Hello readership! Welcome back. I’m glad you’ve returned because things are about to get much yummier after our sadly recipe-free post last week. I promise we are going to get to the promised curry, but first let’s re-hash the ancients.
Last week, with the help of the fabulous Rachel Laudan, I worked on breaking down this giant concept of “culinary philosophy” into three basic tenets.
1. Establishment of a HIERARCHY of foods.
2. Participation in a SACRIFICIAL BARGAIN with the Gods.
3. Engagement with the idea of CULINARY COSMOS
These three tenets appear in a myriad of shapes and forms throughout ancient culinary philosophies, but they are pretty much always there. Today, as an of my Food History project, I’m going to work through #1 via some recipe-testing; the establishment o f a hierarchy of foods as seen through curry.
Hierarchy – what does this word mean in the context of ancient culinary philosophy? Quite simply, the hierarchy of foods tells us that we all have a certain place in the universe and that we should eat according to that place. Laudan states:
“The healthiest place to be was where you were born, where your humors and the fluids circulating through the universe were in harmony.” (50)
But what does she mean by “where you were born?” I was born in Chicago. Does Illinois define my ideal diet? Not exactly. Remember that the ancient conception of “the universe” is different than ours. Using this framework, the universe is fixed and finite and pretty much always made up of 3 to 5 basic elements. Think along the lines of fire, water, wood, air, iron, or maybe even the enigmatic “ether” (aka “stuff that allows for the other elements”). Different places are composed of different ratios and so are different people. For many ancient societies (and some contemporary ones!), a person’s elemental composition is determined at birth and that person should live their life (and conduct their diet) according to these proportions. We can think of these as “you are what you eat theories,” or, in more technical terms, “culinary determinism.” You aren’t just what you eat but what you eat makes you what you are and what you are determines what you eat.
This all sounds very “Ancient” indeed, but I can think of at least one long-lasting culinary philosophy that utilizes this sort of thinking; Ayurveda.
In Ayurvedic thinking, different elements correspond to different types of people. Everyone is composed of all five, but in different proportions. These predominating elements are determined at birth and your life-long dietary goal is to eat in balance with your elemental composition. Prakati is the term for your elemental composition at birth and your prakati determines your life-long dosha, or elemental “type.” Emphasis is on the word balance here. It isn’t about eating foods that have the SAME elemental composition, but about eating foods that will BALANCE your composition out. For example, if you’re air, you may need some earth to keep you grounded. The potential elements are as earth, water, fire, air, and ether.
Each dosha is pre-dominated by TWO of these elements. We’ve got Kapha (Earth+Water), Pitta (Fire+Water), and Vata (Air+Ether). These compositions translate into both physical and personality-based traits. Earthy Kapha is of solid build and mind, with a slow and steady temperament. Fiery Pitta is generally intense, sensitive to hunger, sharp-minded and muscular, while airy Vata tends to be on the smaller side, with an energetic, “on-the-go” personality.
These different doshas need different foods to balance out their predominating traits. Thankfully, for clarities sake, Ayurvedic philosophy breaks down food into three broad categories and six specific tastes. We’ve got “hot and fiery” foods (rajasic), “calm and peaceful” foods (sattvic) and “dull and slothful foods” (tamasic). Our taste options are sweet, sour, salty, bitter, astringent, and pungent.
Think about it for a moment, what would you guess each dosha gravitates to? It sounds like a lot of information, but it’s really quite….well, logical. Earthy-watery Kapha needs lighter foods, maybe even something crisp, and does well with pungent tastes. Earth is a bit bland, after all. Fiery Pitta needs something cooling and moist and airy Vata needs “grounding foods;” warm and moist.
With all of this in mind I decided to test some Ayurvedic cooking. Now some quick notes before you start listening to me too much. I am not an expert on Ayurvedic diets. To find my three doshas I subjected a few friends to an online test courtesy of bonyanbotanicals.com. And my recipes, while drawing off certain ancient themes that we have discussed here, are hardly anciently-accurate. I drew inspiration about half and half from a cookbook entitled Ayurvedic Cooking for Westerners by Amadea Morningstar and one of Ayurveda’s most ancient texts concerning dietary theory – The Charaka Samhita.
So I found my three doshas; just a few unsuspecting victims to whom I promised free dinner, and who probably didn’t know that they were going to have to trade their pictures being on the Internet. So Internet, meet my doshas and their respective curries.
(and only participant who didn’t think about what shirt he should wear to this event)
..and Nick (Vata).
I wanted to take a basic dish, or the basic idea of a dish, and serve my doshas three altered versions as it pertained to their ideal Ayurvedic diet. This was A LOT harder than I anticipated, especially when faced with the reconciliation of Morningstar’s cookbook and an awkwardly translated Charaka Samhita. Morningstar does a pretty effective job at simplifying a very complex system, so it was interesting to work with these two texts side-by-side and I highly recommend the experience for anyone interested in working closely with Ayurvedic theory.
While a modern text such as Morningstar’s is more apt to make broad statements (i.e. this taste is good for this type), the Charaka Samhita gets into the nitty gritties. According to section 45, UNRIPE mango increases Vata and Pitta, while RIPE mango pacifies Vata. In section 43 we are told not to eat fish with milk, and that “holy basil” with milk may cause epilepsy. Also, we should only eat with full concentration and happiness (one of my personal favorites). Keeping all this in mind, this is where we landed.
