January 7th, 2022 • By Sara Wafia
Image: Rachel Vanni
In the world of Ayurvedic cooking, there is no one we rather turn to than celebrated chef, nutritional consultant, author and educator, Divya Alter. Her sophisticated yet accessible approach to conscious eating has been recognized by top food editors, from the likes of Goop and Bon Appétit to discerning New York restaurantgoers looking for an elevated take on healthy living.
We took a deep dive into Divya’s foray into Ayurvedic nutrition, how she creates balanced meals for your Dosha and her love of “Ayurvedizing” popular dishes.
PRATIMA Living: How long have you been practicing Ayurveda, and how did this path merge with your life of cooking and nutrition?
Divya Alter: I was originally introduced to Ayurveda while living in India from 1999-2004 and I’ve been practicing it personally ever since. I trained to cook vegetarian food in a yoga ashram in the early 90’s, but what I was making and eating was not necessarily healthy. I had no idea about food combining or how to use specific ingredients for nutrition, healing and balance.
My paths of Ayurveda and cooking merged when I met my primary teacher Vaidya R. K. Mishra in 2009. He was the successor of the Shaka Vansiya (SV) lineage of Ayurveda, and its perspective made so much sense to me. For example, one of the principles of SV Ayurveda is to apply the knowledge and techniques of Ayurveda to the local environment—the climate, the lifestyle, the local ingredients and seasonal changes.
I was also impressed by Vaidya Mishra’s commitment to the authenticity of the SV lineage, and his mastery of applying those principles to any location or culture. For example, he considered the effects of electromagnetic frequencies, which is unique among Vaidyas.
Vaidya Mishra inspired me to make Ayurvedic cooking a profession, so I began practicing and also studying Ayurvedic nutrition. I picked it all up quickly and people responded well to both my cooking and teaching. I loved what I was doing and decided it was going to be my contribution to the world.
PL: What is an Ayurvedic diet?
DA: Rather than calling it a diet, I think of it as a way of eating. That’s because eating according to Ayurvedic principles is very personalized. Rather than something that’s black and white or prescriptive, it guides people to adapt the way they eat based on the seasons, how they feel and the present strength of their digestion.
To put it simply, the Ayurvedic way of eating is using food to maintain or achieve optimum nourishment and balance day-to-day. It’s a very dynamic process.
Many people think there’s a specific Ayurvedic way for them to eat that will be consistent for their whole life. Maybe they’ve visited an Ayurvedic practitioner who recommended a certain collection of foods, but that’s not for forever. It’s only for that particular period of time while addressing a particular set of imbalances.
For example, I have a friend who saw an expert Ayurvedic practitioner a year ago and, based on her state of health, she received a list of recommendations about what to eat. However, when I checked her pulse recently, it was clear that her health had changed significantly and now she needed to adjust her food list.
Another common issue is that people get stuck on eating for their doshas. That’s important, but it’s not the full story. More than considering your body type (prakriti) when selecting your suitable foods, you need the foods that will balance whatever dosha is aggravated right now—that determines what to eat and what to avoid.
PL: Ayurveda views balancing foods through the lens of six tastes. What are the six tastes of food, and how can we use this understanding to combine ingredients in a healthy way?
DA: Yes, the six tastes are a very important concept in Ayurvedic nutrition, but it goes beyond what you feel on your tongue. Each taste generates certain physiological responses in the body and the mind.
The six tastes are sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent. Each taste governs the effect of food on our physiology.
For example, sweet doesn't just mean sweet or sugary taste. Sweet foods are usually heavier to digest, they have a coating effect in the mouth and they are the building foods—they nourish and build our tissues, the bulk mass of our body. Foods of sweet taste include root vegetables like beets and carrots, milk, rice, almonds, wheat and red meat. Essentially, sweet foods are most prominent on our plate because they are most nourishing.
In large part, the other five tastes are used to help us digest foods of sweet taste. Take sour for example. Think about eating a piece of cake, then having a sip of lemonade. You’ll notice how the sour taste helps you break up the heavy sweetness of cake. Or when you eat meat, you’ll feel lightened when you follow with something sour like sauerkraut.
I cover each of the tastes in far greater detail in my two masterclasses An Introduction to Ayurvedic Cooking and Seasonal Cooking with Ayurveda, as well as my two cookbooks Joy of Balance and What to Eat for How You Feel.
