Background Image

Ayurveda and a Sustainably Healthy Kitchen

Sustainable Health Nutshell: For the healthiest kitchen (and fewer doctor visits this winter!), cook according to the season’s available produce and Ayurvedic time of year, use spices and recipes to correct your individual imbalances and constitution, and use only select animal products with as much local organic produce as you can. Enjoy nourishing yourself! :)

A new acquaintance expressed skepticism about my “Ayurvedic Nutrition and Cooking Classes” (although he offered his work space as a possible venue!), based on his past experience with being told he needed to learn Indian cooking to understand Ayurveda. It was fun to explain the truth- all cooking is Ayurvedic, just like all of everything is Ayurvedic! The idea is, since Ayurveda is based in principles with quantum physics correlations, everything really is ‘Ayurvedic,’ but the knowledge is useful in that it recognizes ways to positively create health as well as things that can block energy and flow and cause less constructive energies to accumulate and become out of balance.

The most important basic principles are the ‘qualities’ of things. Qualities like heavy/light, dry/moist, cold/hot. Qualities like those are found in everything, but for right now we’re just focusing on food, as well as how it relates to our own imbalances, which can be described with those qualities also. The following is an over-simplified series of examples, but will help you get a feel for this: Say you tend towards intensity, focus, and have fast efficient digestion- you might have more of the heat quality in your constitution (Pitta). In excess/imbalance, this could tend towards irritability, heartburn, diarrhea, or high blood pressure. So avoiding foods that are hot, oily (fuel to the fire!), and overly light (think kindling instead of logs on the fire) would be helpful. If you tend toward extremely regular digestion, are strong and solid, and are dependably careful in decision making, those are cool, earthy qualities (Kapha). In excess that may show up as holding onto weight, indecision, or inertia. Avoiding heavy cold foods and making sure the internal fire is working well (exercise) are helpful to balance those issues. Next, if you tend to get excited about many things, are good at multitasking, tend towards irregular schedules and enjoy lots of variety, those are airy-light qualities, and like air/space, changeable and ethereal (Vata). In imbalance, that can lead to anxiety, lack of focus, forgetting to eat, and a tendency towards colds and flus. This is the most common imbalance encouraged by our high-speed, high-tech culture. To balance this, too much very light or very heavy hard to digest food is avoided, favoring warm, moist, grounding foods at regular times.

As we slide into Autumn, those types of Vata-balancing foods (warm, moist, grounding, and simple) are also suggested since Autumn is considered a Vata time of year and changes of season tend to aggravate those types of imbalances. Now, to address the reason for this post directly- every single food has qualities, whether you eat Indian style, Mexican style, Greek style, Polish style, etc. Each style of cuisine favors a predominance of certain qualities of food (i.e. butter in French cooking- very heavy and cold, so would aggravate Kapha imbalances), but every single kind can be modified to accommodate different grains, different main vegetables, or different spice proportions, and every single kind can be made with minimal animal products, and overheating oils is harmful no matter what you’re frying or sauteing or baking or roasting.

[Ok, except say Bushmen in Africa, or Eskimos, or Mongolian Steppe people… so if you move/rebuild your yurt often and move with herds or need to survive -100 degree wind chill and 6 months of hard winter, different rules clearly apply to you. These suggestions are for people that are privileged enough to be able choose our style of everything… to be ‘sensitive to gluten’ and have alternatives or to be ‘vegan’ purely by choice or to think the ‘paleo diet’ is worth trying out- those options are SUCH a gift.]

Back to topic: let me give a list of simple things to remember that can get you started-first a few basic foods, then spices: Beans are ‘light and dry’ which means to balance them they need to be soaked and cooked very well and warming spices like cumin added to help digest them. Vegetables like tomatoes (especially paste), peppers and eggplant are ‘hot.’ Squashes, asparagus, okra, and cucumber are ‘moist and cool’. Rice is ‘light and cool’, wheat is ‘heavy and cool’, millet and rye are ‘very light’, oats are ‘medium light/heavy’. Soy is ‘heavy and cool’, much like meat but less potential for toxicity since it’s plant protein, but still can be clogging in excess. Fruit is generally ‘cool’, so add spices and cook fruits in the mornings and evenings, soak dried fruits, and in the special case of melons, “eat them alone or leave them alone!” Bananas in particular are very ‘heavy, sweet and cooling’, so unless it’s super hot out they’re best to avoid (from an environmental perspective also a good idea). Olive oil is ‘cool and light’ (for an oil), ghee is ‘cool and heavy’, sesame oil is ‘hot’, and coconut oil is very ‘heavy and cold’.