Kapha: An eggplant, potato, and tomato-based curry with lots of onions, garlic, wilted Swiss chard and abundant (cumin, curry powder, cardamom, cinnamon, cayenne, pepper). Eggplant, white potatoes, and any type of greens are considered good, “airier” or “drying” vegetables for Kapha, while tomatoes fit the propensity for astringent taste. Earthy Kapha can handle lots of onions, garlic, and spices, butwas not allowed any salt. Kapha’s vegetables were sautéed in oil, not butter.
Pitta: A coconut-milk based curry with lots of light and cooling spring vegetables; zucchini, corn, green bell peppers, and cooling herbs and spices (mint and basil, cardamom, fennel seed). Milk and dairy are considered good for Pitta because they are wet and cooling, and vegetables were selected for these same properties. Pitta got a very small amount of onions and garlic and a butter-oil mix was used for sautéing.
Vata: A buttery, sweet potato curry; heavy and moist with ginger and warming spices (cumin, ginger, cinnamon). For Vata I used butter instead of oil, but ideally would have used ghee (if the supermarket had it). Ghee (clarified butter) increases digestive fire (without irritating Pitta!) and is considered heavy and warming.
All three doshas had their respective curries served over white rice, which the Charaka Samhita says is the “best” for balance of the three doshas. They were all told they had to eat their own curries first, so that I could gauge their reactions, and then would try the others for comparison. There’s a bit of experimentation bias here since they all knew which curry was respectively “theirs,” but none of the doshas really knew WHY they were supposed to like or not like a dish.
After twenty minutes of everyone politely trying to deny that they disliked anything, the truth came out and it was decided that they all mostly liked their own dish, but not without exception. Airy Nick liked Alex’s Kapha dish best, but found his sweet potato curry the most “satisfying,” while blatantly disliking the cool, coconut milk composition that Stella had been served. Alex liked his most, finding Nick’s dish too dense, presumably for an already “heavy” Kapha. Stella was glad that hers lacked significant spice. She admitted to liking Nick’s flavorful, heavy dish but said it didn’t make her feel particularly good. Additionally, I had some other dinner guests take the quiz AFTER eating all three curries, and deciding which they liked best. They found that they all corresponded to their dosha preferences too. Our Kapha #2, Katie, is pictured at the top of this piece, beaming over the Eggplant-Potato curry that Vata #2, Maggie, declared way too astringent to eat.
Before I give you the recipes, a last question. HOW is this type of hierarchy justified? What reasonings are we given to convince us to actually follow these rules? In the case of Ayurveda, this justification depends on conceptions of health. Laudan states, “food and medicine formed a continuum everywhere in the ancient world,” (52) and indeed Ayurvedic philosophy depends in large part on the implication that to eat in balance is to maintain one’s self. In discussing which foods one should or should not eat, the translation of the Charaka Samhita I utilized used the words “beneficial” and “harmful” and maintained that “there should be a balance in Vata, Pitta, and Kapha for good health” while good health is a cornerstone of happiness (11).
So take the test, make some curry, and embrace your own place in the cosmos. Happy eating!
Eggplant-Potato Curry (KAPHA)
Adapted from Centerpoint Counseling
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne
1 Tablespoon curry powder
1/4 teaspoon cardamon
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
generous pinch of black pepper
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 white onion, diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
2 white potatoes, cubed
1 medium eggplant, cubed
1 pint of cherry tomatoes, halved
1 head of Swiss Chard, shredded
1. Sauté onions and garlic with spices in olive oil at the bottom of a medium stock pot, until softened and aromatic.
2. Add lemon juice, potatoes, eggplant and tomatoes, stirring to coat with spices. Let sauté for about ten minutes.
3. Add 1/2 cup of water to the mix and let it simmer, covered, for 15-20 minutes. Add another 1/2 cup of water and let simmer uncovered for an additional 20-30 minutes, or until it has reached desired consistency. Add more spices if desired – Kapha can handle it. Throw in shredded Swiss Chard at the end and let wilt for about 5 minutes in the curry.
Coconut Milk Curry (PITTA)
Adapted from The Minimalist Baker
Olive Oil + Unsalted butter
1/4 white onion, diced
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon of fennel seed
1/2 teaspoon cardamon
1 zucchini, sliced
1 green bell pepper and 1 red pepper, diced
1 cup of corn
1 14-oz can of coconut milk
1 large handful of fresh basil, shredded
1 large handful of fresh mint, shredded
1. Sauté onion, garlic, and fennel seed in the bottom of a medium stock pot with a large splash of olive oil and a Tablespoon of butter, until softened and aromatic.
2. Add cardamon, sliced zucchini, and diced pepper and continue to sauté until softened. Add corn, coconut milk, and fresh herbs and let simmer, covered, for about 15 minutes.
Sweet Potato Curry (VATA)
Adapted from Centerpoint Counseling
3 Tablespoons of butter
1/2 white onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon freshly minced ginger root
1/4 teaspoon cardamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 Tablespoon curry powder
2 medium sweet potatoes, cubed
1. Soften onion and garlic in butter in a large sauté pan.
2. Add spices and continue sautéing for a few minutes, until aromatic.
3. Add cubed sweet potatoes, stirring to coat with spices and sauté for about five minutes, adding more butter if needed. Add 3/4 of a cup of water and let simmer over low heat until potatoes soften and break apart. Salt and pepper to taste.