A Meal of Blueberries and Ayurveda
Allison Ulan, the founder of Ashtanga Yoga Montreal was kind enough to shatter my presumptions about Ayurvedic food by inviting me to a practice dinner for an Ayurvedic Retreat she will be offering next month. The last thing I thought it would be was seven courses of bread, fish, chicken, maple syrup, peaches, rice, apples, and blueberries.
Quebec goat cheese on Le Fromentier organic walnut bread with maple-caramelized onions, blueberry-maple broiled trout or grilled tofu, and blueberry chutney. It was composed in an assemble-you-own-appetizer kind of way:You could die happy after eating a meal of just this appetizer...
Then, the two soups: Blueberry gazpacho and blueberry cashew soup with mint and yogurtThe two salads: Organic greens with blueberry vinaigrette and carrot salad with dried blueberries (they were separate salads but I think they work well together too)The main course: Blueberry-marinated cajun chicken breasts with blueberry cherry tomato salsa, basmati rice, and green beans with lemonAnd, finally, dessert: Purple Thai maple-coconut rice with blueberry-maple sauce on blueberry honey-cooked peachesDo you sense a theme? Do you also sense that this is very much not vegetarian or Indian, two things I thought had to do with Ayurveda? Do you also think that this would fit right into the menu of one of the many good Quebec restaurants offering table d'hote tasting menus based on seasonal, local ingredients at $60 a person? I'm glad we agree on all these points. And yet, here I was in the home of a yoga instructor learning about where to find local blueberry juice (all over the place, from your neighbourhood health store to weekly farmers' markets, to the Marche des Saveurs du Quebec at marche Jean-Talon) and how to cleanse your body to do the best backbend of your life...
Allison Ulan is the founder of Ashtanga Yoga Montreal but before she taught yoga she had a 20-year dance career. In 1988, after seeing professional dancers incorporating yoga poses into their warm-ups, she figured the two could mix well. Since then she's traveled to India multiple times to study with the founder of Ashtanga, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Allison now teaches regularly and gives workshops on meditation and most recently, Ayurveda.
Lets get the broad definition out of the way: Ayurveda is an Indian form of traditional, natural health care that emphasizes disease prevention rather than the reduction or elimination of symptoms. It's not a quick fix, but more of a process of lifestyle adjustment, the first (and easiest) steps of which involve nutrition and exercise.
Allison credits her years of traveling as a professional dancer for making her very conscious of the healthfulness of what she puts into her body. She also credits the book "Food and Healing" by Annemarie Colbin with unintentionally exposing her to the basics of Ayurveda: "I found it intriguing how she looked at peoples' bodies from an alkaline base and from an acidic base...and she looked at different vegetarian diets, and she looked at cravings....What's intriguing are many of her bases for what she was describing about how to eat differently correlate to different doshic constitutions."
Okay, stop. What's a doshic constitution exactly?
A doshic constitution is your individual body constitution, fixed at birth, and made up of 5 elements - earth, water, fire, air and ether. Your individual constitution can fall into 1 of 3 categories, or doshas: Vata, Pitta and kapha.
"Vata is air. They're usually creative people...they usually have a tendency to be a bit more nervous. They're considered the deer, and so they have a tendency towards anxiety because they're so expansive, because they can move so easily, (but) they can also be pushed so easily. So most artists have vata in them. They usually are the extremes - people that are really tall or really short. They're like the elves or the giants.
Pitta is fire, and they're usually medium-build and quite opinionated, quite heated, they get things done....They're considered the lion of the people and they're great leaders, but they're not the best follow-through because they expect things too fast. So they're good at organizing.
Then there's Kapha, which is the elephant. They're stable - earth and water - and when they're in balance they're all about mediation and facilitation. They want people to get along and things to happen. They connect, but when they're out of balance they stagnate and they can become hedonistic."
There are more than three kinds of people in the world, though, so most often people aren't just vata, pitta or kapha. They mostly but fall somewhere between the three doshas with a strong emphasis on 1 or 2. Rarely someone is tri-doshic, an even combination of all three.
It gets a little more complicated now, since you don't stay exactly the same your whole life. Your balanced constitution fixed at birth is called Prakriti, but based on life circumstance your dosha can vary, so your current constitution, which may be unbalanced, is called your Vrikriti. You can think of the doshas as advanced personality typing, something established long before Myers-Briggs testing. You can find online tests to help determine your doshic constitution, both your Vrikriti and your Prakriti.
