October 14, 2012
Food in Charaka Samhita
Food and drinks have as much therapeutic value as medications in ayurveda. Although Charaka Samhita is primarily a medicinal text, the wealth of information on food and its consumption contained in this ancient work is extensive and remarkable. Following is a summary of information on food and drinks found in this ancient text.
According to Atreya food is much more than mere nourishment – it forms the essence of the very being of human body. Food and drinks that appeal to the eyes, taste, and feel, and are consumed according to dietary code are the sustainers of life. It is the wholesome use of food that promotes the health of a person, and when food is unwholesome, it becomes the cause of disease.
Charaka Samhita has eight sections and it begins with Sūtra sthāna section which deals with fundamentals and basic principles of Ayurvedic practice. Sūtra sthāna is divided into 30 chapters and quantitative and qualitative dietetics are the subjects discussed in chapters five and six.
Classification of Food
Food is classified in many different ways; based on its source – from plant or animal; based on mode of ingestion - drinks, eatables, chewables, and lickables; according to taste – sweet, sour, pungent, bitter, salty and astringent; and in terms of physical properties -food can be heavy or light, smooth or rough, and soft or hard.
Some of the most nutritious foods are: rakta Sali (a variety of rice), mung beans, ginger, jivanti herb (leptadenia reticulate), grapes, rainwater, sugar, rock salt, meats of deer, quail, iguana rohita fish (a fish of the carp family), ghee, fats from animals living in marsh lands, fat of culuki fish, fat of swan, fat of cock, and fat of goat. Food ingredients that are not wholesome are yavaka, a variety of wild barley, black gram (urad), rainwater collected during the rain, salt collected from saline soil, mustard herb, beef, young dove, frog, cilacima (a variety of fish), milk and ghee from sheep, fats of sparrow and elephant, Nicuka or wild jackfruit, aluka tuber (dioscorea villosa), a type of wild yam, and phanita, the inspissated juice of the sugarcane.
Quantity of food
One should eat food in measured quantity so that it does not affect the natural balance of the body. This will result in health, strength and happiness. Fill 1/3 of the stomach with solid food, 1/3 with liquid food, leaving 1/3 empty to promote good digestion. After finishing a healthy meal one should not indulge in heavy foods such as rich desserts. A full stomach does not allow for proper digestion and food.
Varieties of food
Foods and drinks are categorized according of the following twelve groups: Sukadhanya (grains with bristles), samidhanya (pulses), mamsa (meat), saka (vegetables including edible leaves and tubers), phala (ripe fruits), harita (salads) madya (wines), Jala (water), gorasa (milk and milk products), ikshuvikara (jaggery and sugar), Kritanna (food preparations such as Peya (gruel), vilepi (thick gruel), manda (cooked rice) and saktu (pulverized grains) and aharayogi (ingredients such as oils, condiments, spices, and salts).
Varieties of rice such as sali and sastika, un-hulled mung beans, and animals such as quail, antelope, rabbit, camel, and deer are foods that are light by nature. Light foods are comparatively less harmful even if taken in excess quantity, because they also stimulate digestion.
Heavy foods are not by nature stimulants of digestion and should be only consumed in moderation. Wheat, dairy, meat of domestic, sedentary, and animals born in the marshlands, or animals that eat heavy food, pig, buffalo, black gram (urad), sesame and nuts, sugar, meat of male and big animals and new grains are all heavy. When consumed in large quantity flour, sugarcane, milk, and sesame do not stimulate digestion. Flattened rice, dried meat, dried vegetable, lotus tubers, Cheese, fish, and yogurt if taken up to saturation point also would affect digestion. For proper digestion all of these should be consumed in moderate quantity.
The best foods to be taken regularly throughout life are rice, mung beans, rock salt, fruits, gooseberries, barley, milk, ghee, honey and meat of jungle animals. Eating dry meats, dry vegetables, stalks of the lotus plant, thickened milk, pork, beef, buffalo, fish, black gram (urad) and yavska (a type of corn) on a regular basis is unhealthy.
Effects of cooking on food
Cooking methods change the properties all types of food. Heaviness or lightness of foods depends on the main ingredient, other ingredients used to improve the taste, and processing and quantities of ingredients used. Frying makes heavy food light and also stimulates digestion. Roasted grain flour which is light becomes heavy when made into a dumpling.
