Having spent the past decade steadily accruing a vast cookbook library, I’ve lovingly amassed quite a noble pile of Monisha Bharadwaj’s food writing, ‘The Indian Kitchen’ playing the role of the Rosetta Stone every time I chanced upon yet another esoteric Indian ingredient. With Monisha’s guiding hand virtually navigating me through many a culinary epiphany, the opportunity to have her do so in reality was irresistible.
So when I cast a beady eye over her programme of edible lectures at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, I knew I had to get in there. Each event in the series of evening workshops includes a talk, a cookery demo, and a shared meal, all for free. Free! Apt, perhaps, since SOAS’ events are most often simply priceless. And oversubscribed – this time round, 120 disappointed souls didn’t make the cut.
‘The Six Tastes of Ayurveda’ is the theme for the evening I squeezed into – an intro to a fascinating, intriguing system, whatever your own beliefs on the topic may be. This was second time lucky for me, having already lost out on the ‘Food in Hindu Sacrements’ class last month. We begin with a few nibbles – curry leaves, honey, amla supari, tea, and nuggets of fresh ginger. A novel take on the usual welcome snacks, the ‘tube-of-Pringles-and-dip-trio’, maybe?
No – this is simply an exercise in taste attribution. Beyond the Western ‘sweet, salty, sour, bitter’, Ayurveda recognises ‘pungent’ and ‘astringent’ – think ginger for the former and tannic tea for the latter. The various tastes are thought to inflame or subdue elements of the body’s humours, influencing physical and psychological wellbeing, and even mood. All sound a bit new-age? Not a bit of it – Ayurveda is steeped in history and, as Monisha says, much of it is simply common sense.
Although dubbed a form of ‘alternative medicine’ in the West when it found popularity during the 1960s, Ayurveda dates back thousands of years, and is still practiced in some form by up to 80% of Indians in the subcontinent. Actually, many Brits unwittingly try to put many of the principles into action on a daily basis – sitting down to eat, trying to eat a balanced and varied diet – and, when we do manage to do so, end up feeling rather the better for it.
Without getting too technical, Vedic teaching speaks of three states of being, or ‘doshas’ – Kapha, Pitta and Vata. Although each can be characterised by various symptoms and responses, most of us are a mixture of all three types, and our bodies are in a constant state of flux depending on factors like stress, time of year, or even the season. The trick with Ayurvedic eating is to use diet to tame the doshas and keep all three in healthy balance.
That makes the thali a perfect Vedic meal. Most foodstuffs are mixtures of the six tastes recognised by Ayurveda and, as Monisha cooks rice, cabbage thoran and palak dal, she asks us to consider the tastes in each individual ingredient and how the flavours will balance across our dinner. My personal preference is towards sweetness (being far more amenable to being thus described as in terms of a ‘sour’ or ‘bitter’ demeanor!), but tonight I will indeed aim for harmony.
Following an Ayurvedic diet also means moderation in portion size – bad news for a greedy soul like me. It’s pretty difficult to exercise restraint when we’re invited to dish ourselves up a plateful, and I’d say mine was certainly a ‘healthy’ size, albeit comprised of very healthy food. From the left side moving clockwise, our thali features sweet chutney, achar, salt, rice and dal, and the thoran. We tuck in, mixing our own opinions and thoughts as enthusiastically as the food.
A couple of hours is barely enough to nibble the edges of a fascinating foodie topic, let alone sate the appetite. But a taster session can certainly awaken a raging hunger for knowledge. After this one, mine burns as fiercely as a well-fanned ugni – the digestive fire whose presence is so crucial to a successful Ayurvedic diet. My burning drive for Indian food knowledge was already well and truly ignited – and Monisha’s workshop has only served to fan the flames. Get on that waiting list.
- For more on appreciating bitterness in Indian food, click here
- For more on the ongoing programme of events at the School of Oriental & African Studies, click here
- For further information on Monisha Bharadwaj, click here