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
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
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
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
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
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
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.