Ashram Food

Local and foreign students have a discussion with Swami Sankalpananda Saraswati

You swamis eat rice, chapatti, dhal and so on, but it is said in the scriptures that the ideal diet for sannyasins is milk and fruit.

This ideal diet is for those people who have completely retired from the world and are engaged full-time in intensive spiritual practices. When one is constantly sitting for pranayama and meditation for instance, the body needs less food and extra-light food. It should be easily digested and bland so as not to make unnecessary demands on energy or inflame the senses. However, we are karma yogis whose main spiritual practice is work- with awareness. We are extremely active eighteen hours a day, and we need the right kind of food to provide enough energy. So we eat rice, dhal, roti and vegetable.

Just the same, our food is pure and light. We avoid meat, concentrated or fried foods, ghee and sweets, and we do not eat between meals. Our diet is simple and health-giving, in accordance with our needs at this stage of our sadhana.

But fruit is very nutritious, why don't you eat more of it?

We do eat fruit in season, especially mango, guava and banana, and it is true that fruit contains many nutrients. However, we usually obtain all these elements from the rice, wheat and vegetables in our meals. Most fruits are very high in natural sugars, and too much sugar is not good for the body. Excess fruit can also be acid forming, and this is also bad for health.

Why don't you take milk in your diet?

Although invaluable for children and pregnant women, for fully grown adults milk is not so necessary. It contains vitamins A, C and the B-group and calcium, but again all these are present in our other food. Moreover, milk tends to be mucus-forming, and excess milk consumption has been linked to headaches, nasal catarrh, sinusitis and certain skin diseases. In colder countries, it could well be that the body needs an extra lining of mucus for protection against the cold. However, in India's hot climate this is a disadvantage, and the body tends to throw out extra mucus in the form of colds, running nose and diarrhoea. Soybeans can be used to make a milk that is nutritionally similar to cow's milk, but does not cause mucus formation and does not have the high fat content of cow's milk.

According to season, ashramites take milk in the form of curd or buttermilk. These products revive the intestinal bacteria necessary for healthy digestion, and are a traditional remedy for bowel disorders.

In India, vitamin deficiency is a major problem. How do you cope with this?

We need only about 100 grams or so of green leafy vegetables each day to supply our vitamin needs, together with the occasional yellow vegetable or fruit to add vitamin A. Rice, wheat and dhal are rich sources of the B-vitamins, and vitamin C is found in nearly all foods, especially when eaten raw. Vitamin D comes from sunshine so we are not short of that. Since we are served about 100 grams of vegetables at each meal, we are very well supplied with all vitamins and minerals.

But when you boil vegetables as you do here, then you destroy the vitamins. We usually boil vegetables to kill any harmful bacteria, and to make them more easily digestible. Some vegetables, such as spinach, contain chemicals like oxalic acid that are toxic in the raw plant, but which are rendered harmless when boiled. Others, for instance potatoes, contain starchy material that can be more easily used by the body after cooking. The nutrients are not lost because, as far as possible, we clean the vegetables and cook them with the skins on. It is between the skin and the flesh that the vitamins and minerals are stored. The cooking water is not thrown out, but spices are added to it to make a sauce, so that all the vitamins are retained.

How can your diet possibly have enough protein when you don't eat meat?

Meat is not the only source of protein, and vegetables, grain and especially legumes (dhal - peas, beans etc.) all contain protein. When discussing the amount of protein in food, we must consider not just the gross quantity, but the amount that can be absorbed by the body. United Nations nutrition experts have established what they call the NPU (Net Protein Utilisation) for each food. When rated on a scale from zero to one hundred, we find that the products with the greatest amount of usable protein are eggs (9.4) and milk (82). Meat has a rating of 67, chicken of 65.

Rice actually has more usable protein than meat, with an NPU of 70. Wheat germ is equal to meat, at 67, and is found in wholemeal flour (atta) and whole wheat (dalia). This we sometimes eat as porridge as well as khicheri. Since rice and chapatti are the staples of our diet, we obviously get plenty of protein without the poisons in meat. Peas and beans are also rich in protein. Lentils (masoor dhal) rate at 40 and chickpeas (channa) at 43, while moong has a value of 57 and soybeans of 61- values that are comparable to meat.

What is more, the protein patterns of grains and legumes are complementary. That means that if you eat rice (or chapatti) and dhal together, the combination has more usable protein than the ingredients eaten separately. By combining grains and legumes you increase the amount of protein available to the body by as much as forty percent. For instance, food scientists have conducted experiments that show that the average meal of rice and dhal contains more protein than half a pound of steak!

If this is so, then it makes khicheri as good as a meat dish?

That's right. Even though khicheri consists of rice and dhal boiled together, to the body it is just as good as meat. Proteins must be broken down into amino acids before they can be absorbed by the body, and then these amino acids are reconstructed according to the specific requirements of different organs and tissues. Since the body tissues have to resynthesize their own proteins, it does not matter whether we have animal proteins or vegetable proteins, as long as we get enough of all the amino acids we need.

Actually, khicheri is better than meat because it is a complete food. To get the most protein, we should combine one cup of dhal with three cups of rice, and these are exactly the proportions in khicheri. Both ingredients also provide carbohydrate, for energy, and most vitamins and minerals. Brahma khicheri also contains some vegetable, ensuring that we have all the vital elements we need. Since the dal is fried in a little oil or ghee before boiling, then this meal also contains the fatty acids that are required in small amounts to maintain health. Khicheri is easily digested by the young, the old and the sick, and is a thoroughly pure (sattwic) food.

Ashram chapattis give me indigestion - they are so thick.

