Recently, I journeyed to India to study Ayurveda and learn the ancient principles and practices from my wise teacher, Dr. Sundar Raman. Now, I pass this information to you, my fellow prana-seeker.
As a tri-doshic system, Ayurveda is based on knowing your mind-body type, or dosha. Once you know your type you can steer yourself towards consuming the foods that not only keep your body, mind, and sexy spiritual self in balance, but also ward off brewing illness and disease. Pretty incredible, right?
You can discover your mind-body type by taking my dosha quiz or contact me directly and I’d be happy to offer you a free consultation. Even if you haven’t figured out your dosha yet, there are a few basic principles that will be true for any Ayurvedic pantry. In the 3 steps below you will learn how to “crowd out” refined foods, stock up with yummy, healthy foods, and cook up some delicious prana (life force).
Let’s get started…
Step #1: Say NO to Processed Foods
Chuck-out all ingredients that contain items from the “Processed Foods Hit List” and create space in your pantry (that’s right move over frosted mini wheats) for nourishing whole foods and spices that will help you feel better from the inside out.
Also, clear out any foods that have past their prime. Even spices, nuts, and seeds that don’t have expiration date may have lost some of their vibrancy and flavor, if not turned rancid altogether. When you eat fresh food— food that’s recently been picked or prepared—you give your body more life and energy for it to better serve you. Rule of thumb- if seeds and nuts have been hanging around on your shelves for over six months, it’s a good idea to ditch them (if you keep them in your refrigerator, you’re they’ll be good up to a year).
It doesn’t have to happen all at once, but start (or continue) the journey away from commercially farmed fruits and veggies which have been doused with pesticides and stripped of their vitamins, minerals, and flavor.
The same goes for nutritionally barren yet calorie dense foods such as refined sugars and white flour. These foods have been polished-free of all nutrients and fiber and lead to extreme spikes in blood sugar (and a sugar crash soon after).
Getting rid of the processed foods, white stuff, and pesticide-laden ingredients will make space on your shelves for new exciting spices and foods rich in nutrition and flavor.
Step #2: Re-Stock the Shelves with Prana-Packed Foods!
Healthy food is powerful medicine for the body.
Perhaps you’ve already started to sniff around the organic aisles a bit, are a regular at your local farmer’s market, and know the difference between coriander and cumin. But, just in case, I’m going to break it down back to the basics so that we are all on the same page.
The oils, spices, beans, and grains listed here are part of my Ayurvedic Pantry and are used frequently in my recipes. By choosing whole foods, locally and organically sourced when possible, you give yourself an invaluable dose of preventative medicine.
My Ayurvedic Pantry is vegetarian and vegan, with the exception of ghee (see below under oils). Though Ayurveda does recommend meat in rare cases for certain diseases and imbalances, as a vegetarian, it is not a staple in my fridge, nor freezer.
Fats and Oils:
Sunflower Oil: Obtained from the fatty kernels of sunflowers, this cold-pressed vegetable oil is pale yellow in color. It is light, neutral, and pleasantly-scented and serves as a good all-around oil. Rich in oleic acids, unsaturated fatty acids, lecithin, and high in Vitamins A, D, and E, it is also highly nutritious. This oil is especially good for Pitta dosha as it is cooling.
Sesame Oil: Long regarded for its distinctive flavor and rich nutritional benefits, sesame oil is available in two types: plain and toasted. I prefer plain as an occasional substitute for ghee, whereas toasted imbues the classic nutty aroma traditionally associated with Asian recipes. Nutritionally speaking, sesame oil contains vitamin E, a potent antioxidant correlated with lowering LDL (bad cholesterol) levels. And, from an Ayurvedic standpoint, it is especially good for Vata dosha as it is heavy and warming.
Ghee: Often confused with clarified butter, ghee is made by removing milk solids and moisture from the butter over heat and then caramelizing the milk solids before filtering them out. Cooking with ghee brings out a rich, nutty flavor to a dish and allows you to cook at higher temperatures. Ghee is nourishing for all three doshas, though Kapha in moderation. See my recipe for to learn how to make your own Ghee.
