The Philosophy of Indian Cuisine

Itís so difficult to cook sometimes well without first understanding what the philosophy of the cuisine is.But trying to explain the philosophy of an ancient and complex cuisine in simple terms is no easy task, because one cannot attempt to describe the significance of one set factors without outlining how it connects to others.So I will try to identify the various element that underlie the system of beliefs on which the philosophy of Indian cuisine is based.

India is of course a sub-continent,equal in size to western Europe ,but without a single common language.It has about two and half times the number of people, several language script and many more religions.So it is not easy to label its cuisine under a single heading.One has to allow for differences in climate and availability to produce, and vast differences in come among the people,as well as different religions,customs,traditions,and beliefs.

The strongest influence on Indian cuisine , or least among 80 percent of Indians-the Hindus-is Ayurveda , an ancient body of knowledge on health .Ayur is derived from the word ayus meaning span of life in Sanskrit, and Veda means knowledge.Thus Ayurveda is the knowledge concerning the maintenance of long life. Its origins are in the Atharvaved, the contents of which date from around 100 B.C. Then in the 200 B.C. a medical treatise called Chakra Samhita was written in Sanskrit by a sage called Chakra, who re-edited Agnivesa, a text written earlier by a sage of the same name along with five others, outlining the science of prolonging life without illness. Samhita means compilation. It deals with the origin of medical science, a detailed classification of diseases, all food and drink substances and details of lines f treatment, the use of drugs, dirt and practices for achieving good health. In all there are 150 chapters on specific topics.

Numerous other texts were composed through the centuries, and the Ayurvedic tradition continued as a vigorous and scientific tradition up to 16th century. Ayurvedic texts were translated into Greek by Cridos (300 BC), Tibetan and Chinese(AD 300), Persian(AD700) and Arabic(AD800).

Ayurveda is not confined to medicine only: it covers the whole subject of life in its various ramifications. It discusses the purpose if life, the importance of mental as well as physical health, and a ethical code for a healthy living. The aim is salvation-to keep the body as well as possible and to give life such a quality that one can progress beyond it. Life is a combination of the mind body and soul, and that is in fact the central subject of Ayurveda.

'He can alone remain healthy, who regulates his diet, exercise and recreation, controls his sensual pleasures, who is generous, just , truthful and forgiving, and who gets along well with his relatives.' It is amazing that all these observations were made thousands of years ago, while it is only in recent times that scientists and thinkers have observed that a lot Of diseases emanate from bottled up emotions, grief and negative thoughts.

Ayurveda understands the properties and actions of foods differently from western science. The bio-chemistry of an edible product is not everything. For example, vegetable oil and dairy fat, such as ghee from cow's milk, are not seen merely as fat, but in terms of their effects on body, which are supposedly very different. Ghee is cooling to the body while  oil heats it. Another special quality of ghee is that it assimilates the good properties of foods it is mixed with and adds them to its own, without loosing any of its own properties, while oil undergoes a transformation when it assimilates the properties of other foods.

According to Ayurveda, the human body is composed of seven body elements or tissue layers. These are plasma, blood, muscle, fat, bones, nerves and marrow and reproductive secretions. And there are innumerable channels that supply the various tissue constituents. Good health means proper flow through these channels and an equilibrium in the proportions of seven body elements.

Also, there are three primary forces in the body, or three biological humors. The Ayurvedic term for humor is dosha, that which causes things to decay. the humors correspond primarily to the elements of air, fire and water, and in Sanskrit are called vata, pita, kapha. Vata, translated as wind, means that which moves-for example breathing, and beating of heart: pitta is fire dosha translated as bile, that which digests things, including mental digestion, or the ability to comprehend reality; and kapha is phlegm, that which holds thing together.

Ayurveda believes that when the humors of out of balance and aggravated they manifest symptoms and give rise to various diseases. The excess humors move in the body channels causing improperties in their flow. Diseases should first be treated with food and medication only if required. The treatments using foods are based on six tastes(rasa in Sanskrit)- sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent. Each taste has specific therapeutic actions. The tastes increase or decrease biological humors, as the case may be. Everyone needs a certain amount of each of six tastes, and relative proportions differ according to the constitutional or humor type of particular individual. Too much of any taste is harmful to any constitutional type.

The sweet taste gives strength to the tissue elements, is good for nourishment, and harmonizes the mind. Sweet tasting products are not only those which taste sugary, but include rice, ghee and fruits. Sweet food is heavy on digestion.

The sour taste stimulates the digestive fires and enzymes and sour-tasting food, for example lime and tamarind, are easy on digestion and good for heart(it is only relatively recently that modern dietetics have discovered that Vitamin C is good for heart and it is found in all sour foods). By sour Ayurveda means naturally so and not man made like Vinegar.

The salty taste stimulates digestion, clears obstruction in the channels of the body, causes sweating, and increases the power of digestion, but tends to deplete reproductive secretions. An excess of salt causes graying and wrinkling.

