The Ayurvedic Perspective on Fermented Foods
With so much emphasis on the important role of gut health in overall well-being, fermented foods and probiotics have received much praise and attention in the West in recent years. And while the tastes and properties of fermented foods may be new to some of us, they have been a staple in traditional Ayurvedic cuisine for centuries.
Some examples that you may be familiar with include idly (steamed rice cake), dosa (fermented rice and lentils), takra (buttermilk), paneer (soft cheese made with milk, lemon juice, or vinegar), and lassi (a yogurt or buttermilk-based drink recommended for digestion).
In addition to its role in preserving foods, Ayurveda recognizes that fermentation offers beneficial health-promoting properties when used wisely and appropriately. In fact, India is the only country in Asia to explicitly recommend the consumption of fermented foods in their “Dietary Guide for Indians” for its benefits on digestibility and enhancing nutritional value.1
What Is Fermentation?
Fermentation is a chemical process that uses bacteria to break down sugar anaerobically. This process has been explored for thousands of years in many countries in Europe and Asia without much appreciation or understanding for its functionality. Primarily, it was used as a food preservation method in countries with warm climates, as well as for alcohol production.2
As a result of these studies and a growing appreciation of fermented foods in the West, these products are becoming widely accepted and consumed today.
The Role of Fermented Foods in Ayurveda
From an Ayurvedic perspective, our health and well-being thrives when there is no presence of ama, or toxic build-up, and when our digestive fire (agni) is balanced, nurturing all seven dhatus (bodily tissues).
Fermented foods are rich in probiotics, or beneficial living bacteria, which help enkindle agni and promote the health of the digestive system, when consumed properly.
There is a misconception that fermented foods are not recommended in Ayurveda. However, many common dishes in India, as well as traditional Ayurvedic wine preparations such as asavas and arishtams, undergo this fermentation process.3
Does this mean that fermented foods are for everyone? Not necessarily! As with all foods in an Ayurvedic diet, there are a variety of factors that affect how fermented foods interact with our bodies, such as doshas, seasons, preparation methods, and the addition of spices.
Fermentation and the Doshas
A vata-balancing diet benefits from tastes that are sweet, sour, and salty. Foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, and buttermilk (takra) are sour in nature, which sparks salivation and promotes hunger and digestion.
However, the live cultures in sauerkraut bring with them the element of air, which can create gas if consumed in excess. Moderation and proper use of spices will prevent vata types—who are predominant in air and ether elements—from suffering from occasional gas and bloating.
A pitta-balancing diet benefits from sweet, bitter, and astringent tastes. An excessive amount of the sour taste, such as vinegar, fermented foods, and alcohol, can exacerbate the hot, light, and oily qualities of pitta dosha.
Too much sour taste can increase pitta’s tendency towards heat and irritation in the body. Pitta types should consume fermented foods in moderation, giving preference to fresh yogurt with sweet and cooling herbs and spices, such as anantamul, licorice, or mint. Used sparingly, fermented foods can provide just enough activity to kindle agni and support healthy digestion.
When it comes to fermented foods, buttermilk is the lightest and safest option for kapha. It can be consumed in minimal amounts, especially during the winter months when the weather is colder and the blood vessels are more restricted.
Ayurveda’s View on Popular Fermented Foods
Sauerkraut is typically made from shredded cabbage which becomes sour in taste during fermentation. This sour taste restores blood flow, reduces excess kapha, increases appetite, and aids strong and healthy digestion. It is beneficial in small quantities during the winter months for vata and kapha. Adding cumin or mustard seeds to your sauerkraut can be a great way to increase agni and prevent bloating.
Kimchi is traditionally made from a combination of onion, garlic, cabbage, pepper, chili, and chives. These ingredients make it a pungent blend which can increase dryness and aggravate vata dosha.
Pitta can also become easily aggravated by the intense spices and heat of kimchi, so a good tip is to add cooling spices like fennel or coriander seeds to modify your recipe. Kapha benefits from the pungent tastes and can even add more of them, such as leeks, mustard, and radishes!4
Kefir is a fermented “yogurt,” which can be made from cow, goat, or sheep milk. Its sour taste and post-digestive benefits can help improve digestion in the correct context.5 Kefir is nourishing, building, and supports elimination—all beneficial qualities for vata dosha. In excess, however, it can be too drying and cause occasional constipation.
Kefir’s heavy quality increases congestion and sluggishness, therefore increasing kapha dosha. And for pitta, excessive intake of kefir can lead to increased heat and acidity.
Kombucha is a fermented, brewed drink made with green, black, or white tea, sugar, bacteria, and yeast. This fermentation process creates similar acidic qualities to those of vinegar, which will build heat, increase acidity, and aggravate pitta.
Longer brewing processes are more beneficial to vata and kapha, while shorter brewing times foster a sweeter taste that is more beneficial to pitta. Tiny amounts of kombucha can be consumed before a meal to spark digestion, but in excess can increase all three doshas.
From an Ayurvedic perspective, the conversation around food is not limited to simple rules of what is “good” or “bad,” but rather asks the questions of “when” and “how” we can enjoy foods in a way that will contribute to our long-term health and wellness.
When discussing fermented foods, just like all food choices and combinations, it’s important to understand the qualities of the foods, the six tastes, and their impact on the doshas.6 In moderation, fermented foods are a delicious and wonderful way to support strong digestion and overall health.