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Establishing Yourself: Foodways in Ayurveda

The secret ingredient for amazing aloo parathas: freshly ground and toasted cumin (full recipe at end of article). Jayashree Saha smiles excitedly as she cups the cumin in her hand under my nose. The smell sends a smile across my face immediately.

I met Saha at Bija Vidyapeeth, the educational farm managed by the agricultural and activism nonprofit, Navdanya. Saha teaches Ayurveda around the world, from basic workshops to more complex courses. She spent most of her life in the air and space industry, but during a period of personal, physical crisis, Saha found herself in and out of hospitals until her mother took her to an Ayurvedic doctor. “Something that had been bothering me for four or five years was within two weeks under control, and within six months was gone.”

Her mother insisted that if she did not change her lifestyle and diet, all health problems would resurface. Saha acquiesced, and soon was enamored by Ayurvedic philosophies, teaching alongside doctors, and sharing the recipes of her mother’s generation. Saha believes that “In chronic conditions, the time has come again for Ayurveda. A lot of people recognize that going back to individual self-healing and taking that responsibility makes sense.”

Some tastes are more relevant for particular constitutions. Graphic by Lauren Ladov

Ayurveda is a generic term describing practices on how to have a long, healthy life. Officially, Ayurveda stems from the Sushruta Samhita and Charka Samhita texts, which were written around year 3000 by aesthetics in an ashram setting. Saha explains to me that many adaptations evolved, depending on the nature of the need; from the excesses of imperial court lifestyle, to injury stresses within the military, to maternal and infant care and wellbeing. While the official texts, doctors, and treatments resided in more privileged circles, the basic practices were innately widespread, embedded in the everyday culture and common sense of villager life.

After independence from British rule, Ayurveda in India resurged. With contemporary research, Saha observes the long-standing conflicts between the proof-oriented mindset of the scientific community and the more personal experimentation and discipline of Ayurveda philosophies are now being resolved. Meanwhile, Saha notices a shift happening where the majority of villagers remain in touch with many Ayurveda practices (whether they call it Ayurveda or not), while those in bigger cities and/or with more wealth are further disconnected or ignorant of Ayurvedic tradition.

“We are in an era of excess,” admits Saha, reflecting on Ayurveda’s five causes of disease and our increasing vulnerability.

Ayurveda’s Five Causes of Disease (dis-ease)

  1. Failure of the intellect, wherein the intellect is influenced by the ego (mind) and higher self, and chooses to act either out of “Shreya” (good for me) or “Priya” (I like)
  2. Misuse of the senses, wherein the senses are over-stimulated, leading to emotional or physical imbalance
  3. Age/Time/Entropy
  4. Ignoring physical needs
  5. Forgetting one’s own self, in opposition to the very notion of health. “Swaastha” in Sanskrit translates literally to “me centered,” or "me established."

Six Tastes: Sour (tamarind), Bitter (bitter melon), Astringent (unripe banana), Salty (rock salt), Pungent (mustard flower), Sweet (date). Photograph by Lauren Ladov

Ayurvedic food practices emphasize the importance of eating all six tastes. The body is built in a way to look for the minerals, the enrichment, the nourishment that comes with these tastes: salty, bitter, pungent (spicy), sweet, sour, astringent. When we deny ourselves a taste, we crave it.

Take bitter for example, it is a taste many of us (especially in the West, and especially me) avoid because it is not so pleasing to the senses. Meanwhile, we crave coffee and consume several cups throughout the day, becoming mildly addicted and getting headaches when we skip drinking it. If we incorporate bitter foods into our diets at least a few times a week, such food cravings and addictions will go away. “Animals do it, but we forget ourselves. so when we look at health from the point of view of knowing yourself and being established in yourself, these things become obvious,” Saha explains.

Anyone familiar with Ayurveda has probably heard the terms “Vata,” “Pitta” and “Kapha,” and perhaps has even taken an online quiz to find out which one they are. These terms represent biophysical energies and patterns within the human form. Based on the building blocks of the universe (air, space, fire, water and earth), the biophysical energies manifest certain physical and mental tendencies in individuals. At the moment of conception, a specific constitution of the building blocks makes up the individual. This original constitution is referred to as “prakriti”.

As one develops, this constitution can change due to external influences such as living environments, diet or social stresses. This now distorted constitution is referred to as “vikriti.” The change between the prakriti and vikriti, the difference, delta or “dosha,” guides the practices of the Ayurveda, aiming to restore the original prakriti constitution.

Saha stresses, however, that each of us is an individual, and our constitution is unique. Simply knowing a dosha imbalance is superficial knowledge. Having an understanding of where this information is coming from and what can be done with it is much more empowering. It's about establishing yourself. As Saha explains, “you don’t follow a recipe. You get to learn a technique or method and use it, adapt it.”

Aloo Paratha Recipe

Ingredients (for ~12 paratha):

For Dough

  • 5 cups of whole wheat flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp cooking oil or ghee
  • warm water to knead dough

For Filling

  • 10-12 medium potatoes
  • 1-2 green chillies, chopped finely
  • small bunch cilantro leaves, chopped
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp roasted ground cumin
  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • 2 tsp chaat masala

How To:

  1. Boil potatoes until tender.
  2. Meanwhile make the dough. Mix 4 cups of flour with salt and oil in large bowl. Slowly add warm water and combine with flour mixture. Continue to knead and add water as necessary. Dough should be firm, elastic, and have a slight sheen to it. Let sit for 30 minutes.
  3. Once potatoes are cool, peel and mash them. Add spices and mix well.
  4. Warm a skillet and add a few drops of cooking oil.
  5. Take a lemon-sized ball of dough, roll and flatten slightly. Pinch the corners to make a small bowl with the dough.
  6. Add a handful of potato filling into the dough bowl. Close the dough around the potato filling, pinching the seams shut.
  7. Gently roll out the stuffed dough, using dry flour as needed to keep from sticking. Paratha should be 6-8 inch in diameter.
  8. Place paratha on pan, spreading a bit of oil across the dough.
  9. When small red dots appear, flip the paratha and add a bit of oil across the dough on the other side. Keep flipping paratha until reddish brown on both sides.

Lauren Ladov is a local food activist and educator. For the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, she is based in India, creating resources and an interactive open-source digital curriculum for teachers and youth around the world to engage in seed saving and diversity education. Participate with Lauren’s project through facebookinstagram, or sign up for a monthly newsletter with lesson plan challenges and materials.

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