Pungent tastes, as in Onion, pepper and Garlic, help digestion, improve metabolism and dilate channels in the body. Food with bitter taste eliminate bacterial elements, purify the blood and are light on digestion. Examples include Bitter Gourd, Fenugreek seeds and lemon rind.Substances which have a predominance of astringent taste such as potatoes, apples, betelnut leaves, most green vegetables and food containing tannin like tea, posses the properties to heal ulcers and wounds. They dry up moisture and fat in the body and act as water absorbents.

What I find most interesting is that the only other cuisines which give an important rolwe to the sour, hot and astringent tastes are those of Thiland and Indo-China, which were maritime xconnections hindi influences became assimiated. In fact the Capital of siam was called Ayuthya after Ayodhya the Capital of Ram's kingdom.Galangal ginger which has an astringent taste is mentioned in ancient Ayurvedis texts as medicinal plant.

A lack of any of the six tastes in the food will also aggrecvatwe the relevant humors. So now one can appreciate the raison d'etre of the complexity of an Indian meal, which includes spicy-sour taste mix, a yoghurt based item, a dash of hot and bitter pickle and a sweet. The traditional Indian Thali mal has been devised tio contain these complex requirements in a way that can be replicated every day.

Ayurveda characterizes foods and drugs in three:

1. Firstly, by tastes(called rasa in Sanskrit) which as explained above, act on different humors.

2. Secondly, by the potency,(veerya) of the action it has on the body. Allk food items can be classified as either cold or hot on the body.

3. The third categorization is by yeh way of specila action on the body(prabhava). For example, two food or drug items may be similar in relation to their taste and potency but differ on their special actionb: for example, figs and dates are sweet and heatening but figs have purgative qualities.

Equally, all human beings can be classified into three mental types. A presoan is made up to not only of physical or bio-chemical elements, but also of non-apparent constituents.These constituents decide the responses to stimuli that are received by the individual.These differences are governed by the qualities of Steva,rajas and Tames.Setva means pure and therefore a person who has dominent Satvic traits will be a thinker on a higher plane,will have more curiosity,strive hard for real knowledge and will try to win a competitive situation by adoption of fair means.A person who is Rajsic will be basically a doer,in dusrious and domineering,who will use almost any means to succeed .A Tamasic person will not even have desire to learn or put in effort and lacks the intellectual capacity to encompass the gravities of the situation.

Different types of food can contribute a satva,rajvasor tamas influence. Food which is easily digestible,fresh and ripe can cooked by simple and quick process(though not in a microwave oven) the total quantity taken being of modeerate quantity,contributes to strenghthening of satvic forces.The person consuming such food is alert,quick-thinking and harmony with nature .He is stimulated by or quick to grasp even the slightest stimuli.

Highly spiced food, food produced by suppressive means(such as battery produced eggs)or the meat slaughtered animals is rajas-dominant.The person who consumes such food loses capacity to distinguish the more subtle stimuli and as time goes on requires stronger ones to reach a good level of deep understanding.

Food that has a preponderance of oily spicy ingredients,and food that is overcooked,stale and unclean ,is liked by people in the state of tamas or ignorance.All 'junk' food would be included in this category,because it is basically prepared long before being eaten.

Ayurveda believes that sciences related to health and disease should make an attempt to study the Omni-substances of behavior,because the needs of different personality types differ.The constitution of the mind has a role in preserving health and diseases of the body

A practitioner of Ayurveda,when prescribing a diet for a person,would take into consideration his disposition,body type(which humor dominates his contribution),the season(because the humors behave directly in different seasons and food has to be adjusted for their heating and cooling properties)and particular state of health.He would tend to advice eating foods that grow in the region in that season.That is nature way of balancing the requirements of the body.

The Ayurvedic texts also describe the methods of foods preparation and consumption.food should be prepared with love and good feeling.Hence even in affluent homes in spite of having domestic help,many housewives cook for the family,though the help will prepare the ingredients.

Food should be consumed in relative quietude,quite contrary to the Western emphasis on conviviality and conversation.Surprisingly,alcohol is not forbidden by Ayurveda. On the contrary, the Charak Samhita lists eighty- four types of alchohoiic preparation and claims that they strengthen the mind,body and the power of digestion,an help in overcoming sleeplessness and grief. practical observation and remakably relevant today,considering when they were written!

Similarly, meat or fish is not expressly discouraged .In fact the charakaSamhita includes goat,chicken,antelope and turtle in those meats that are particularly good for health!However' we are what we eat.'Flesh has the force of violence in it, and the negative emotions of fear and hatred as part of it.It has therefore no place in Satvic diet.

Generally,Ayurvedic teaching exhort peple to follow a pure lifestyle,one that gives clarity and peace of mind.Physical purity involves a wholesome diet with emphasis on row of freshly cooked vegetarian food,pure air and water,proper exercise of a calming nature(yoga) and phylsical cleanliness.Purity of mind involves non-violence, friendliness and compassion and a means of earning a living that does not bring harm to others and provides a service to humanity.