The term pathya includes all instructions around the diet and lifestyle that will reverse a disease and restore balance, moving us along on the right path. While lifestyle is included, most patients ask the vaidya about diet and which foods to eat and how to prepare them. It is often given top priority in Ayurveda for both conserving health and alleviating sickness. A healthy diet will protect you from the majority of ailments.
Vegetables, one of the most diverse nutrient-filled food families, are classified as Shaka Varga (the family of foods that grow as appendages on plants) in Ayurvedic texts. Shaka are grouped by the six main parts of the plant that are eaten, according to the 11th century clinician-scientist-writer Bhavamishra: patra (leaves of the plant, known as leafy vegetables), pushpa (vegetables that are flowers of the plant), phala (vegetables that are fruits of the plant), nala (vegetables that are the stem of the plant), kanda (vegetables that are the tuber of the plant), and samswedaja (vegetables that have sprouted from moisture). The order is important, as with most ayurvedic instructions. Each subsequent subgroup is heavier to digest than the previous, making sprouts the most difficult to digest and leaves the easiest of all vegetables, as long as they are prepared properly.
The cooking master clinician Bhava Mishra wrote c.1550 CE about various plant-based foods and the practice-based evidence and science behind them after understanding botany, forestry, agriculture and physiology.
पत्रं पुष्पं फलं नालं कन्दं संस्वेदजं तथा |
शाकं षड्विधमुद्दिष्टं गुरुं विद्याद्यथोत्तरम् ||
patraṃ puṣpaṃ phalaṃ nālaṃ kandaṃ saṃsvedajaṃ tathā |
śākaṃ ṣaḍvidhamuddiṣṭaṃ guruṃ vidyādyathottaram |
Translation: In this order -- leaf, flower, fruit, stem, tuber, sprouts & mushrooms, the 6 vegetable groups increase in heaviness to digest.
-- Bhavaprakasha Nighantu, Shaka Varga 10/1
The wisemen knew that constipation is triggered by all Shakas when consumed. The usage of raw vegetables, according to Acharya chakrapanidutta, induces aggravation of Apana vata as well as excessive flatulence. These are Guru (heavy to digest), rooksha (dries up the body) and promotes stool formation. As a result, using them inappropriately leads to bone fractures and marrow deterioration, as seen by a loss in steady walking, bring hazardous to the eyes, and lowering blood flow. It is thought that Shakas contain most of the factors for an illness to manifest, thus one must be mindful not to consume too many veggies. Plants, like every other organism, have an inbuilt biological reaction to help them survive. This is usually accomplished by deterring other species with its bitterness. Ayurveda warns that the prolonged exposure to a raw vegetable diet does have a detrimental effect upon the Kostha (Gut).
शाकेषु सर्वेषु वसन्ति रोगास्ते हेतवो देहविनाशनाय |
तस्माद् बुधः शाकविवर्जनं तु कुर्यात्तथा ||
śākeṣu sarveṣu vasanti rogāste hetavo dehavināśanāya |
tasmād budhaḥ śākavivarjanaṃ tu kuryāttathā ||
Translation: The elements that cause diseases that destroy the body are present in the Shaka; therefore the wise have suggested a person not be habituated to consuming vegetables in excess or in exclusion of other foods.
-- Bhavaprakasha Nighantu, Shaka Varga 10/4
General Method of Cooking Shaka
Step 1. Shaka Shodhana: Cleansing of Vegetables
Before cooking, clean vegetables in water. Add salt, then spice powders such as raw mango, the antimicrobial turmeric, and the heavy metal chelator coriander. Water and salt helps to remove soil and any other adherents. Today, cleaning raw vegetables is required to prevents excessive accumulation in our body of pesticides and additives sprayed during transport and display that place us at higher risk of cancer. Soaking infuses salt and spices into the shaka.
Step 2. Sneha Bharjana: Stir Frying in Fat
After sufficient soaking, shaka must be stir-fried (bharjana) for a few moments in either fat, oil or ghee, known as sneha. Oils and ghee neutralize the mild poisons that plants produce to deter animals and insects from eating them. These poisons can slowly destroy our digestive power if we do not process vegetables correctly. Adding the digestive spice cumin and the vata-lowering hingu/asafoetida helps the gut process the minerals and complex components in vegetables. Shaka types of foods add extra roughness to the gut and must be countered. Sneha in general best pacifies vata by countering the cold, dry, rough, light, and mobile qualities in shaka. The Maillard reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars in vegetables that gives browned food its unique appeasing flavour profile occurs in oil.
Step 3. Lavana & Toyagni Sannikarsha: Salting & Rehydration
After partial cooking in the selected sneha, one should add salt (lavana) and a little quantity of water (toya). Addition of salt midway opens the tissues of the plant and breaks cell membranes to allow entry of aromatic tempered spices into the vegetable's chemistry, converting bland-tasting shaka into exquisite flavour. Adding a small quantity of water delays excess breakdown of proteins and prevents overfrying. This half-oil, half-water approach to cooking allows both detoxification and optimal digestion of vegetables. To remove excessive bitterness from vegetables, steaming in water removes bitter elements, followed by boiling them in strained cultured buttermilk to detoxify them. The obligatory addition of fat is done in the final step by adding spices tempered(agni) in oil or ghee. To make the dish more savoury, tamarind juice can be added instead of water, but only for non-sour vegetables.
Each vegetable is different so spices and processes that counter their unfavorable tastes and gunas (qualities) have been calculated by traditional recipes that advise use of specific steps. Some are optimally digested only when combined with particular grains or pulses, other as soups or stews.
Āhāra Samskara refers to transforming raw food to real nutrition by enhancing the palatability so that the mind wants to receive it and by reducing the chemicals that prevent optimal digestion for that person, as well as eliminating the parts of the vegetable that might cause long-term adverse effects to the digestive system. Only with judicious understanding of the true nature of each vegetable can one enjoy its nutritious benefits and delight, rather than force-feeding in improper ways just for the sake of purported healthy reputations of vegetables.