Ashram chapattis are a little thicker than those eaten in most homes, but the indigestion is due more to your own dislike than the chapattis themselves. They are not so thin because the flour we use contains the complete grain of wheat.

You see, the whole wheat grain has three main parts - the bran, which is the six outer skins; the germ, or embryo, which is the small area inside the base of the grain; and the endosperm, which is the white, starchy centre. When we take ashram wheat to the mill, we grind all three parts. Since the bran and the germ are included, the flour is rather coarse and is notably brown in colour. The 'whole meal' flour (atta) used by most Indian families is not really whole, because it has had the bran removed. It is not quite so brown and has a finer texture. In many cases, the flour is sifted again through cloth to remove the wheat germ. This extra-light, very fine flour rolls into very thin, soft chapattis. Further processing gives a superfine white powder that is then bleached to make it bright white. This is the flour (maida) used to make white bread, cake, sweets.

When we throw out the bran and the germ, we also throw out the vital nourishment. The bran and wheat germ contain B-group vitamins, enzymes, minerals and trace elements such as zinc, copper, cobalt and manganese. The germ is an important source of vitamin E and some unsaturated fatty acids. The bran also provides dietary fibre, known as 'roughage' or 'bulk' which is actually cellulose and other indigestible carbohydrate. This roughage is a traditional purgative and aids in digestion, and many doctors today recognise it as a preventative for numerous intestinal diseases.

Our chapattis might be a little thicker, but they are also much more nutritious. Most ashramites prefer them because they have the slightly sweet, nutty flavour of natural wheat that makes them a real taste delight.

If you eat whole wheat, why don't you eat brown rice instead of this white rice which has lost all its goodness?

You are confusing whole white rice with processed, polished rice as used in the west and many Indian homes too. Polished rice has rather small grains, it cooks quickly and it is quite smooth. The attractive bright whiteness is achieved by polishing off the darker outer layers of the grain. Such rice is actually the core of the natural grain, and contains only starch and calories. On the other hand, ashram rice is brown rice - when uncooked it has quite a brown colour. Rice has two husks - an indigestible outer husk and several finer inner skins that contain all the vitamins and minerals. What you call 'brown rice' in the west is darker and harder to digest because it is the whole grain - outer husk and all. Ashram rice is called usna chawal. After harvesting, the rice is boiled for a short time. This removes the hard outer husk but leaves the inner skins intact. Before it can be eaten this rice must be thoroughly boiled again, but even when ready to eat it is not completely white, and it is much more nutritious than completely white rice.

It is also forbidden in the scriptures for yogis to take chillies, garlic and onion, so why are these things used in ashram cooking?

One of the main characteristics of our diet is that it automatically cleanses impurities from the body, so we do make use of these things for their medicinal properties. Garlic is well-known for purifying the blood and is good for diabetes. Onions contain sulphur, and flush water and mucus from the body. Eaten raw, they have a cleansing effect on the digestive system and are especially good for relieving colds. Chillies destroy harmful bacteria in the intestines, and stimulate the digestive juices. When raw, they contain vitamin C, and eliminate mucus and dry the mucus membranes inflamed by colds. Chillies help to break up fat deposits in blood vessels, to clear up skin diseases and to cleanse the eyes through their mild stimulation of the tear ducts. Our diet is quite bland by Indian standards, and certainly an excess of these condiments is to be avoided. Yet when used in the proper season they can go a long way towards maintaining good health and purifying the body.

It is said that tea is a poison so why do you drink it?

Tea is not a 'poison' in itself, but like anything else can have harmful effects if taken in excess. In the ashram we drink only two cups of weak black tea daily, and this can hardly be called excessive. Tea has a bad reputation with health-faddists because it contains tannin. In small amounts, however, tannin can be easily eliminated by the kidneys, and it has a mildly astringent, antiseptic effect that cleanses the digestive canal and washes impurities from the system. Caffeine is present in tea as well as coffee and has a slight stimulating effect on the nervous system. This widens the air passages so that we breathe more freely. It also opens up the blood vessels and improves circulation so that the extra oxygen is quickly flushed through all the body cells, including the brain. However, if one takes several cups of tea daily, the body becomes habituated and these refreshing effects are lost.

Tea originated in China, and forms part of a meditation ritual in Japanese Buddhism. In both these cultures tea is always taken black, and ashramites take black tea because it is better for health. When combined with milk, tea loses its benefits as a cleanser and also has a slightly narcotic effect on the nerves. According to season, we take tea with ginger, lemon juice or tulsi leaves.

Lemon juice relieves excess acidity in the stomach, purifies the blood and adds vitamin C. Ginger helps to check diarrhoea. Tulsi is especially good because it enhances the flavour of tea and tones the digestive system. It is said to help in controlling anger.

Do swamis in other countries eat exactly the same foods?

We eat as we do because our ashram is in India, but in other countries the diet is varied according to local needs and customs.

For instance, chapattis are often replaced with fresh, wholemeal (brown) bread. On the other hand, rice is adaptable to any climate and is eaten by ashramites all over the world.

Although particular foods may vary, swamis in Satyananda ashrams world-wide follow the principle of eating only what is healthful and what is necessary to fulfil their needs. Thus, harmful foods are automatically excluded, along with luxury items. Some health-giving foods, like milk or fruit, may be excluded because they contain elements already provided in the diet, and so are not really necessary. The diet is based on grains like rice and wheat, supplemented with fresh vegetables. Protein comes from peas and beans, but the kind of beans and method of preparation will vary from country to country. The food is light, pure and simple, in accordance with the work performed and seasonal changes. Most importantly, swamis everywhere choose their food with regard to the central aim of their lives- the expansion of consciousness.