Robinson Crusoe Quote

"He preferred, however, "gourmandization," was an idolater of a certain decent, commodious fish, called a turtle, and worshipped the culinary image wherever he nozed it put up."
---The Contradiction (1796)

Monday, 4 March 2013

Why We Drink the Ayurvedic Kool-Aid

This past weekend, I went to my first-ever Ayurvedic cooking class.  I drove up there feeling excited yet uncertain about what I might learn.  Ayurveda had been getting a lot of press lately as an alternative form of medicine, and I wasn't sure if I was ready to jump on the bandwagon.  But when I arrived, my worries were allayed with a glass of spiced raw milk: the quintessential Ayurvedic kool-aid.  

Guess it was time to jump down the rabbit hole ...  

I couldn't get enough!
#ayurvedicexperiments #histmed
Seasoned with saffron, turmeric, cardamom, ginger, black pepper and sugar, I savored it to the last drop.

The class was a lot of fun, and we learned to make many simple, delicious, and healthful dishes.  But the whole time, I couldn’t help privately wondering why Ayurveda had become so popular?  Why were we all frantically writing down everything the teacher had to say about the “pungent” and “drying” properties of turmeric, or the “cooling” and “digestive” qualities of cardamom?  Why was I anxiously scribbling down the names of websites where I could find out if I had a vata, pitta, or kapha constitution?  And how would that help me determine what I should eat?  Throughout the class, I had this strange sense of déjà vu.  I knew I had heard this language somewhere before.   

Then it hit me.  I suddenly realized that Ayurvedic cooking had a whole lot of similarities with the dietetic teachings of the 2nd century Greek physician Galen.  Galen had ruled that all foodstuffs contained at least one of four intrinsic qualities –– hotness, coldness, dryness, and moistness –– which corresponded with the four humors in the body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile.  As Ken Albala has shown, this was an incredibly complicated system, whereby every quality in every foodstuff could also exhibit various degrees of intensity.[1]  Certain foods acted as “correctives” that tempered qualities in other foods.
Galen's dietetic teachings persisted for
centuries after his death in the 3rd century AD
Even though physicians tinkered with the system here and there, these theories of diet dominated Western medical thought from Latin Antiquity to the present.  Over the past twenty years, historians of science have attempted to explain its remarkable resilience.  There were many reasons for this.

--The system was flexible.  It avoided “one size fits all” dietary prescriptions in favor of tailoring diet to one’s individual constitution.  Of course one person got sick from eating asafoetida-flavored mung beans while the same dish cured another man’s illness.  As no two constitutions were the same, the same food could not be expected to work the same way on everyone.

--It was a “do it yourself” type of medical thinking.  Instead of accepting that the doctor always knew best, laymen wielded a lot of power over their physical and emotional wellbeing.  Historian Steve Shapin describes doctors and laymen as exercising “joint ownership” over their health.[2]  In fact, as Harold Cook has shown, becoming a respected physician wasn’t just about accumulating a lot of medical expertise.  It was also about developing good character.  And good character meant paying attention to your patients' thoughts and habits.[3] 
There were zillions of these"do it yourself"
health guides printed in the 17th century!
This one was published in 1671
--It relied on tangible evidence.  It didn’t depend on invisible things like “calories” and “vitamins,” both 19th century discoveries that physicians exhort us to accept on faith.  Sensory qualities of foods that one could directly experience, such as taste, were far more important to maintaining your health.  Indeed, Galen believed that whatever tasted good to an individual was actually easier to digest than other dishes that may be equally nutritious.[4]  But this was not just about taste; physicans also took into account the texture of food, or whether the food was heated up or served cold.

--The system was moderate and impervious to fads.  As I mentioned before, the system changed very little over time.  Common sense reigned supreme.  In fact, only during the 17th century do historians witness a slow disappearance of Galenic dietetics from academic discourse.[5]  Why was that?  Well, given that the scientific revolution was getting underway, it isn’t surprising that Galen's system started to crumble at the moment when scholars were cautioned to look down upon ancient received wisdom and instead put faith in their own sensory experiences.

Keeping a Galenic or an Ayurvedic diet can be complicated and very time consuming.  For these reasons, I’m pretty sure that few people actually followed either of them to the letter to the law ... both in antiquity and in the present.  But for both of these systems, the massive appeal lied in the agency granted to us laypeople as our own medical masterminds.  As I whipped up my first glass of spiced raw milk, I realized how tinkering with all these new spices –– now medical tools as well as flavor enhancers –– can be very empowering indeed.  And also a lot of fun!  

Spiced Milk

What you Need:
--Whole, cow milk (preferably raw … admittedly more expensive but so much tastier!)
--2 cardamom pods
--1 whole clove
--1/2 tsp turmeric
--2 strands of saffron (I had no idea that this was so expensive!  For this blog post, I bit the bullet, but next time I will order this online!)
--1/4 tsp ginger powder
--pinch of black pepper
--sugar (to taste)

How to do it: Add milk to a pan.  Follow by rubbing saffron strands in finger and then add them to the milk.  Follow with the turmeric, cardamom, clove, ginger powder and pepper.  Add sugar and bring the milk to a low boil, where just the sides start to bubble a little.  Strain and serve.  You can top with a little ghee if you like! 

[1] Ken Albala, Eating Right in the Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002)
[2] Steven Shapin, “Trusting George Cheyne: Scientific Expertise, Common Sense, and Moral Authority in Early Eighteenth-Century Dietetic Medicine,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 77 (2003), 263-297.
[3] Harold Cook “Good Advice and Little Medicine: The Professional Authority of Early Modern English Physicians” Journal of British Studies (Jan., 1994) 33:1 pp. 1-31.  
[4] Galen on Food and Diet ed. Mark Grant (London: Routledge, 2000) p. 131.
[5] J. Worth Estes,  “The Medical Properties of Food in the 18th Century,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, vol 51, number 2, 1996 pp. 127-154.  


  1. I'm trying to figure out if this tastes more like Fernet or Indian Chai, will have to try and find out! Thanks!

  2. Add milk to a pan. Follow by rubbing saffron strands in finger and then add them to the milk. Follow with the turmeric, cardamom, clove, ginger powder and pepper. Add sugar and bring the milk to a low boil, where just the sides start to bubble a little. Strain and serve.

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