Grains: Liquid gruels alleviate hunger and thirst and are good appetizers. Gruel water mixed with sour pomegranates and boiled with long pepper and ginger alleviates hunger and thirst. Flour of fried rice grains is astringent-sweet and light. Boiled rice made from well cleaned grains and drained is warm and light. Rice cooked with meat, vegetable fat, oil, ghee, marrow and fruits are called odana and they are strengthening. When odana is not well cooked or prepared with un-cleaned grains it is cold and heavy.
Sweet fried confections made with barley is good for cough and throat disorders. Wheat cooked with addition of fat or cooked in fat are heavy but edibles made with flour made from wheat is light because of processing. Dishes made of rice flour are the heaviest. Flattened rice is health promoting but heavy. It should be taken in small quantity. Sprouted grains and fried grains are also heavy.
Legumes: Mung beans are the best among legumes. Black gram (urad) is sweet, hot and heavy and strengthening. Kidney beans are rough, heavy and astringent. Horse gram is hot and astringent, chickpeas, peas and lentils are light, sweet, cold and slightly astringent. Sesame is hot, sweet, bitter, pungent and astringent. Boiled and spiced legumes, wheat and barley are heavy foods. Rice cooked with black gram (urad), mung beans, sesame and milk are heavy but strengthening.
Meats, Vegetables, and Fruits: Dishes made with meats, fruits, fats, vegetables and sesame paste and honey are strengthening. The meat of the animals which are young and freshly killed and cleaned is the best. Goat meat is a favorable meat. Mutton is sweet, cold and heavy, peacock meat is excellent for vision, hearing and intellect, partridges and swan are heavy, hot and sweet, quail is astringent-sweet and light, pork promotes strength, buffalo is hot, sweet and heavy, fishes are heavy, sweet and hot, tortoise promotes vision, strength and memory, and eggs are sweet and strengthening. Animal meats are heavy hot and sweet. Animals and birds living in forests are light, cold and sweet and slightly astringent.
Most vegetables are cold and slightly astringent. Fruits are light and sweet. Both are healthy foods. Leaf vegetables should be boiled and then some fat should be added before eating. Sweet potato is nourishing and strengthening if over cooked. It will be heavy if mildly cooked.
Vegetables that are infested with insects, exposed to wind and sun for a long time, dried up, old and unseasonal are not healthy. Fruits that are old, unripe, afflicted by insects, exposed to snow or sun for long, growing in the land and season other than the normal habitat and time are all also unhealthy.
Diary and Sweeteners: Edibles prepared with jaggery, sesame, milk, honey and sugar are exceedingly heavy.
Cooking Oils: Sesame oil is hot and sweet- astringent and it is readily absorbed. Castor oil is sweet and heavy and mustard oil is pungent and hot. Linseed oil is sweet-sour and priyala (buchanania lanzan) oil is sweet and heavy and safflower oil is hot and heavy. Marrow and animal fats are sweet and aphrodisiac. Their coldness or hotness depends on the source of the animal.
Spices: Dry ginger is appetizing and relishing. Green long pepper is sweet and heavy while dry long pepper is pungent and hot. Black pepper is light, relishing and appetizing. Asafetida is pungent, hot, light and appetizing.
Spicing and Salting: Preparations of legumes should be seasoned with spices. In un-spiced and spiced soups, mildly and heavily spiced meat soups and soured and un-soured pulses the heaviness increases in progressive order. Spices make these foods heavier and souring makes them lighter. Meat soup is lighter than soup made with pulses. Rock salt is best among salts. Salt should be taken in small quantity to bring out the taste in food. Both fat and salt should be taken in small quantity.
Drinks and Fermented Liquors: Anupana or drinks which accompany meals or after meals are refreshing, nourishing and satisfying. Among all types of anupanas, clear water kept in a pure vessel is the best. Water helps digestion and proper assimilation and instant diffusion of the food consumed. Wine is exhilarating, nourishing, removes fear, grief and fatigue, enhances confidence, energy and imagination and adds to strength and weight. If used according to satvic code it is like nectar.
Hoernle, August Friedrich Rudolf, Studies in the Medicine of Ancient India, Oxford at Clarendon Press 1907
Sharma P.V. Caraka Samhita English translation Chaukhambha Orientalia, India 2001
Valiathan, M.S. The Legacy of Caraka Orient Longman 2003
Van Loon, Gabriel (Ed). Charaka Samhita Handbook on Ayurveda Volume I, ebook 2002-2003