though an ideal meal will have all of them. As a thumb rule in ayurveda, the best results are obtained when one “begins a meal with dishes having a salty and sour taste, then progress to pungent, followed by bitter and astringent, and end with sweet.”
The body needs to adjust to the outside environment and food is one way to help the body accommodate the changes in season. Every season brings about nurturing qualities and the body needs to plug into nature for its rejuvenation. In the absence of this, the body tends to compromise its natural defenses that the system needs to build up.
During summer, which is a pitta season, individuals are prone to skin ailments like sunburn, acne etc., and so it is recommended that cool, light fruits and salads have to be consumed to calm and correct the imbalances caused by excessive pitta.
During winter, which is the vata season, people are prone to common cold, arthritis, rheumatism etc and so it is recommended that people eat warm, oily and hearty meals like beans, whole grains and meats to lubricate the system against dryness of the Vata season.
During spring, which is the kapha season, people are prone to bronchial ailments and common colds etc. Ayurveda recommends foods like honey, millet and greens to be included in the diet.
Sattvic, Rajassic and Tamassic
Ayurvedic Vaidyans, since ancient times, classified every life activity, habit, food, medicine and state of mind into three categories (sattvic, rajassic and tamassic) based on their effect on the mind, body, and emotions. These categories are also used to organize one’s understanding of the effect of all other activities in daily life. The skilled cook would identify these food categories before carefully planning the day’s meal.
“Sattvic” foods encourage a harmonious yet creative lifestyle where a person’s awareness level is raised such that he could enjoy the complete range of human emotions, yet stay detached from them. The effect of such food brings about a state of restful alertness and enhances one’s compassion, zest for living and delays the ageing process. The holy men or sanyasis swear by these foods as they help them greatly in their daily routines of meditation and devotion. These are clean burning foods that leave little to no residue on the nervous system. Such foods include fresh fruit and vegetables, legumes and beans, wholesome unrefined grains, and fresh raw cow’s milk.
“Rajassic” foods have the quality of stimulation and activating body systems. These foods energize the nervous system, yet without the clarity of awareness provided by Sattvic foods. Due to their high stimulant quality they tend to push people who consume them to doing deeds beyond their normal capacity; you might recognize these foods as coffee, tea, spicy foods, rich sauces, sweets, etc. Stressful and quick eating is also termed Rajassic.In ancient times rajasic foods were always of good quality and freshness, hence the origin of the word “raja” – kingly, or fit for a king. Such foods encourage aggression and domination – kingly qualities then, though strangely also required in today’s demanding world of competition and targets.
“Tamassic” foods lead one to a state of inertness, dullness, and sloth. These are known as the “dead” foods which contain no vitality or life. These foods are heavy and sluggish and may cause irritability and restlessness. The endurance of one’s energy is very short when eating such foods, the most dramatic illustration is that of the tiger and elephant. A tiger mainly eats tamassic foods and can fight for 3-4 hours. The elephant, a vegetarian, eats mainly sattvic foods and can fight for 3-4 days. Alertness and concentration is very difficult soon after eating tamassic foods. Today’s foods that could be classified as tamassic would include those with heavy preservatives and artificial additives which may serve as an irritant when ingested, most meats, thick heavy oily foods and low-grade alcoholic drinks. Stale, overcooked and food consumed after more than 8 hours since being cooked are also termed Tamassic.
The state of foods is also classified this way. Freshly plucked fruits and vegetables are Sattvic, a few hours on any supermarket or grocers’s shelf make them Rajassic and when they wilt and dry, they then take on Tamassic qualities.
Ojus and Ama
Food cooked rightly will help create Ojus – the life force, in the body while badly cooked food will create Ama. To create Ojas is the aim of Ayurvedic cooking. Ojas is positive, nurturing energy that boosts the immune, nervous, endocrine and psychological systems in the individual. Ama creates both disease and the environment for disease to enter and thrive in the body.
The end result of a good meal, cooked with the right ingredients and eaten in the right environment helps the creation of Ojus in the body of the person who consumes the food. Ojus is created not by the process of right cooking and right eating alone.
Only when the food is rightly digested does Ojus form. Here, the state of mind of the person, the ambience of the place where the food is eaten, the people who share the meal, all are key factors that contribute to a right meal that will eventually create the right Ojus when digested well.
If you were of the notion is that Ayurvedic cuisine was just vegetarian food, cooked using Indian masalas and eaten on a banana leaf, think again…
Ayurveda as it was practiced over 5000 years ago, in the foothills of the Himalayas or on the slopes of the Western Ghats in South India, never segregated food sources as vegetarian or non-vegetarian. All kind of meat were used abundantly both as food as well as vital ingredients in the medicines that were made. Even the classical epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharatha, written a 1000 years later, mention that meat was freely used.
Rama – the prince of Ayodhya and his brother Lakshman, heroes of the epic Ramayana, regularly hunted deer during their stint in the jungles as Sita, his consort’s favourite dish was a concoction of rice, vegetables and fresh venison. Yudhishtra, the eldest of the five Pandava brothers and the most righteous of kings, is said to have served 10,000 scholar subjects a feast that had on its grand menu both pork and venison.
Evolution has taken its toll on the science, but what has remained unchanged are the principles that go into its cuisine, medicines and practice, still practiced with all its nuances and perfection in the kitchens, homes and ashrams of true Ayurveda Vaidyan families even today.
We at DHARMA AYURVEDA humbly stake claim to be one of them.
Source: Monu Surendran