Ayurveda and Fermented Foods
Ayurveda, and probably every kitchen wife in before the industrial revolution, knew the benefits of homemade ferments. Because they were an essential tool to make food last. The vaidyas of yore noticed that fermented foods enkindle agni – the power of digestion.
I remember reading Dr. Robert Svoboda's Aghora series a decade ago. In it he tells a story of his guru, Tantric adept Aghori Vimalananda, teaching him about the 5 elements. His guru tells him to worship the 5 elements… but if he has to choose one, to choose fire. That is the teaching of agni in Ayurveda.
If your is strong and balanced… you have an opportunity to thrive. If you're not digesting well… you'll develop ama, or gut inflammation and toxic residue from undigested unabsorbed foods and that will slowly sink your ship. Fermented foods contain living bacteria that digest ama and replenish enzymes – which create functional agni.
Pathologically enough, in Ayurveda school I didn't learn how to ferment vegetables. I learned intellectually the benefits of adding yogurt to cooked foods meals. But, it was just intellectual and I didn't get my hands bio-enzymatically engaged and learn how the power of agni is in my own cabbage-squeezing hands. (In the Living Ayurveda Course I fill in this missing education).
After a few years in my Ayurvedic practice I went to India for 3 months to see what I could learn. During that time I completed Dr. Lad's Gurukula program in Ayurvedic practice, I spent a few weeks at Krishnamacharya's YogaMandiram chanting, I sat a Goenke Vipassana Retreat, and I studied Pancha Karma in Kerala. A day didn't go by that I wasn't served small batch fermented foods.
Indian food is fermented
For breakfast I'd have idli – a fermented lentil and rice cake. Idli is served with chutney, which is also traditionally a fermented food. For lunch I'd have the local thali – or one plate meal that has 10 different things on it, based on rice, sambar (a loose dhal), and vegetables. Thalis always include a few fermented foods – namely a yogurt sauce and fermented vegetable and fermented fruit relishes. Dinner may be a dosa, stuffed with potatoes and chutneys. Dosas, like idli's take rice and beans and ferment them for digestibility.
This explains why people in India have better (more diverse) gut bacteria than us wealthier Westerners. We simply outsourced our food creation to the extent that we lost most of the good bacteria in our diet.
“More (gut microbial) diversity is probably better than less, because a diverse ecosystem is generally more resilient — and diversity in the Western gut is significantly lower than in other, less-industrialized populations.” Michael Pollan, New York Times May 15 2013 (Bold added because I know my readers scan).
As Westerners we have outsourced and outsmarted ourselves once again in our exploitation of convenience, mass production, and centralized food production.
Ayurvedic Eating 101
When we have clients or students who are new to Ayurveda we often teach them to eat a doshic diet first. Instead of teaching their clients how to eat seasonally and teach them basic kitchen skills like sprouting and fermentation… we give them a print out of a “doshically appropriate” diet. Pittas need to drop the wine, the hot sauce, the chocolate and the coffee. Vatas need to cut out chips, salads and coffee. Kaphas need to get over their comfort foods.
This is helpful, but not as helpful as it could be. And it's definitely not capturing the essence of Ayurveda. Ayurveda teaches practitioners to prioritize the most helpful remedies and to uproot problems at their source. If a whole family needs to up their gut bacteria – and they have different constitutions, focusing on constitutions is going to make the mother who is trying to feed her family neurotic… without touching the root of the problem.
If we're going to help our clients where they need it most, we need to really get that Agni is king… and that agni is fed by small batch biodiverse fermented foods.
Most people get off track when they are prescribed an “Ayurvedic Diet” without the larger context of understanding that nourishes their agni. This may be because most Ayurvedic practitioners don't make their own locally grown fermented foods.
Bringing Fermented Foods into Practical Modern Ayurveda
As Ayurveda merges with the western world – we need to be aware that most westerners have a lack of diversity in the microbiome. Many of my students before working with me were taking probiotic supplements and enzymes to deal with their poor digestion.
While a doshically-appropriate diet will help, my sense is that a local and seasonal diet with homemade fermented foods will help a lot more. We need to teach our clients and students to make their very own fermented foods… just like we teach them to rub oil on their very own bodies. Yes, it takes time… as good things with multiple side-benefits often do. Dr. Claudia – do you think squeezing cabbage increases serotonin or oxytocin like petting a cat or kneading bread? It just might….
If you're psyched to become a fermentation revivalist or simply make some sauerkraut – start today. It's a ridiculously simple and inexpensive hands-on kitchen skill to up your immune function, your digestion and your thrive. And check out my interview with Fermentation Revivalist Sandor Katz. He'll get you massaging your cabbage in no time.