Ideally, we want all six tastes to be present in every meal. That way we’re supporting a full range of healthy physiological processes. However, the proportion of these tastes should vary depending on the season, a person’s individual body type and their current needs for balance.
For example: My constitution is Vata/Pitta. Right now, in fall, there’s a lot of Vata (airy energy) in the environment so my Vata feels higher than usual—my skin is dryer, I am extra sensitive to cold and wind, I need to sleep a bit more. I’m currently emphasizing sweet, sour and salty tastes in my meals because these tastes reduce Vata.
That includes sweet and juicy fruits like grapes and oranges, root vegetables, baked goods, sour foods like lime, lemon and sauerkraut, as well as foods of salty taste such as seaweed and adding enough salt to my food. But, as soon as we move into the later stages of winter when sluggishness begins to accumulate in the body, I’ll switch my approach to foods and tastes that balance Kapha and Vata.
PL: What are balancing ingredients to keep on hand for each dosha? Are there any ingredients that support all doshas?
DA: People often think they need to eat very specific foods for their dosha and that’s true only if by “dosha” you mean “imbalanced dosha” and not “body-mind constitution” (prakriti). I keep a lot of ingredients stocked in my kitchen but I make careful choices about which ones I’ll use today and which ones I’ll leave on my shelf for another day or time of year. It all depends on how I feel, the current strength of my digestion and the season.
Not only that, the qualities of an ingredient can change depending on how it’s prepared and the ingredients it’s combined with.
For example, people say cabbage is imbalancing for Vata because it causes gas—which is true if you eat it raw or don’t cook it properly. However, when I braise it in the oven with the cooking liquid, digestive spices and ghee, it becomes incredibly tender and sweet. I have no issues with gas or bloating and my Vata dosha is happy (and I’m generally prone to Vata imbalances).
That’s why I don’t like giving lists of ingredients for each dosha—they’re limiting and misleading. Instead, my advice is to be open to all wholesome, local, seasonal ingredients. To support your doshas, learn to combine these ingredients with spices and balancing cooking methods.
I organized my new cookbook Joy of Balance by ingredient for this very reason—it makes cooking with seasonal foods in a balancing way much easier. In fact, the book contains a recipe for braised purple cabbage that has converted a lot of people from cabbage haters to cabbage lovers.
PL: Making space for Ayurvedic-inspired foods, herbs, and spices sometimes means eliminating other less balancing kitchen staples. What are some common ingredients or condiments that most people should avoid?
DA: The issue isn’t whether an ingredient is imbalancing or not, it’s whether it’s imbalancing for you at this particular time.
In general, I recommend people avoid sauces and condiments that are highly acidic and processed, like ketchup for example. When we regularly eat highly acidic foods, it creates an acidic environment in the body which leads to chronic disease. Highly processed, heavy foods are also difficult to digest. When our digestion is compromised from eating too many heavy foods, we tend to get sick.
Speaking of ketchup, I actually have a recipe for an Ayurvedic ketchup replacement in my new book Joy of Balance. It looks like ketchup and has a sweet, tart ketchup flavor but won’t produce acidity in your stomach.
Another ingredient I don’t recommend is peanut butter, which I know is a hard one for American audiences to swallow. But peanut butter really is difficult to swallow and, because it’s so sticky, it gets stuck in all of the body’s channels and it’s very heavy to digest. Also, most people don’t realize that peanut butter is one of the most acidic foods on the planet.
The key is to not eat these heavy, acidic, hard-to-digest ingredients on a regular basis. If you’re in good health, a little bit of ketchup or peanut butter can be great—a way to remember your childhood. But if you eat it everyday it becomes a problem, especially if you already have weak digestion.
This is a common theme you’ll find in Ayurveda. Rather than just relying on nutritional facts, we need to consider the digestibility of our food, as well as its effect on our overall health once it’s in our body.
PL: Breaking ties with ingredients that we love is sometimes necessary when following an Ayurvedic diet. Can you offer suggestions to replace popular ingredients or condiments with more balancing Ayurvedic recommendations?