Here are tastes and qualities a few common spices, but keep in mind most have more than one quality, these are just the obvious main ones to guide your food balancing- spices can change the entire balance of a meal instantly so using spices for your imbalance is a quick way to personalize your food if you need to cook for more than one person: Pungent/hot= cayenne, cloves, turmeric, cumin, oregano, black pepper, ginger, fenugreek, mustard, cinnamon, tulsi/basil. Astringent or Bitter/cool= cilantro, coriander, sage, rosemary, pomegranate, coffee. Sweet/cool= fennel, cardamom, anise, cinnamon. Salt is considered hot.

So that should start you off! Check out what I made for lunch today below- it was on the ‘hot’ side spices wise, but pretty balanced on the whole. Try different combinations for yourself and see if you can become aware of how your body reacts differently- that can point you towards your imbalance tendencies and can head them off before they begin to cause symptoms! Pick vegetables are in season- even if they aren’t quite local, and see how your body reacts differently. Becoming more in tune with your own nature and with the environment around you will help prevent and correct imbalances, and can be delicious!

Lunch today= cleaning out the fridge and counter before the farmer’s market today at Harding School (~1 and a half servings, which I unfortunately ate all of- #notthebestchoice): rice noodles with cottage cheese (= easy-to-digest ‘fettucine alfredo’) with sauteed veggie sauce: olive oil, fennel seeds, turmeric, sage, oregano, rosemary, black pepper, a bit of water, 1/3 onion (from my friend Johanna’s Finley Farms), a small japanese eggplant (from my friend Carla’s backyard), half a giant heirloom tomato and arugula and basil (from The Garden Of…), and a few leftover marinated artichokes, topped with some shredded parmesan cheese. Delicious, super filling, good because I ate the cold/ heavy cheese at mid-day, and the doshic balance was mostly even: nightshades, onion, and vinegar (in the artichokes) is heating/Pitta-aggravating, but it was balanced by the bitter greens (bitter is cooling) and noodles with fresh cheese (those two also grounded Vata along with the warm temperature) and the overall lightness and warmness and spices were good for Kapha. However it balanced out it was pretty darn good. Try that or variations and let me know what you think and how your body responds to different combinations of foods!

Eggplant, Aubergine, Melongene, Brinjal, or Guinea Squash? Yes, please!

Sustainable health nutshell: try our eggplant recipe! Yep. That’s it. Really. Well, and of course buy your eggplant from your closest organic/sustainable farmer or grow it in your backyard! And I know the other things in the recipe could be more local and environmentally friendly, so maybe ya’ll can suggest recipe alternatives to make it all local? It’s just so good I had to share!

So the reason for this post is silly. The other night, Szilvia and I found ourselves hungry after a clinical workshop day, and with sketchy beets and and oldish cabbage in the fridge, as well as some unappealing leftover rice, we weren’t super inspired to make something with what was available. Giving in to caprice, and spoiled by the Thai and Indian food we’d all had lately during the workshop week, we headed to the nearest store (since unfortunately it was the ONLY non-farmer’s market day in SB), and for some reason I thought the eggplant looked particularly appetizing. We picked up some other things that sort of randomly occurred to us… and came up with the wickedly delicious recipe below. And it was so crazy good, I’ve been telling the Edible Santa Barbara folks I ran into again at the market at Harding School market today, the farmer’s market guy where I got new eggplant (the picture below) this afternoon, and pretty much anyone who will listen. :) Including you!!

Now, many many people have asked me what on earth to do with eggplant. In the U.S. few people do it well, and most people have no idea how to cook it and have terrible memories of eating it when it isn’t cooked well. I’m lucky- although I never had it growing up in a largely German-style and processed food household, I enjoyed it first during college at a close friend’s house and helped cut it up and cook it into a simple and healthy eggplant parmesan/lasagna-style baked dish so it was no longer such a strange and oddly-textured purple mystery.

