Ayurveda is one of the oldest systems for promoting health and well-being on the planet. Most closely associated with Indian food, Ayurvedic methods are easily adaptable to any cuisine. While the overall philosophy is both intricate and elegant, the dietary principles can be broken down into several very simple concepts.
Those who follow the first and most basic guideline of an Ayurvedic way of eating now have a trendy name: Locavore. Ayurveda has, for centuries, been based upon the idea that all of the foods you eat should be natural, containing no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives, and that a healthy, balanced diet is made up of local foods purchased and prepared only when they are in season in your area. Eating natural foods from the area in which you live and work is believed to bring you into harmony with your environment. Because Ayurveda is a holistic discipline, meaning that it is designed to enhance every aspect of your life, this environmental balance is important.
Second, becoming familiar with the six tastes of Ayurveda—sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent—is essential to helping you understand and master the basics of planning and preparing meals according to Ayurvedic principles. These flavors are generally listed in the order in which Ayurveda tells us they are digested, so plan your meals accordingly. Start a meal with something light and sweet, such as a fruit salad drizzled with honey. Or combine sweet and sour with fruit and yogurt or hard cheese and lemon chutney. Use the pungency of chili peppers or ginger to balance and bring out the bitter flavor of leafy greens seasoned with the astringent kick of pomegranate. Eating the six flavors in the order in which they are most effectively digested helps promote gastric health and curb cravings to contribute to an overall sense of well-being.
Cooking methods are the third key to the Ayurvedic approach. Science tells us that cooking tomatoes releases the lycopene that your body cannot extract efficiently when they are eaten raw—a truth known to Ayurveda for 5,000 years. This is also why carrots are most often served raw, because cooking destroys their beta carotene.
Spices are the fourth building block in constructing healthy, balanced and delicious Ayurvedic meals. Turmeric, ginger, cumin and coriander are the bases of most Ayurvedic recipes. Turmeric is believed to aid digestion, as is ginger. Tamarind, honey, lemon and spicy chilies also bring flavor to Ayurvedic meals. A mixture of caraway seeds and fennel seeds is often put out in dishes to sweeten and freshen the breath after dining.
While a belief in vegetarianism is at the heart of the Ayurvedic way of eating, if you are not willing to give up meats, poultry and fish, you can apply the Ayurvedic way of thinking to how you incorporate them into your daily menus. Choose organic products made from animals that have been gently and freely raised and humanely dispatched. Use meats as flavoring rather than as the main part of each dish, and be especially sure to balance all six flavors in meals containing meat.