DA: This is something that I love doing—developing Ayurvedic replacements for condiments or “Ayurvedizing” popular dishes like lasagna or tagine. As I said earlier, the main concern is avoiding highly processed and/or highly acidic foods, as well as foods that are hard to digest. That’s why I always include either replacement or alternative sauces and condiments in my cookbooks and classes, such as the ketchup recipe I mentioned in the last answer.
Regarding salt, I prefer Soma Salt—also known as “saindhava,” it’s considered the best salt in Ayurveda. It’s gentle, cooling and rich in minerals.
Instead of butter, I always use cultured ghee. Ghee is essentially just the butter fat without any moisture or lactose. That makes ghee easier to digest, and gives it a higher smoke point.
Personally, I avoid hot sauce because my Pitta is typically high. But for people who enjoy hot sauce, I like to give recipes so they can make their own. It will keep for a week in the fridge and have a fresh, rich flavor and color. Hot sauce is very easy to make—you just blend it—and you end up with something delicious without all the additives that you’ll find in commercial hot sauce. However, I always recommend that people pause before reaching for hot sauce. Ask yourself, will the spiciness help you feel better or are you just adding it out of habit or for taste?
I don’t recommend mayo or mustard because they’re both very acidic. Mayo tends to have a lot of preservatives and mustard is very heating. Cashew sour cream with the right spices is an excellent substitute for mayo, while Roasted Carrot Tahini sauce can be used in similar ways to mustard. Both recipes are in my newest book Joy of Balance.
I love the taste of balsamic vinegar, especially when it’s well aged. However, I only use it medicinally (I mix it with water and drink it) when my digestion is weak. For adding sour taste to food, I use fresh lime or lemon juice.
PL: In your new book, Joy of Balance, you share 80 globally-inspired recipes that you have perfected through the years. It’s also the first Ayurvedic cookbook to be organized by ingredient—including properties, uses, compatibility and preparation. What was your inspiration for creating this innovative new cookbook?
DA: The original inspiration came from my students in the Ayurvedic Nutrition and Culinary Training Program (ANACT), which I founded in 2015. Ayurveda describes ingredients based on nutrition, but also their effect on the physiology, metabolism and digestion. For that reason, I always emphasized ingredient profiles when teaching my students how to cook.
Immediately, I could see the transformative effect this ingredient-first approach was having. Not only did my students’ health improve, they were learning the primary skill of Ayurvedic cooking: How to choose ingredients based on properties and prepare meals that are balancing for their individual health needs—day to day, season to season, and year after year.
The impact was so profound that I decided to write an entire cookbook organized by ingredients and their properties. Now that Joy of Balance is available, I’m confident that it will help people look at food in a different, more personal way.
When you apply this knowledge, you’ll know when to invite an ingredient to your plate or when to keep it on your shelf. As I said earlier, all high quality ingredients are good ingredients, but you don’t always need them. The book teaches you when and how to use them in a delicious, healthy way.
PL: How can our readers learn from you? Do you have any upcoming classes?
DA: The best way for people to learn from me is through our brand new masterclasses, An Introduction to Ayurvedic Cooking and Seasonal Cooking with Ayurveda. They are self-paced, beautifully produced and suitable for both beginning and experienced cooks. Together, they include over 8 hours of guided video instruction.
Both of my cookbooks are excellent resources as well. They include lots of recipes, but I also explain the foundational principles and techniques of Ayurvedic cooking. Ultimately, that’s my main goal with all of my offerings: To teach people the “why” behind the recipes, so they can make their own day-to-day decisions about food based on how they feel.
There’s nothing I love more than teaching and interacting with students from around the world—I’m always fascinated by their stories about their relationship with food. I look forward to meeting some of your readers in our virtual or physical cooking classroom soon!
Divya Alter is a certified nutritional consultant, author, educator, and chef in the Shaka Vansiya Ayurveda tradition. In 2016, Alter co-founded Divya’s Kitchen, an award-winning plant-based restaurant in New York City that reimagines classic dishes through an Ayurvedic lens. The Divya’s brand has since expanded to include two cookbooks, What to Eat for How You Feel and the recently released Joy of Balance. Alter also offers plant-based retail food products and educational masterclasses, and is the co-founder of Bhagavat Life, a nonprofit culinary school offering cooking classes as well as America’s first Ayurvedic culinary certification program.