During residency, my favorite recipe was a peanut-curry version a friend’s mom left in his freezer periodically, and more recently I can’t not seem to order eggplant parmesan from my favorite Italian restaurant from my favorite place in Santa Ynez (anyone else love that at Grappolo?)

eggplant and basil

But, as much as I do love eggplant, after dinner the other night, I pretty much have thought about it non-stop. I may have even dreamed about it, and am definitely going to make it again in the next day or two, since I bought new eggplants from Ellwood Canyon Farms today, along with their basil and some other veggies I think may go well… I have to admit that without Szilvia’s added cooking expertise tomorrow’s may not have the infused love and beauty that she puts into her food… but I’m definitely going to give it a shot. And honestly, putting coconut milk and cashews into anything tastes amazing! So I don’t think anyone can go wrong with this recipe, including me on my own! (oh, and remember the spice measurements are approximate- add things to your taste!) Anyway, I suggest you try the idea below, or when the long skinny Japanese eggplants come out later in the summer, cut them lengthwise, marinate them in something gingery and tamari-y and stick them on the grill. Amazingly delicious, super easy, and you’ll support your local farmer at the same time. Vive la aubergine!

Epic Eggplant Curry:

First, make rice you’ll put this smooshy mess over. Then start with extra virgin olive oil. Warm it over medium heat with 1-2 dried chopped red chili peppers (depending on your spice tolerance of course), a generous amount fresh grated ginger (1 Tbsp), salt (1 tsp +), black pepper (1/2 tsp), ground fennel, turmeric, and coriander (1 tsp each), and cumin seeds (1 tsp), until the spices begin to look bubbly but aren’t smoking (remember the oxidation and oil thing? Keep the temp low people!).

Add 2 medium/large eggplants that have been cut into 1/2 in or smaller cubes, toss with the spices and oil, add a cup or so of filtered water, and cover to steam until the eggplant pieces are soft and translucent.

While they steam, in a separate saucepan warm and whisk together about 1/3 cup of homemade cashew butter, a can of organic coconut milk, and about 4 big stems of fresh basil (chopped or just put the leaves in whole like we did- it’d be maybe a cup of loose fresh basil leaves).

Check the eggplant- when it’s soft, uncover and let any excess water steam off. Add the warm sauce, stir, and allow to simmer and cook down for a few minutes. Infuse with a large dose of love. We simmered it until we couldn’t stand waiting and wanted to eat. :) Ladle over rice and bask in the amazingness. Eat with a ridiculous amount of steamed artichokes with sour cream sauce or your favorite green veg if you want to more closely imitate our random meal. Share with whoever stops by. And love your friendly neighborhood nightshade!

(p.s. from a personal health and Ayurvedic perspective, maybe only eat this once in a while if you have issues with spices, are very Pitta in nature or imbalance, or have raging allergies. I have all of those. And am ecstatic that I ate it and will again tomorrow. So, whatever, see what you think!)

Which came first?

Who cares?! Eggs are yummy! :) But seriously…

First, the Sustainable Health Nutshell: If you don’t have chickens of your own, find a neighbor or farmer close by who does. Make sure they pasture-raise them, and use organic feed if they purchase it elsewhere! Eat them fresh and not cooked at hotter temperatures than 220 degrees. {And if you’re willing to take some Ayurvedic advice, try not to mix them with milk, potatoes, or fruit- this may help your symptoms if you have food sensitivities, problems losing weight, or skin issues…**}

So, are eggs good for you or not? It depends, but in moderation, yes! Eggs have a lovely balance of concentrated nutrition that would end up being an entire baby chick if it was allowed- which means lots of perfectly balanced protein, fats (including cholesterol for brain development), minerals, and vitamins like B12 (necessary for those who don’t eat meat). The fats include Omega-3s (higher percentages in chickens allowed to pasture graze), but also 70% of the RDA of cholesterol… which means it has only 70% of what you need to eat in a day to be healthy- so if you eat a very healthy diet otherwise with little cholesterol, that’s fantastic and you can have two! :) But if your diet includes many other sources of fats, eating many eggs in addition certainly gives you an excess. [My cholesterol post debunks a few myths about cholesterol, which by itself isn’t really the problem, and egg cooking tips are in the last paragraph here- the point is moderation is the key regardless of what you do!]

The other issue many people don’t always connect with animal raising is antibiotic resistance. Overuse of antibiotics in people creates some resistance, but the continual use in animal feed has escalated the problem exponentially. The first resistant bacteria in our valley seen by the other doctor I work with was around 10 years ago. He noticed the patient’s resistance profile happened to be exactly the same as the list of antibiotics in the widely-used brand of non-organic chicken feed he was forced to buy that week when the small local feed store ran out of the organic version that only he and one other valley resident requested… The CDC has a great summary here of why one particular bacteria has become resistant, and the same applies to hemorrhagic e. coli, MRSA, and VRE… And thank goodness, a recent bill proposed would make the FDA ban the use of antibiotics in animals that are not sick (yikes that that’s necessary)! Organic feed and pasture for your chickens ensures no antibiotics are snuck in so the animals don’t develop resistant bacteria and pass it onto you, through themselves or in and on their eggs!

