In this healing tradition, certain food combinations are believed to help or hinder digestion.
GROWING UP IN INDIA, Neelam Batra loved to devour the fat, juicy mangos piled high at the local produce bazaar. When she’d return home with a bulging stomach and sticky face, her mother always had a glass of rosewater-infused milk at the ready.
Batra didn’t know it at the time, but her mother was putting ayurvedic principles to work. In this healing tradition, certain food combinations are believed to help or hinder digestion. Batra’s mother knew the cooling properties of the rosewater and milk would diffuse the heating quality of the mangos–and spare her daughter a bellyache.
“Food combining seeped into my subconscious,” says Batra, who’s now a cooking teacher and author in Santa Monica, Calif. “I grew up seeing it, hearing about it, and learning how to cook according to the principles, but no one called it Ayurveda.” In the same way, people with little knowledge of traditional Indian culture can still benefit from its basic precepts.
THE SIX RASAS
IN SANSKRIT, the classical language of India, the word for taste is rasa. But rasa means more than just flavor, says Scott Gerson, M.D., Ph.D., medical director of the National Institute of Ayurvedic Medicine in New York. “Rasa is a food’s vital fluid or elixir; it reflects the enlivening effect taste has on human physiology.”
Every food has one of six predominant rasas: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, astringent, or bitter. Each rasa is a blend of two of the five elements–air, space, fire, earth, or water and this plays an important part in choosing foods. (Think of watery, earthy milk snuffing out the flames of fiery mangos.)
Ideally, a person should consume all six tastes at every meal. But you can cut yourself some slack and aim for enjoying all six over the course of a day.
By ayurvedic standards, a healthy balance of the six rasas creates harmony in the body. But when one dominates, the body is thrown off kilter. An excess of sweets, for example, may produce a buildup of toxins called ama, which could contribute to disease.
For Americans, nutrition is a numbers game, says Marc Halpern, president of the California College of Ayurveda in Grass Valley. “The federal government’s food pyramid is based purely on statistics,” he notes. “Ayurvedic principles are based on how people relate to nature as individuals–it’s more finely tuned to the unique needs of each person.”
KNOW YOUR TYPE
TO TRY THIS APPROACH to eating, determine your constitution, or dosha, which generally corresponds to your body type and the primary element. Pitta is linked to fire, and pitta people are often of medium height and build, well proportioned, with relatively light skin coloring and a tendency to get overheated and prefer cool climates.
If your dosha is Vata, your element is air and you’ve likely got a small frame and wiry build, a tendency toward dry skin, an active mind, and a preference for warm weather. Lastly, Kapha is both earth and water and coincides with a large frame, big bones, strong muscles, and pale and perhaps oily skin. (You may have aspects of all three doshas.)