BY LINDA EGENES

Dilled Beans—a light cooling side dishEating local foods in season is all the buzz these days, the smart way to support the environment and the local economy. Yet according to ayurveda, the traditional health care system of ancient India, eating seasonal foods is also the best way to prevent disease.

Food is Medicine

As every Iowan knows, each season brings a dramatic change in temperature and humidity. In ayurveda there are only three seasons: the cold and dry fall/ winter (Vata season), the cool and wet spring (Kapha season), and the hot summer (Pitta season).

“As any particular season wears on, imbalances start building in your body, and if these imbalances are not addressed, they can get more rooted in the physiology and become a chronic condition,” says Dr. Sankari Wegman, an ayurvedic expert at The Raj Maharishi Ayurveda Health Center, a world-class spa  in Maharishi Vedic City that serves organic, locally-grown vegetables, fruits and herbs from the city’s farm and greenhouses for its clients’s meals, and to the public for Sunday brunch.

According to ayurveda, by the end of summer, your body becomes, well, hotter. It’s more susceptible to heat rash, skin breakouts, and fatigue. And because the mind, body and emotions are connected, the mounting heat can be expressed as irritability and anger. More serious health problems resulting from too much heat in the body include ulcers, eczema and heartburn.

The ayurvedic solution is simple: use your food as medicine.

“If during summer you eat foods that are the opposite of hot, such as cooling, light foods, you can reduce the heat in your body,” says Dr. Wegman. “You’ll feel cooler, and at the same time prevent serious health problems from developing.”

Six Tastes of Ayurvedic Cooking

Ayurvedic cooking is based on six tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, astringent and pungent.

  • Sweet: milk, butter, ghee (clarified butter), rice, wheat, and small amounts of raw sugar.
  • Sour: yogurt, lemon, aged cheeses and pickled foods using vinegar.
  • Salty: anything with salt.
  • Pungent: chilies, ginger, cumin, cayenne, black pepper, spicy foods
  • Bitter: leafy greens, basil, lettuce, nettle, bitter melon (available in Asian markets), Japanese eggplant, turmeric, fenugreek seeds, barley, jicama and aloe vera.
  • Astringent: lentils and other pulses, beans, tofu, quinoa, sprouts, apple, pear and pomegranate.

“In ayurvedic cooking, we include all six tastes in every meal,” says Dr. Wegman. “The problem with our modern diet is that it mostly contains only three tastes: sweet, salty and sour. Think of your average junk-food meal, and you’ll find those tastes in abundance. But because the body also craves bitter, astringent and pungent tastes, when you don’t get them in your diet, your health suffers.”

A Summer Palette of Tastes

While every ayurvedic meal includes the six tastes, the idea is to use them in different proportions depending on your individual body type and season.

In the hot summer season, for example, the ayurvedic cook includes more sweet, bitter and astringent tastes, as these are more cooling.

And just as important as the foods you include are the foods that you minimize during a particular season,” says Dr. Wegman. “In summer, you want to reduce heat by reducing the pungent, salty and sour tastes.”

Dr. Wegman also recommends seasoning your foods with mild spices and herbs during summer. “Many people find that their digestion is slower when the weather is hot, so it’s wise to eat lighter,” she says. “You can give your digestion a boost with cooling spices, such as cardamom, coriander, fennel, dill, turmeric, mint, basil, and cilantro.

Fortunately, the cooling ayurvedic foods—basil, cucumbers, summer squashes and broccoli—are the exact foods you’ll find in your own garden and farmer’s market during summer. So buy fresh, buy local, and buy what’s in season—and you’ve taken the first step to a healthy ayurvedic diet.

Ayurvedic Summer Foods Available Home-grown in Iowa:

  • Milk products: Organic milk, butter and ghee (clarified butter)
  • Fruits. Organic grapes, cherries, sweet berries, melons, plums.
  • Vegetables: Organic asparagus, cucumbers, green leafy vegetables, broccoli, fennel,  celery, okra, green beans and summer squashes like zucchini.
  • Herbs: Cilantro, mint, basil, dill.

Recipes

Dilled Green Beans
(from The Raj Recipe Book, available at The Raj Maharishi Ayurveda Health Center)

(serves 12–that’s kind of big, but I guess this is ideal for a summer party. I could cut it down if you need to)

  • 3 lbs. green beans
  • 1 1/2 c. water
  • 3 T ghee (clarified butter)
  • a pinch of aesofetida (hing) to taste
  • 1 T dried dill
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. pepper

Bring water to boil and add beans. Cover and reduce heat. Cook 10 minutes. Stir occasionally.

Drain beans and plunge into cold water, strain again and set aside.

Heat ghee in a wok or frying pan, add aesofetida and cook 30 seconds. Add beans and stir occasionally until thoroughly heated. Add the dill, salt and pepper. Toss well and serve.


Fennel Soup with Watercress Purée
(from The Raj Recipe Book, available at The Raj Maharishi Ayurveda Health Center)

Ingredients: (4-6 persons)

  • 1 Tbl. butter
  • 1 large leek, white part only, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
  • 2 large fennel bulbs, quartered and sliced
  • 2 Tbl. chopped fennel green
  • 1 medium-sized red potato, sliced or chopped
  • salt to taste
  • 6 1/2 cups cold water.

Fennel bulb served with leeks makes a sweet-tasting soup, while the watercress adds a lively flourish. Fennel is so flavorful that ther’s no need to make a stock. In fact, using water for the liquid allows the full taste of the vegetables to come forward completely unmasked.

Serve this soup with just a swirl of watercress purée or enrich with with a spoonful of ghee (clarified butter). A handful of little croutons, sauteed in butter, always adds a nice cruncy touch to puréed soups.

Wash and slice all the vegetables first. If the inner core of the fennel is tough and stringy, remove it with a paring knife, but usually even a well-developed core will be tender.

Plum Chutney
(from The Raj Recipe Book, available at The Raj Maharishi Ayurveda Health Center)

The following recipe is good for pacifying Pitta dosha and makes 1 1/2 cups.

  • 1 1/2 c. red or purple plums
  • 1/2 Tbl. peeled, fresh ginger root, minced
  • 1/4 tsp. each cloves, mace, cinnamon, coriander and turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp. fennel
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 c. grape juice
  • 1 1/2 c. granulated sugar
  • grated peel of one orange

Dry roast the ginger root, spices and fennel seeds. Add plums, salt, juice, sugar and grated orange peel.

Raise the heat slightly, and stirring constantly, bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and cook the chutney about 1/2 hour.

In ayurveda there are only three seasons: the cold and dry fall/ winter (Vata season), the cool and wet spring (Kapha season), and summer (Pitta season), which can be scorching hot.

For more information on ayurvedic cooking, visit http://www.theraj.com/ or www.mapi.com.

(I originally wrote this article for Radish Magazine, July 2008. Reprinted with permission.)

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