Coconut Oil: Extracted from the kernel or meat of matured coconuts, this luxurious oil is solid at room temperature. The tropical fragrance and unrefined nature of virgin coconut oil makes it a great alternative to ghee if you’re vegan. Not only does it lend great flavor to your dish, it also boasts has an attractive nutrient profile; coconut oil contains lauric acid which is anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and anti-viral making it a complete boost to the immune system. It also helps to support metabolism by improving the function of the thyroid. Unrefined coconut oil is a high-quality naturally saturated in fat that remains stable when used at high heat. It is especially great in baking and can be used as a substitute for butter on toast. Ayurveda recommends coconut oil for Vata and Pitta.
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO): Best when purchased locally and used right away, cold-pressed olive oil offers high levels of oleic acid, flavonoid antioxidants, and vitamin E. What makes them extra virgin is that they are produced from the first pressing of the choicest olives. The flavors of the oil can range from smooth and buttery to green and earthy, so try a few to see what you fancy. I recommend reserving the more fragrant extra-virgin olive oils for dressings and drizzling over salads and veggies, while maintaining a separate bottle expressly for cooking- a milder-flavored EVOO that is suitable for medium-high heat.
An Apothecary of Spices:
Coriander (AKA Cilantro): Whether you cook with verdant fresh cilantro or the grounding earthy coriander seed, you are doing yourself (and your digestion) a great service. Cilantro leaf is a powerful cleanser of heavy metals and is used in traditional Ayurvedic cooking to cool Pitta and refresh Kapha. Coriander seed helps strengthen the stomach, relieves flatulence, and helps decrease cholesterol- the seeds are balancing for all doshas. Coriander helps to assimilate other herbs and aids in relieving digestive disorders.
Cumin: Cumin seeds have a warm flavor and a strong, pungent aroma. An excellent source of iron, cumin aids in energy production and metabolism. Its antispasmodic properties are useful in asthma and menstrual cramps. Cumin also helps to promote good digestion, relieves gas formation in the abdomen, and has antioxidant properties. Cumin has a relaxing effect and is antimicrobial. According to Ayurveda, cumin is pacifying to Vata and Kapha while slightly aggravating to Pitta due to its heating quality.
Fennel: If you’ve ever eaten at an Indian restaurant, you may recall that lovely anise-flavored seed (often candy covered) provided at the end of the meal. This is because fennel is a sweet and cooling spice that is also a powerful digestive aide. It works to balance all 3 doshas (Vata, Pitta, Kapha) and it helps clear stagnation of fluids and food matter in the body. It also helps increase the flow of milk in nursing moms. It is known to alleviate abdominal cramping and promotes a calming affect on the nervous system as well as acts as a tonic for liver, spleen, and kidneys. It is an especially therapeutic spice for fiery Pitta-types.
Ginger: Available in two forms—fresh and ground—this healing spice is a staple for every kitchen apothecary. The fresh ginger root is known for its pungent and slightly sweet flavor and is used widely as a digestive aide. It is also a superb remedy for respiratory conditions and in the treatment of arthritis where it helps to clear stagnation in joints and stimulate blood flow. I recommend using it as a tea to help ease colds and coughs. Fresh ginger is especially therapeutic for Kapha and Vata, while ground ginger balances all 3 doshas.
Turmeric: Sourced as a root, this spice has a strong, musky flavor and is commonly used in curry. Therapeutically, turmeric is used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis due to its anti-inflammatory properties. It also cleanses the liver, purifies the blood, promotes good digestion, and improves elimination. Topically, turmeric can be used to promote wound healing and healing of skin conditions.
Mustard Seed: This oily, sharp, and light spice is both pungent and heating. It is helpful in relieving muscular pain. Mustard seed balances Vata and Kapha, but aggravates Pitta. According to Ayurveda, brown mustard seeds in particular are promote digestion and are effective at alleviating stomach discomfort such as gas or cramps. Mustard seeds are especially good when sautéing cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower that tend to create gas during digestion.