I was talking about a meal once. Ayurvedic food doesn't mean vegetarian, it doesn't mean without dairy, and it doesn't mean low-fat. It means eating for your individual constitution and following the seasons of the environment where you live, but it's not just about the food you eat. It's also about how you sleep, when you eat, and when you exercise, and the tenuous balance between all these factors. These are the most easily adjustable elements of Ayurveda. More unhealthy ("unbalanced" or "toxic") people may require more advanced steps and Ayurveda has solutions for those people too. There are herbs, panchakarma cleansing, acupressure massage, yoga, and vedic astrology, and these range from fun to not so fun, especially when you get into the ghee cleanses and slightly more intense detoxes.
The whole point is to restore the balance in your individual constitution based on the belief that the body is self-correcting. According to Ayurveda illness occurs when the mind gets in the way of the body by causing stress and fatigue, and neglecting proper nutrition, so if all you need to get back in balance is better nutrition and relaxation, then that's all Ayurveda will do for you. The Ayurvedic method of restoring balance starts with ensuring that the elements of fire, water, earth, air and ether are at the correct levels for each individual based on their unique constitution within the 3 doshic categories, and the first way to try to find balance is to eat foods that give you the food property you need (sweet, sour, bitter, pungent, salty or astringent) without too much of another property, since foods can fall into multiple categories. For example, there's a problem with blueberries because they're both astringent and either sour or sweet, depending on the type of blueberry you buy. So how can a big group of people ever share the same meal if we all have slightly different constitutions and different food requirements to get ourselves back in balance?
You can adjust by adding a little of this or a little of that, so that you retain an individual food's benefit, but balance it within a dish. Sour, for instance, is good for Kaphic types but not so great for Vata, but that's why Allison adds sweetness from the maple syrup and honey in the appetizer. In the first soup she adds freshly juiced apples (and cinnamon, cumin for their digestive properties, and turmeric for astringency) and maple comes back at the end to sweeten up dessert as well. The carrots in the salad had a natural sweetness, and the dried blueberries on the other mixed green salad were sweeter from the concentration of sugars in the drying process.
Allison also insisted that everyone at the practice dinner had more similarities than differences because we're all living in the same environment. "Right now we're in what's called a Pitta and very Kapha world in Quebec, where it's very moist but it gets very hot and the two together mean that we need to dry out and cool off. It makes common sense." She suggests leafy greens for their astringency. If they're raw, they'll have the greatest drying effect, and if they're cooked, less so. If you add water to steam or stew them you're kind of limiting the whole drying effect. You might as well go take a hot shower.
"How you're cooking changes how your foods will influence your body", says Allison. Someone who's Pitta or Kapha should be having lots of fresh vegetables, but not Vata. All three doshic constitutions should be having natural sweets to cool off, and that's where fresh fruits, especially blueberries, come into play.
"They're high in antioxidants, that deep, deep colour is a sign of they're astringent quality, and they're sweet. So they're actually the perfect food right now for people to have."
So that's how can a big group of people like Allison's practice dinner party could share the same meal to get ourselves back in balance. I mean, the appetizer alone had about 7 things in it, so surely some of those things were better for some than for others, but it was all local, in season, and had tons of astringent, drying, sweet and sour blueberries. Something for everyone, like an all-inclusive resort...but more delicious.
Not everything was local. The basmati rice with the main course, the Thai purple rice with dessert, and the tofu in the vegetarian option were not grown in our great Quebec rice paddies or soybean farms. AND there goes my original "In Ayurveda it's better to be vegetarian" theory. Allison insists that some people need meat because of their individual constitutions. In Annemarie Colbin's book she talked about her husband at the time who was vegetarian, but he kept getting more anemic. Plenty of vegetarians don't have this problem, but according to Ayurveda Coleman's husband was Pitta-Vata, which means that "when he got out of balance he became dried out, anemic, emaciated, frustrated...and for him to have meat makes total sense for that constitution because it grounds." So Ayurveda isn't saying no one should be vegetarian or everyone should be vegetarian. It's also not saying that we should all have the same diet. It's saying find out what your constitution is, what environment you live in, and use those two main factors to figure out how you should eat.
This was not your average dinner party. We were guinea pigs. Happy, happy guinea pigs. Through Ashtanga Yoga Studio Montreal, Allison organizes Ayurvedic weekend retreats throughout the year, offering participants the chance to experience yoga practice in nature with nutritious food and good company. "Getting Back to Nature - Healing Harvest Weekend" is Allison's upcoming 3-day workshop in the Eastern Townships. From September 24th-26th Allison will instruct participants on how to cook what's right for your own body in Autumn, combined with 2 yoga sessions daily (all levels welcome), meditation, and free time to walk in the woods, jump into the pool or sauna, and generally unwind.
