If you're not one to jump on food-related bandwagons like Dry January and Whole30, join the club. But it's my belief in balance over deprivation that has led me to instead start my year off by following an Ayurvedic diet, which is not only the ultimate detox, but also a nutritional balancing act. "An Ayurvedic diet is a lifestyle that is both intricate and simple at the same time," says Raj Barker, a certified holistic nutritionist, yoga teacher, and The Class by Taryn Toomey instructor. "It sees food as energy. Everything you eat will either build or deplete your energy."
With the balancing of our core energies (doshas) and digestive well-being at the forefront of the practice, an Ayurvedic diet consists of six tastes (rasas)—sweet (pumpkin, rice), sour (fermented foods, tamarind), salty (sea and Himalayan salt), pungent (ginger, hot peppers), bitter (collard greens, turmeric), and astringent (cranberries, lentils)—each of which plays an essential function in our physical and mental health. When all are combined together, this nutrient-rich diet can not only improve the digestive function of the body and leave you satisfied (no late-night munchies), but create an overall balance, repair ailments, and even prevent serious diseases.
It's that repairing power of the foods that leads many to follow Ayurveda, especially after the gluttonous holidays. Add to that seasonal eating, the other major component of the food plan, and it's easy to see how people are attracted to the practice as a means to restore their bodies and minds without seriously restricting themselves. "If you follow an Ayurvedic lifestyle, you naturally work more closely with the seasons and therefore with the cycle of nature," Barker says. "By doing this, you bring yourself into a balanced state. Side effects include but aren't limited to a deeper connection to self, clarity, better sleep cycles, stabilized moods, and feeling grounded and supported."
While the appeal is there, cooking following Ayurvedic practices is not as straight-forward as one might think, though, given the endless possibilities of ingredient combinations (a fact I can attest to given my own experience in giving up the practice a few weeks in). But never fear, because this challenging aspect of the practice is why Cook Space, our favorite culinary studio in Brooklyn, teamed up with Barker to offer an Ayurvedic cooking class. And good thing—the first class was so popular it quickly sold out, prompting the cooking studio to add another one to this month's lineup (and proving my point that people want to know more).
"One of the intentions behind Cook Space is about cooking as a mindful activity as well as helping our students to develop and create their own relationship with food and cooking," says Michelle Mannix, who founded Cook Space as a non-traditional, hands-on cooking school. Having met Barker when she was her instructor at The Class, Mannix, blown away by both the practice and Barker's way of bringing it to life, wanted her to teach a cooking class at Cook Space before construction of the space had even begun. "It was always my desire to offer a wide range of classes and to also have classes for cuisines and styles of cooking that lean 'healthier' and more holistic," she says. In addition to the Ayurvedic sessions with Barker, Cook Space also offers "Whole30: A Week's Worth of Meals" and "Healing with Tea" classes this month.
If you're familiar with Ayurvedic beauty practices, you'll recognize some ingredients like rosewater, which enhances digestive fire, balances hormones, and improves the glow and complexion of the skin, and sesame (seeds and oil), which supports a healthy digestive tract and contributes to a better nervous system. Some others include honey (fosters lung health), chili (fights free radicals and supports respiratory system), and apple cider vinegar (boosts immune system). For kitchari, the dish that Barker and Cook Space culinary director, Nini Nguyen, will be making during their January 31 class and that we show how to create below, Barker lists the following benefits:
- Ghee (clarified butter): Helps sustain healthy microbes in the gastrointestinal tract to promote effective digestion and toxin elimination. It nourishes all the tissues of the body, including the nervous system, translating into calm energy throughout the day.
- Garlic: Antibacterial and immunity-boosting, garlic is an ancient remedy used to aid the body's natural defenses and build strength.
- Onion: Often used on a more medicinal level in the Ayurvedic lifestyle, onion can help purify the blood.
- Spice mix (cardamom, cumin, asafetida, mustard seeds, turmeric, curry leaf, coriander, ginger, nutmeg, fenugreek, salt): This combination can be altered to serve your particular needs. All the spices offer different benefits and flavors. This particular profile delivers a nourishing, grounding overall effect. The spices are anti-inflammatory and soothing to digestion.
- Rice mix (rice, mung beans, lentils): This combination provides your body with a complete protein, meaning you have all nine of the essential amino acids you need from food in one meal. Eating a full protein benefits blood sugar levels and sustains an equilibrium in the body promoting a sense of balance and satiety.
Another bonus of this dish? It can change weekly, depending on the ingredients you use on top of the above base."The beauty of this dish is you can tailor it seasonally and just the way you like. Not a fan of broccoli? Use cauliflower instead. Love potatoes? Throw them in there," says Barker. "It creates variety, too, so every time you make this meal, it can be a little different to the last. The more fresh, seasonal vegetables, the better."
While versatile and diverse in its options, this diet's variety of ingredients and the need to integrate all six tastes into one dish is what also makes some people hesitant to try it. "Dishes generally include an array of spices, flavors, and textures. This can seem complex to many and maybe a little intimidating to recreate, but the dishes are hard to get wrong as the ingredients are flavorful and often simpler than they appear," Barker says. "It's not meant to be overwhelming but rather a way to cultivate mindfulness and connection to our meals. This lifestyle has a strong affinity with rituals, so you will find that after a few practices, preparing the meals is quite ritualistic and meditative. Like all things, it's about taking the first step and just trusting the process."To take that first step, watch Barker and Nguyen prepare the kitchari in the video, below.
Now that you're done, get the recipe for it, plus two more Ayurvedic dishes, in the gallery below.
Ingredients (serves four):
- 2 tbsp ghee
- ½ yellow onion, diced
- 2 tsp of fresh ginger, finely chopped
- 3 cloves of fresh garlic
- 4 tsp kitchari spice mix
- 2 tsp salt
- 1 head broccoli florets, chopped
- ½ tomato skinned and diced (score an X on the bottom of a tomato and place it in boiling water for 5 minutes for the skin to peel off easily)
- 1 smallish sweet potato or 2 small wax potatoes, diced
- 2 cups of kitchari rice mix
- 4 cups of water
- 3 handfuls of baby spinach
- In a pot that is fitted with a lid, melt the ghee on medium-high heat.
- Sautee the onion, ginger, and garlic until fragrant. Add in the spice mix and salt to toast the spices, add a few tablespoons of water to stop the mix from burning. Saute in the ghee on low for about 2 minutes.
- Add the tomato and saute for a few minutes.
- Add in the broccoli, tomato, sweet potato and rice mix. Mix around to toast the rice and lentils. Add the water and bring the mixture to a boil.
- Once boiling, cover and cook on low for about 20 minutes. It is key not to open the lid as it will release the steam and slow down cooking.
- After 20 minutes, turn the stove off and let it steam for another 10 minutes. Stir in the spinach, let wilt, and add salt and pepper to taste.