Black Pepper: Pungent and heating, these potent little seeds are known as Marich, which means sun in Sanskrit. Black pepper is especially healing for Kapha and Vata, as it aides in strengthening the circulatory, digestive and respiratory systems. It is also helpful in lighting the digestive fire, known in Ayurveda as Agni, to help digest and assimilate food. I recommend using it with honey to clear the mucous from the sinuses and lungs. It is balancing for Kapha and Vata and aggravating to Pitta.
Cardamom: With a strong, distinctive taste this spice is known for its small seed-containing pod. It has an intensely aromatic, resinous fragrance and is used for relieving indigestion, nausea, and vomiting. I recommend chewing the seeds directly to sweeten breath and to detoxify effects of caffeine. Cardamom eliminates food cravings and refreshes the palate. It also destroys mucous in the stomach and upper GI. To create a powder from the seeds, peel the outer layer of skin from the pod and then grind them in a coffee grinder. Therapeutically, cardamom is balancing for all 3 doshas.
Cinnamon: This aromatic tree bark is both pungent and sweet. What you find in the food market are cinnamon sticks, also called quills. Or, more typically, you find it ground into a powder. It is valued for its ability to strengthen and enhance the flow of circulation, especially in the lungs. It helps to clear out deep colds in the body and effectively pacifies cold Vata by warming and stimulating the liver and kidneys. It is an excellent remedy for Kapha as it helps to regulate the metabolism of fats and sugars. It can also relieve nausea, flatulence, and painful menstruation.
Saffron: So concentrated is the stigma of the crocus flower, that only a tiny bit produces a potent effect. Known as a tonic especially for the female reproductive system, saffron promotes healthy tissue growth in the body and acts as an aphrodisiac. One of the best cooling spices for Pitta, saffron regulates liver function and rejuvenates the blood (circulation) and metabolism. Soothes menstrual pain and promotes fertility.
Mung Beans: Originating from India, these cooling, sweet beans are highly nourishing and a good source of protein. They can be bought whole in which case their shell is green, or split into two yellow halves the form that is used in healing kitchari and is more easily digestible. Both Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine use mung beans to detox the liver and gallbladder and help balance the body.
Red Lentils: These petite pulses are quintessential comfort food of India. Considered one of the world’s healthiest foods, red lentils provide a good source of iron, cholesterol-lowering dietary fiber, folate, vitamin B1, and minerals. Ayurveda recommends red lentils for Pitta and Kapha. Vata should avoid them as they are difficult to digest (choose mung beans instead).
Black Beans: With their satiny black skin and creamy white center, this bean won me over while I was living in Nicaragua. When cooked they have a velvety texture and a rich, satisfying flavor. They secure their spot in my pantry not only because they’re delicious but also due to their nutrient content – black beans are full of fiber as well as protein, have 8 different types of flavonoids which bear enormous antioxidant potential, and they have a high content of phytochemicals. They have been correlated with reducing the risk for certain cancers as well. Ayurveda recommends black beans for Pitta and Kapha doshas.
Chickpeas: This large, round cream-colored bean has a soft and buttery texture when cooked. I find chickpeas to be a soothing comfort food that leaves me feeling satisfied, if not a bit sleepy (due to high level of tryptophan). It is high and protein and digestive fiber and is known to help control blood sugar and insulin secretion. It also contains phytonutrients which function as antioxidants to support the body in its natural detox process. Ayurveda recommends chickpeas for Pitta and Kapha doshas.
Quinoa: Pronounced (KEEN-wah), this elegant pseudo-grain comes in first for protein. It originates from the Andes of South America where it is credited to have kept Incan armies strong and robust. To this day it reigns in the high altiplano and as I crossed North to South in Bolivia last year, I was amazed to see it in full bloom and stretching for miles. A complete protein and nutritionally tops, it is chock full of properties reported to provide antioxidant protection, boost the immune system, quell headaches and migraines, and support cardiovascular health. This quick-cooking grain lends itself to last-minute dishes and can be used in salads, stir fries, and stuffings. Hint- always rinse quinoa first to remove the bitter saponin coating (which serves as a natural insect repllent). Quinoa is recommended for all 3 doshas, though Pitta in moderation due to the heating quality of this grain.