Now, how do you find great eggs? Supermarket eggs may be a bit confusing with all the green-washing, so look for the words “pasture-raised,” organic or sustainable, and go to the websites of the companies to see how they treat their chickens. Roaming chickens that get to eat bugs and grass in addition to grain-based feed have a much better nutrition profile, brighter yolks, and thicker stronger shells, which gives you a nice solid physical idea of how much better they are for you. Farmers markets usually have someone who is selling their eggs, so that’s even better because you can ask them in person! If you’d like to try your hand, check out Dare 2 Dream Farms (and buy their eggs if you live near the co-op in Isla Vista or near New Frontiers market in Solvang)! They have a great website that explains several different breeds of chickens if you’re wondering what type to keep for yourself, or if you wonder what types lay what colors and sizes of eggs! Personally I think I’d try the Russian Orloffs if I lived in a cold place (plus they’re endangered so breeding them is cool :) ), and Brahmas for this part of Cali… friendly and happy to be in a little yard sounds good for a first go at keeping chickens. Check that same site for tips on what exactly you need and how to do it (‘care guide’). Oh, and you don’t need a rooster to get your hens to lay (good news since those guys can be feisty and loud… think Kauai)- you only need one if you would like to breed or need your hens protected.

Eggs are a high-energy food, and should be treated as such. Eating just a few, only when you need the nourishment, and cooking them properly are key. My favorite way is to make a quick 20 second tarka of a little warmed olive oil and spices (including turmeric to help digest the cholesterol), add the egg, then put a little water around the edge of the egg, and cover the frying pan with a lid to lightly poach it. I cook them until the white is done and the water just steams off so the eggs don’t get too hot and oxidize the cholesterol, and I generally serve them over veggies I cooked in the same pan (not a dishes fan!). The temperature issue means that using egg substitutes (heated and processed), buying packaged foods with egg proteins added (usually heated to very high temperatures to make a powder that is added for texture or protein), and eating lots of baked goods with eggs in them isn’t such a great idea. Mindfulness + moderation= healthier you and healthier planet. :)


**Ayurvedic tip: Improper food combining can contribute to poor digestion and buildup of ama or toxins that can lead to health problems. Some of the most common symptoms of poor digestion in the US are experienced as food sensitivities and skin problems… eggs are very rich and full of prana/energy, so they are particularly prone to making things difficult for a stressed digestive system if not eaten mindfully, hence the advice above :) Questions? Add a comment or send an email! ;)

Cholesterol: the myths, the truths, the eco-info :)

Sustainable Health Nutshell: use Unrefined Local-as-possible Organic-as-possible olive oil or ghee (clarified butter) for cooking, and add water to your cooking- especially roasting or sauteeing, so the oil you use and the food itself stays below 250 degrees and is therefore less likely to become oxidized and contribute to artery damage and cholesterol plaque buildup (cooking tip: let the 1/4 c or so of water boil off and remove from heat just after to retain the good flavors from the oil and spices you used too!). Avoiding refined and non-organic oils and high temperature cooking (including most processed food) helps save your health and the planet’s at the same time! Read on for the details! :)

Here’s a quick review of the basic info western medicine has to offer. Cholesterol is necessary for life (brain cell development, hormone construction, bile acids, cell walls, etc), but in above-average amounts cholesterol is correlated with heart disease, ‘fatty liver’ disease, and more. Stiff plaques are found in arteries of patients with heart disease and angina, strokes, claudication and certain types of kidney disease. Then there’s the breakdown of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol and triglycerides… We are taught by doctors, the government health agencies, and pharmaceutical companies that if we just lower the bad numbers and increase the good numbers with ‘lifestyle modification’ or drugs (like aspirin and simvastatin), we won’t get those diseases listed above. Well, we might not get them. Well, we might be less likely to get them. Sometimes. Depending on other risk factors. So, no, it’s not a sure thing. Not at all, actually.

