Cultivate Digestive Fire
Over and above the issue of what we eat is whether we have sufficient digestive fire to break down our meals proficiently. So it goes that following a ‘perfectly strict’ eating regime, counts for little if your digestion isn’t up to scratch. The strategy used by both Chinese food cures and Indian Ayurvedic medicine is to avoid raw food and eat cooked food combined with digestive and curative spices.
In India, kitchens are filled with whole spices, tea is spiced even breakfast is spiced, anytime of the day you can smell mustard seeds popping in hot oil or cardamom sizzling on a skillet. Every household is skilled in the art of spices. Food is almost always cooked and digestive problems are at a low. In China, ginger is used extensively, ginger pieces are dished up before a meal, ginger tea is commonly served after a meal and candied ginger is a popular dessert. Both these cultures have a strong sense of ‘food as medicine’ that regards good digestion as a holy pursuit. As someone once said,
“Worry more about what’s for lunch than the affairs of the world for if your digestion is sound; your temperament will lean towards peace and not antagonism.”
Food has to be broken down. When digestion isn’t doing it – it ferments and creates uncomfortable gases and toxins. Ayurveda refers to digestive power as the ‘fire’ in the belly. If the fire isn’t burning there isn’t enough digestive power to metabolize food. If the fire is burning as it should your body will produce the gastric juices it needs - hydrochloric acid, bile and enzymes required for the breakdown of food and conversion into micronutrients. Eastern doctor Vasant Lad describes the digestive power in the belly as a cauldron and reminds us that “Sooner or later, all food is cooked”.
Where most Western dietary advice advocates eating plenty of salad and raw food, Dr Lan from a Chinese medical centre in London states the opposite. “To increase digestive power avoid raw food, especially lettuce. Raw food is much more difficult to digest and taxes the system.” He also advises using spices during cooking. Although the East has attracted spice traders for centuries and spices are freely available most people don’t realize their medicinal benefits. Ginger, for instance, is considered to be a universal medicine. Robert Svoboda, author of Ayurveda, Life, Health and Longevity, (Penguin) calls it the supreme toxin digester. “Turmeric is the best medicine in Ayurveda, it cures the whole person,” says Vasant and Usha Lad, authors of Ayurvedic Cooking for Self-Healing (Ayurveda Press) Some of these spices need to be used with caution as they are stimulants. People who perspire a lot and are generally hot should use stimulating spices in smaller quantities, these include cloves, black pepper, hot peppers, chilli and garlic.
When food is cooked with spices, the spices are absorbed breaking down the food before it even reaches the stomach. Spices also stimulate the secretion of saliva and digestive juices. Avoid irradiated spices and shop for whole spices that can be freshly ground just before use. Coffee grinders do the trick, especially with fresh cinnamon bark. Spices must not be burnt. Other digestive tips include chewing food into a pulp before swallowing as food is partially broken down in the mouth before reaching the stomach, especially carbohydrates. Don’t use microwaves. Try and avoid reheating food as it loses its vitality
Incorporating spices into your lifestyle can be imaginative and delicious. Choose a handful of your favourtie spices, get to know their medicinal qualities and use them in inventive ways. Some spices need a very hot oil to bring out their flavour. Clarified butter or ghee does this optimally and can be found at most supermarkets. Remember to use the freshest food available, the best option is to grow you own.
STIRFRY: Use fresh ginger root, garlic, onions, cumin and fennel in vegetable or chicken stirfrys
STEW: Include fresh green chilli, mustard seeds, curry leaves and cumin with a pinch of powdered turmeric and coriander, afterwards stir in some chopped fresh coriander.
SOUP: Soups are great with fennel seeds, turmeric, ground cumin, garlic, ginger and fresh curry leaves. This combination works particularly well with lentil soup. Add black pepper at the end.
Chewing fennel seeds after a meal relieves gas (the pulp need not be swallowed). One teaspoon of fennel powder with warm water 15 minutes before eating also stimulates digestive fire. Combine dill, cumin and coriander seed, as an effective anti-gas remedy by cooking them into a vegetable dish. Slice ginger root into herbal tea as a warming digestive aid. Boil saffron in milk for low blood pressure or drink a warm glass of milk with nutmeg to help with insomnia.
Stimulant spices: Cardamom, mustard seeds, oregano, paprika, rosemary, sage and turmeric – turmeric is also antibacterial and increases circulation, fenugreek is a sexual stimulant and ginger heats the body and is great in cold weather
Good for circulation: Cayenne, cinnamon, ginger,
Digestive aids: Cinnamon, mustard seed, cardamom, fennel, ginger and caraway.
Clove stimulates the adrenal glands and helps with impotence, garlic is an antibiotic and liver stimulant, fennel and coriander are diuretic, caraway reduces phlegm, saffron is a liver cleanser, parsley cleans the blood, nutmeg is a sedative, marjoram is calming, dill is an expectorant, cumin cools ulcer pain and thyme increases the breath
If your digestion is particularly poor, eat foods that are predigested like tempeh instead of meat and kefir as a substitute for milk. Pack your kitchen with an assortment of digestive spices, embrace the Eastern tradition of eating predominantly cooked food and prepare to stoke your digestive fire.