Oats: This hearty breakfast grain is a concentrates source of fiber and nutrients.
Whole oat berries (AKA groats) are a faster-cooking version of wheat berries and with a naturally sweeter taste. Steel-cut oats are produced by grinding the groat into smaller pieces whereas old-fashioned rolled oats are created by first steaming the whole groats and then rolling them to flatten. Dry oats can aggravate Vata, though cooked are balancing. Pitta-types benefit from oats as well, but Kapha should avoid them due to the dense, heavy nature of oats.
Brown Basmati Rice: Basmati rice translates to mean, “Queen of Fragrance” or “The Perfumed One”. It is that sweet fragrance that stirs my appetite every time I prepare this rice. Cooked, it has a light and fluffy texture that pairs well with steamed veggies and savory lentils. Brown rice maintains more nutrition content than white rice as the whole kernel remains intact surrounded by the layers of bran. Consuming brown rice provides you with more health benefits such as higher quantity of nutrients and fat soluble vitamins such as vitamin E. Companies often remove the outer layers to increase the shelf life of the rice (and therefore their profits). That said, those with weaker digestive systems will benefit from white rice over brown as it is much easier to digest. According to Ayurveda, basmati rice is especially balancing for Vata and Pitta.
Bulgur Wheat: With a light, nutty flavor this whole grain is a staple ingredient in Mediterranean dishes. Bulgur wheat is produced by parboiling and then drying wheat, retaining the majority of the bran. It is available in 4 distinct grinds- fine, medium, coarse, and extra-coarse and is a healthy quick-cooking alternative to couscous and white rice. It is perhaps best known for its role in tabbouleh salad though it can be a star in savory stir fries and warming, sweet cereals. Ayurveda recommends it for Pitta and Vata.
Step #3: Get Cooking!
The best way to start incorporating these new foods and spices into your diet is to tie on the ‘ol apron on and get to it! Cooking is an empowering skill that, truth be told, is quite a spiritual practice.
When I left for college I could barely boil water so it was no surprise that “Easy Mac” (microwaveable Mac N’ Cheese) became a staple of mine. It should be no surprise either, then, that the “Freshman 15” found its way quite easily onto my waist line.
So, I’ve been there and I get it if cooking is just not your thing and you have a hard time imagining doing much more than popping the frozen dinner into the microwave and pressing the “3-minute express cook” button.
That said, you’re obviously reading this because you are ready to make some changes and serve up a little more health into your life.
So, here is how you start…
First, don’t bite off more than you can chew. Start with a straight-forward recipe- one that has only a few ingredients, minimal prep, and seems pretty do-able.
Second, pump yourself up, but have a back-up plan up your sleeve. Cook with reckless abandon knowing that if it ends up looking, smelling, and tasting like something even the dog would refuse, you have that frozen vegetable stir-fry just in case.
Third, have fun with it– explore the textures of the vegetables and beans, the aromas of the seeds as they start to pop in the pan, and the colors of the natural bounty as it comes together though the work of your hands and heart. Cook with music, dance in the kitchen, and sing into your microphone that doubles as a wooden cooking spoon. It’s your time to revel in the newness of bringing fresh food into your life.
Most importantly, no matter how it turns out, recognize that it’s a journey—Julia Child didn’t become a chef overnight and neither will you… take your time and pat yourself on the back for getting out there, starting simple, yet dreaming big. Your vision of cooking healthy, nourishing Ayurvedic meals will soon become a reality.
That’s it for The Ayurvedic Pantry— things get a bit more specific when we look closer at your dosha and what foods will serve you best. If you haven’t taken the quiz yet, head on over to the Dosha Quiz to give yourself this extra edge on your health and wellness.
Peace and prana,