Allison chose blueberries for the theme, but other foods with astringent, drying qualities include cranberries (big in the harvest season - think Thanksgiving), mace (again, harvest season, since it's often used in pumpkin pie), basil, and parsley, in addition to those fresh greens for summer salads. Basically autumn is the easy season because so much produce is in season. You can expect the winter retreat to be a little less bountiful in terms of fresh fruits and summer vegetables, but the richness of Quebec food traditions seems to provide plenty of inspiration - pickled and canned goods, dried fruit, winter vegetables, and hot and rich stews and soups. Actually, following local food traditions is the simplest way to eat by the season. You wouldn't always follow the traditions of India if you live in Montreal, because they have three growing seasons there, very different foods are available at different times of the year from what we get here, and your body would be reacting to a very different environment. Allison did emphasize the amazing powers of fresh coconut, but we just don't get a lot of that here. Quebec apples can't really replace human blood plasma like natural, fresh coconut water, apparently.
A 3 day retreat in the Eastern Townships doesn't seem like a lot of time to allow your body to detox, but from Allison's description of the effects on some participants in the last workshop she gave, apparently even three days of yoga, meditation, a good environment, and proper nutrition is enough to trigger some effects. In the Spring some people got headaches and felt a little sick. "Yeah, that's your liver detoxing," Allison told them. They'd talked about it in advance as something that could happen, but by the third day the negative side affects had passed and, they were feeling like they could go another day on their Ayurvedic diets. Besides, there's a lake and a sauna. It's not yoga and Ayurvedic cleansing bootcamp. You saw the menu.
3 days is also enough time to teach some recipes for good health here in central Canada in the autumn - how to eat according to our environment. At the end of the retreat you get to keep the weekend manual with all the recipes and Ayurvedic guidelines to help integrate what you learned into your everyday life.
Ayurveda won't turn you into a good cook. Allison is already one of those, but you don't have to be one yourself to enjoy the retreat. The workshop may appeal to someone who wants to learn to make Allison's recipes just as much as someone who wants to simply enjoy the results and reap the benefits, and practice a little yoga and meditation while they're at it. You can certainly also go if you're much more into yoga than into cooking. This is high quality yoga instruction for all levels, not just meal after healthy meal. Maybe most importantly, you get out of the city into the Eastern Townships at their most beautiful time of year.
If that doesn't convince you, I'll go back to describing the meal: The blueberry soup was so sweet from the apple juice but dense enough to make a refreshing start to the meal post-appetizer. Then the cashew soup took the same concept of purÃ©ed blueberries and added some nutty depth and richness to a thick broth. A little bit of mint and yogurt on top held the same cooling properties of leafy greens and complemented the toasted warmth of the soup.
The sweetness of the balsamic and blueberry honey dressing added a sinful sweetness to the Ayurvedically "bitter" leafy green salad section of the meal. The dried blueberries in the carrot salad were kind of like currents in a couscous salad, but instead of couscous in the salad there was rice with the main course to dilute the sweetness of the soups and salads.
The savoury Louisiana chicken couldn't have come at a better time. If you don't like heat, you're going to have to skip the cayenne in this recipe. A spice rub of black pepper, salt, paprika, cumin, basil, thyme, turmeric, dried mustard and a lot of cayenne completely changed the focus of the meal. Suddenly there was a world of spice. You couldn't really taste the blueberry juice, garlic and dijon marinade but the chicken was more tender for it. Even without the rub the chicken would have been more than content to lie under the blueberry and cherry tomato salsa, a mild chopped salsa that could be eaten with a spoon. By skipping the spices on the chicken, however, you'd lose out on all the medicinal properties. There's a reason Indian cooking is so full of spice. Many have preservative qualities, a necessity for making food last longer in a hot, humid climate, but spices play a large role in doshic balancing independent of where you live.
Then dessert. If I'd ever imagined that peaches sautÃ©ed with a little honey could make the perfect base for coconut-milk sweetened sticky rice, I would be a much bigger believer in fusion cuisine. Often fruit desserts seem too light and don't really satisfy, even after such a large (though generally light) meal, but the chewiness and creaminess of the pile of sweetened rice was enough to fill out any empty places in the belly. There's a great book called "Sweetness In The Belly" and if you could get Thai rice in Ethiopia this recipe would fit right in.
If nothing else, after Allison's "Healing Harvest Yoga and Ayurveda Weekend" you'll be a little healthier, a little more self-aware...and a little more full.
Healing Harvest Yoga and Ayurveda Weekend with Allison Ulan
September 24, 25 and 26 at L'Arc-en-Ciel in the Eastern townships.
$130 for the weekend without accommodation, $230 with accommodation