Aspirin and Statins both help decrease inflammation in vessel walls that is the main cause of cholesterol plaques first sticking, then growing, then breaking off and clogging a downstream artery with blood clots that tried to repair the damage, thus killing the downstream tissue (this is what’s known as a heart attack). But what causes the inflammation in the first place? Tissue damage (from wear and tear, stress, infection, free radicals, etc) causes the blood vessel wall to send out inflammatory markers, which causes immune cells to come repair the damage. The cholesterol there gets eaten like the rest of the debris from the damage in a regulated manner by the white blood cells. However, if the cholesterol is oxidized the macrophages can’t regulate their uptake, become over-stuffed “foam cells,” and die, leaving an icky yellow streak on the wall of the damaged vessel, and releasing their insides that further break down the vessel wall, causing a thicker scar or ‘atheroma.’ The picture on the previous link gives you an idea of how this can block flow and you can imagine what happens if it gets too big or a piece breaks off and flows down to a thinner part of the artery. Yuck.

Oxidization and free radicals seem to be big keys in all kinds of inflammation (stress-induced, infection, auto-immune, etc). Free radicals are caused by many many things (including our own normally functioning cells), and are typically taken care of by our bodies and are not an issue unless the amount overwhelms our normal processes. Leaving infection and stress aside for the moment, what are our biggest sources of oxidized cholesterol we put into our bodies? Refined foods (that contain oils including trans fats, dairy, or other animal protein processed at high temperatures), charred food (yes, grilled meat… it’s burnt, and the carbohydrates turn to burnt sugar + fat = caramel= yum!= ama/toxins), and oils/fats cooked to high temperature. So what to do? The simplest thing is to stop intaking so much oxidized cholesterol- your body has enough free radicals all by itself to deal with without you overwhelming it. Then there is eating more vegetables, stress-reduction, exercise… today’s post is focusing on oil, though, so here’s the last puzzle piece for making real changes: Cook with water! Anti-climactic, I realize. But by simply adding water to cooking, for example in roasting pans, eggs (poaching), and to stir-fry cooking, you can help prevent the food and oil from overheating and oxidizing and overloading your immune system with extra free radicals.

Yay! But we’re not done. There is actually another piece. This blog is about the environment as well (and yes, you can use used cooking oil for biodiesel, but really we shouldn’t be frying often for the above reasons…), so the type of oil you choose to use, and the type of fats you eat in general are as important as how you use them. Fat is amazing stuff. It holds onto fat-soluble things- like hormones (PCOS and type 2 diabetes), and vitamins, but also things like pesticides. It also tends to concentrate and hold on to those things for a very long time.

So first, imagine a large animal (like a cow) eating a huge amount of non-organic corn, storing all that pesticide residue in its fat (which is mostly of the less healthy types Omega-6 and -9, and which it has more of than normal since cows weren’t built to eat so much carbohydrate at a time, much like people!)… and if you eat a piece of that well-marbled cow’s muscle, including the fat that’s been further oxidized and likely charred on that grill… It’s not so great for your arteries. Food for thought. But what about vegetable oils? Aren’t those “good for you?”

Imagine a field of, say, rapeseed (which originally was too toxic for human consumption until bred out to be lower in acid), even possibly “M” company’s Canadian GMO rapeseed (called ‘canola‘ which rhymes with granola, and sounds quite healthy!). Maybe the field was sprayed with pesticides. The seeds were harvested, cooked to crack the seeds, then pressed, creating more heat, to squeeze more oil out. If it was to be “refined,” then gasoline (hexane or heptane) was put on it to get the rest of the oil out of the seeds. It was then heated again to boil off the gasoline, then heated with phosphoric acid and water to ‘de-gum’ it, and then it was refined with sodium hydroxide (yep, drain cleaner!). Wow. Ok, still not done- in order to bleach it, it was passed through acid which creates peroxides, and finally to deodorize all the oxidization, it was steam distilled up to 518 degrees. Talk about high temperatures. Ew.

So, no, all vegetable oils aren’t necessarily good for you. Basically I’d like you to think about this when you’re choosing what to put in your body- think about not only the potential damage to arteries, but also the pesticides and potential GMO issues in crops used for both animal feed and cooking oil production (corn, soy, and other vegetable oils), and, of course, the petroleum used to bring that oil to you (in the fertilizer of non-organic crops, moving animals around and processing them, and flying the oil to you,… even EVOO from Italy. Jet fuel isn’t so good for the environment either and we have delicious olives right here in California! Arguably still far from, say, Maine… but I’m sure you have cows for making butter and ghee closer! :) ).

Slow down, think, and allow yourself and the planet better health with your choices.