European cooking styles in relation to Ayurveda

Ayurveda has its roots in the Indian sub-continent, so it’s only natural that most Ayurvedic food is based on the Indian-style of cooking—using herbs and spices from that area.

Indian spices

Culturally India has a strong tradition of vegetarianism, meaning the cuisine is nutritionally balanced without the use of meat. It also uses a lot of fermented foods like yoghurt and dosas. Fermentation pre-digests food making nutrients more readily available and easy for the body to assimilate. So Indian cuisine in general provides a tried and tested, ready-made package that already follows Ayurvedic principles—which Indian people may not even be aware of when they first learned to cook!

There’s lot of wisdom in Indian cooking techniques and recipes because it has Ayurvedic knowledge already woven into it.

As with other forms of traditional cooking, Indian cuisine is based on simple ingredients and uncomplicated recipes. The Indian restaurant food found in UK has been adapted for Westerners, incorporating all types of meat and using excessive amounts of hot spices. These days Indian people themselves may adapt traditional dishes by adding new ingredients. These changes may look and taste great, but may not be so kind on the digestion. They can unwittingly break the thread of Ayurvedic principles that has been handed down over generations.

The biggest change to cuisine all over the world came with the discovery of America. New and exciting foods came into the market, particularly chillies, potatoes, bell peppers and corn. These may add colour and taste delicious, but can have implications to the balance of the meal. For instance chilli has become a cheap alternative to black peppercorn. Chilli has a stronger heat than pepper and can irritate the stomach rather than assist simply assist digestion.

Ayurveda is not limited to the Indian style of cooking. Other types of traditional cuisine also follow many Ayurvedic principles if they are based on local and seasonal foods. Often, when there was no other choice available, people ate  locally grown seasonal food. A predominantly plant-based diet was also more commonplace—mainly for economic reasons as it took more land to produce a kilo of meat than a kilo of wheat or pulses.

A small piece of well cultivated land can yield a large amount of produce so fruit, vegetables, grains and pulses were cheaply available. In many cultures meat was a luxury for weekends or at special occasions. This defined the typical rural or peasant diet which (unless it’s really impoverished, spoiled or lacking in vital ingredients) is often a good one.

Since ancient Greek and Roman times such simple frugal food was known to be healthy. These civilisations discovered that a rich diet with too much salt, fat or meat creates disease. Frugal actually derives from the Latin words, ‘fruges’ and ‘frux’. Our word ‘fruit’ comes from it, originally referred to in the phrase ‘fruits of the earth’, meaning plant-based foods that simply grew out of the ground.

Generally the earth provides food in the right proportion and the correct foods at the right time of year. Lots of herbs, vegetables and fruits, plenty of energy rich grains and pulses and oil rich nuts and seeds. With much smaller amounts of animal proteins like eggs milk and cheese.

Everything seems to change however when we put a monetary value on food. Nutritious plant-based food that the earth generously provides is cheap to buy whereas rich foods like meat, cheese and milk come with a higher price because they are more scarce. So the values have reversed. The frugal food from the earth is now seen as cheap and poor and the rich food (because it is more expensive) now it seems more valuable—making people aspire to eat it. Money can tempt you to buy food in a different ratio than intended by nature.

The principles of Ayurveda gently remind us to go back to the rustic way of eating. Having simple food in season to maintain health. A lot of traditional Asian and European cuisines are frugal with lots of vegetables, spices, plant proteins with a little meat or fish.

Many people are ‘modernising’ and moving away from their traditional diets. Due to globalisation, and increased wealth providing the options to eat more meat and western refined foods. This is not a new trend and has been going on since classical times. The result is the always the same. An increase in western chronic disease. In China they have recognised this and are trying to reverse it by developing programmes that reduce meat consumption by up to 50%. Another important Ayurvedic principle is to eat in a relaxed way. Traditional cultures also followed this principle and eating together was a family affair where people relaxed in each other’s company.

The final principle was to really appreciate and value the hard work that went into producing the food—often beginning the meal with a prayer or a feeling of gratitude to the powers of nature.

Frugal eating today

These days many people tend to think that processed or ‘junk’ foods are the cheapest available. There is a misconception that people on a low income in western countries cannot afford healthy ingredients. That only the middle classes can afford to buy health foods or trendy artisan products.

But the kind of healthy eating common to Ayurveda and rustic European and Asian cooking is actually much more economical than you think because it’s based on vegetables. Using pulses for protein with carbohydrates such as rice or bread. Such simple ingredients are inexpensive.

