Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Well-being : March 12, 2000
We are what we eat
Historian and food writer.
People all around us today seem to be discussing their diets. Food is a high priority item on the lifestyle agenda with a marked focus on healthy eating. "You are what you eat", says Ayurveda, the ancient Indian science of life. Over the centuries and particularly in the 20th, we seem to have forgotten the maxims of our own medical experts of yore like Charak and Sushruta. Or else why have we, in recent years, turned to the West for advice on sound eating? And why would we spend mini-fortunes indulging ourselves in buying packaged "health foods" especially when senior members of our own families have been recommending identical diets in different forms to us down many generations.
Perhaps we heed the voice of the West because the language of Ayurveda is a little difficult to understand. How many people today, for instance, would understand terms such as vatam, pittam or kapham? Very simply put, according to the ancient science, human beings are a combination of these three component elements: air and space (vatam) earth and water (kapham) and energy and water (pittam). If the three are in equilibrium, a person is healthy; if not, he or she will suffer from ailments. Ayurveda teaches us how to keep that vital balance, bearing in mind the varying needs of one's age, constitution, psyche, symptoms, the environment and the changing seasons, and diet plays a crucial role in maintaining a sense of well-being. Ayurveda classifies different food items as sour, sweet, bitter, salty, astringent and pungent. The choice, again, of any of these is determined by our personal constitutions, the seasons and the time of day. The science also tells us that whatever we eat should be in moderation.
Most of us have some understanding of words such as garam or "heating" foods which increase pitta and thanda or "cooling" foods, which increase kapha and vata. We have heard these terms in our daily lives, again, from members of the older generation who tell us, for instance, that during the cool months, we must increase our intake of garam foods. Surely such dicta were simpler to understand than current medical terminology with its bewildering vocubulary like cholesterol, saturated and unsaturated fats, MUFA and PUFA, LDL and HDL. All these relate, of course to fat deposits on the arteries and their eventual result in heart problems. Allopathic doctors advise us not to eat foods high in pure fat content such as butter, whole milk, cheese and especially ghee for which we Indians have a special fondness.
Ayurvedic practitioners on the other hand tell you otherwise. According to them, a daily consumption of a specific quantity of ghee, and particularly that made from cow's milk, does one's health good. Ghee is considered cooling, emollient and an aid to digestion. It is also believed to enhance mental powers, improve the voice and complexion, and in treating eye diseases, insanity, dyspepsia, ulcers, wounds and other maladies. In fact, the first food tasted by a baby in India is honey mixed with ghee.
Several health-conscious people around the world now prefer meals free of red meat and more and more are turning vegetarian. Here again, why do we not turn to the health foods offered by so many of our regional cuisine? Take dahi or natural yoghurt for instance, which is on the regular diet of most communities in India. Scattered throughout old Indian medical treatises are comments on all the beneficial qualities of yoghurt, especially when consumed in the spring and summer months. High in Vitamin B, curd is good for ulcers, allergies and even arthritis. There are many who believe that dahi also increases longevity and will tell you that the most efficacious curd is that which is set in a silver bowl with a leaf of tulsi immersed in the fermenting milk.
According to nutritionists, the most complete protein for vegetarians is provided by preparations like idlis, dhoklas and khichdi, in which cereals and daals are steamed together. In ancient India, long before the advent of the Aryans, the Dravidians ate a wide selection of daals or lentils and beans. Health-conscious medical experts, even in those times, ordained that daals, which are difficult to digest and cause flatulence, should be prepared with ingredients and spices such as hing (asafoetida), turmeric, ajwain, (oregano seeds) adrak or sonth (fresh or dried ginger), which act as a counter balance and make them digestible.
Ginger, the root or rhizome of a herbaceous plant, Zinziber officinale (originating from the Sanskrit sringavera) has been widely cultivated in India and used as a spice, confection and medicine, since times immemorial. Charak, the ancient Indian sage of medicine maintained that "Adrakam sarva kandanaam" which simply means, "Every good quality is found in ginger". Old vaids recommend that a little fresh ginger and salt eaten before a meal increases appetite, enhances the capacity of your taste buds and also clears the tongue and throat of mucus. Similarly, in India, there is a saying that garlic or Allium sativum "is as good as ten mothers". It is said to be beneficial for everything. And that includes digestion, complexion, night blindness, hiccough, hypertension and even as an aid to mending broken bones and sharpening the intellect.
In traditional medicine, garlic also plays an important role in post-natal foods that help to evacuate the uterus, strengthen the back and induce milk production. Similarly, a variety of foods are prescribed for pregnancy and also for the new-born through different stages of childhood. Many of the old dietary suggestions and recommendations are connected through religious tenets to festivals and fasts. At Diwali for example, many communities prescribe eating some bitter vegetables. The Bengalis, of course, believe that something bitter - karela or bitter gourd, neem leaves - must be cooked at every meal (often in that speciality, shukto) to ensure a sense of well-being.
And then there is fasting, which gives necessary rest to the digestive system. Ancient texts tell us that fasting purifies both the body and soul. Abstinence or a change of diet, they say, enables the digestive organs to rejuvenate themselves, while prayer and meditation reduces mental tension. For some vrats or fasting days, not even water is permitted, for others a diet of fruit and non-alcoholic beverages is allowed. Certain foods are sanctioned by the shastras for fasts: cereals are proscribed, but all milk products, fruits and vegetables like coconut, coriander, ladies finger, potatoes, suran, sweet potatoes and red pumpkin are allowed. Food can be flavoured with certain spices but not turmeric. Who made these rules? Probably ancient wise men and women who were concerned about good health.
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