At 2018 prices a cheap meal of value burgers, frozen chips and soda would cost at least £1 to eat at home or £3 at a fast food outlet. A simple meal of vegetables rice and dhal or kitcheri would come to about 40p per person.

Blue Zone communities

One way of looking at diet is a sort of reverse engineering approach. Where are the places where people live to a healthy old age, and what do they eat? One such project did just that. They identified parts of the world where people are healthy a live a long time. They then looked at their diets and lifestyles to see if there were any common denominators which we could then learn from.

They discovered the so-called the ‘Blue Zone’ communities. Areas where people were physically active, happy and lived a long time; often over 100 years old. A number of such Blue Zones were identified and studied, including a part of Sardinia and areas in Greece, South America and Okinawa (a Japanese Island nicknamed the ‘Land of the Immortals’).

The Seventh Day Adventist group in California who ate a vegetarian diet were also included. What are the common factors? For diet, they all had a mainly plant-based one, eating pulses or fish instead of meat. They ate seasonal produce from their local environment.

All of these communities engaged in physical activities and walked every day. Their manner of eating was a social affair and never rushed. They also all had a great sense of self and purpose.

Summary of the main principles supporting Blue Zone Communities:

  • Primarily plant based foods
  • Fresh local seasonal ingredients
  • Moderate eating
  • Social interaction
  • Activity
  • Purpose and belief

All of the above bring us back to the principles of Ayurveda, looking like they have come straight out of a yoga or Ayurvedic manual. Blue Zone communities live a long time and all eat rustic food. They also take time to eat properly in good company. They take adequate exercise and are not stressed.

European Foods

Regional cuisines provide history on a plate. Each political and religious change adds a new twist to the menu. New ideas and ingredients are incorporated.

Every item on your plate has its own story. The first recipe books originated in ancient Greece and Rome so that’s a good place to start.

Ancient Roman and Greek food

The Ancient Roman and Greek doctors and philosophers knew frugal food was healthy, and excess intakes of rich food promotes ill-health: in particular heart disease, arthritis and obesity. Greece and Rome had cities where a lot of people ate rich foods, loads of meat and alcohol, and probably exercised less. Nothing has changed since then.

Hippocrates, one of the founders of modern medicine, famously said ‘Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food’. So a good place to start is with the ancient Greek and Roman food the doctors would have recommended 2,000 years ago.

An ancient Latin recipe book gives an insight to those recipes. As you can see they are quite similar to Ayurvedic recipes and incorporate a lot of the six Ayurvedic tastes.

Lentils and Cow Parsnips (50 AD)

This dish could come straight out of an Ayurvedic cookbook. Rue, fleabane and cow parsnip were commonly used in Roman times. Rue is still used as part of ‘berbere’ an Ethiopian spice. Cow parsnip is not commonly used because looks similar to other poisonous plants. So we have substituted them with modern day ingredients.

100 g lentils (washed and rinsed)
300 ml vegetable stockpinch salt (salty)
10 pepper corns (pungent)
½ tsp cumin seed
½ tsp coriander seed
1 tbsp fresh mint
1 tbsp fresh rosemary instead of rue (bitter)
pinch asafoetida instead of fleabane (astringent)
2 tbsp red wine vinegar (sour)
500ml vegetable stock
1 tsp jaggery instead of honey (sweet)
100 g kale instead of cow parsnip bunch (bitter)
Extra virgin olive oil

  • Put the lentils in the stock.
  • Add the salt and cook for 10 minutes.
  • Meanwhile crush the peppercorns, cumin seeds, coriander seed, mint, rosemary, and asafoetida using a large pestle and mortar.
  • Add the vinegar and grind to a paste.
  • Add this paste to the lentils, along with the jaggery.
  • Reheat and cook for 5 minutes.
  • Add the kale.
  • Reheat and simmer until everything is thoroughly cooked.
  • Remove from the heat.
  • Add green (fresh olive) oil and serve in an appropriate dish.

So in this dish, the plant-based protein is the lentils. Pungent, bitter and astringent spices and herbs are added to help digestion. The vinegar is the sour taste and jaggery is the sweet taste. So like an Ayurvedic meal all six tastes are there. The oil is added after cooking so as not to damage it by any intense heat. Oil also makes the meal more unctuous.

Staying advert-free

To keep my blog free of annoying adverts and exclusively full of quality content, I’ve written a fantastic ebook ‘Keith on Food’ which I hope to entice you to purchase. It’s an excellent read even if I say so myself, and I hope you will take a look. Here are the links for the US and the UK, but it’s surely available worldwide.
Thank you so much.

Keith on Food ebook on US Amazon kindle
Keith on Food ebook on UK Amazon kindle


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