Diet to balance kapha (phlegm)

The diet to balance kapha corresponds to the many of the low-fat, mostly vegetarian diets out there including that recommended by Dr. Dean Ornish, as well as those who advocate for raw food veganism. This diet is proportionally rich in antioxidant and antinflammatory nutrients, and typically low in protein and fat. In Ayurveda this diet is suitable for people that have a sluggish metabolism, that tend to gain weight easily on a rich, nourishing diet. This diet is also an excellent choice to promote detoxification, by shifting energy balance in the body towards elimination. As per Ayurveda however, this diet is very cooling, and needs to be balanced with warming herbs and spices. This diet is also contraindication in children, pregnant and nursing mothers, and in immune deficiency.

Kapha-reducing diet

A kapha-reducing diet is predominant in bitter, pungent and astringent flavors, expressing the qualities of hot, light and dry. This includes a preference for foods such as:

• Soup stock made from spicy herbs such as garlic, ginger, onion and chili (e.g. Mulligatawny Soup, p. 149)
• Limited amounts of lean meats, prepared baked or grilled, e.g. poultry, fish, bison, elk, wild game (e.g. Goat Curry, p. 169)
• Leafy greens and other vegetables, steamed or stir-fried with only a little fat (e.g. Garlic-Basil Rapini, p. 156)
• Light and drying grains such as barley, buckwheat, millet and wild rice (e.g. Northwest Wild Rice Infusion, p. 185)
• Most legumes, prepared with warming herbs and spices (e.g. Urad Mung Dhal, p. 180)
• Sour and bitter fruits such as lemon and lime
• Fermented foods, made with bitter and pungent vegetables such as onion, daikon, radish, cabbage, tomato, peppers (p. 158)
• Warming herbs and spices, e.g. ginger, cardamom, cayenne, ajwain, black pepper, mustard
• Honey, in limited amounts

How do you know if a kapha-balancing diet is right for you? One way to use the diet is to treat kapha-specific health issues, such as cough, congestion, weight gain or autotoxicity (ama), and another way is to use it to balance your constitution. What follows are the features of a kapha constitution, taken from my book Food As Medicine: The Theory and Practice of Food. Please also check out the pages on a pitta-balancing and vata-balancing diet to see if these diets are more suitable. Remember too, that you can be a combination of the doshas, and so the best might be a balanced combination of two or three different diets.

Kapha constitution
Kapha constitution is more sensitive to qualities such as heaviness, cold, and moistness, and thus measures are taken on a general basis to balance these aspects by emphasizing qualities such as light, hot, and dry.  Physically, kapha types have a general tendency to weight gain, with a heavy, thick build.  The shoulders are broad and the torso, legs and arms are thick and large; in women the hips are broad and breasts are full.  The musculature is well-developed but usually hidden by a layer of fat, hiding any angularities of the skeleton.  The feet are large and thick.  Facial features are broad and full, and generally well proportioned. The skin is soft and smooth, and the hair is generally smooth, thick and greasy.  The orifices (eyes, nose, ears, mouth, rectum, urethra, vagina) are moist and well-lubricated.  There is a tendency to lethargy or inactivity, although once motivated the energy released can be very powerful, with great endurance and a steady pace. A kapha type might suffer from a slow and weak digestion (mandagni), as well as minor congestive conditions, such as respiratory and gastrointestinal catarrh.  They may display a mild aversion to cold and prefer warmer climates, but if they are physically active they can withstand even very cold weather quite easily.

Old-fashioned Sauerkraut

Old-fashioned Sauerkraut

Sauerkraut is the classic food of Eastern Europe, derived from the German term for ‘soured cabbage’. Like many leafy greens the cabbage is a hybrid of the wild mustard (Brassica oleracea), and its healing and medicinal virtues have long been extolled by the ancients. Of cabbage, Cato the Elder claimed many uses: in the treatment of digestive disorders and colic, as well as arthritis, ulcers, nasal polyps, deafness and tumors, and applied topically as a poultice for wounds, sores and infection. In the 1950s, raw cabbage juice caught the attention of researchers, and was found to have anti-ulcer and anti-inflammatory effects in the digestive tract. Like rapini and other brassicas, cabbage contains organosulfur compounds including phenethyl isothiocyanate and sulforaphane that have been shown to have potent antioxidant and anti-tumor properties.

Given the rather ubiquitous presence of cabbage and cabbage-like sisters including sui choy all over the world, it is no surprise there is such a diversity of live culture cabbage dishes, from the traditional European sauerkraut, to Kimchi (p. 186) in Korea. The following recipe favors the European palette, and contains herbs that are good for relieving gas and bloating, but can just as easily be left out for a simpler flavor.

2 lbs. grated cabbage (~ one cabbage head)
1 onion, chopped fine
1 tbsp. salt
½ tsp. dill seed
½ tsp. savory seed
½ tsp. coriander seed
½ tsp. black pepper
½ tsp. caraway seed

Mix the grated cabbage and onion in a large, clean mixing bowl with clean hands, and add in the salt and herbs. Knead and squeeze the vegetables well for about 5 minutes, ensuring that everything is well mixed and sloppy, as the salt and kneading will pull a lot of the water out of the veggies. Stuff this mixture into a clean, dry, large wide-mouth mason jar, pressing down as you add each handful, allowing the juices to rise above the level of the vegetables. Seal the jar and set it aside for 1-2 hours, and then with clean hands, push down again on the mixture so that more brine rises to the surface. If there isn’t enough brine, top up the jar with some water, seal the jar and shake well, ensuring that the veggies are now lying below the surface of the brine. Any material that lies above the surface of the brine may get moldy. Put the jar aside, but make sure to open the lid and release the (stinky) gasses that accumulate a few times a day, for the first few days. The ferment is typically established within 4-5 days, after which you can drain off any excess liquid that you added. Reseal and set aside for 2-3 weeks and then enjoy, storing in the fridge to preserve the flavor and prevent it from becoming too sour.

How to make ghee

How to make ghee

Ghee is the classic cooking fat of ancient India, used not only in a variety of both sweet and savory dishes, but also as a medicine. The term ‘desi’ ghee means ‘home-made’ ghee, and originally referred to the pure, clarified oil rendered from cultured butter. Nowadays, most commercial ghee is made from non-cultured, creamery butter, and is not made according to the traditional, time-honored methods used in Indian villages for millennia. As such, this type of clarified butter does not have the virtues and benefits of traditionally made ghee. The difference is not only in the aroma and taste of the ghee, but in its chemical composition. From an Ayurvedic perspective, ghee made from cultured butter contains within it the quality of agni, which offsets the heavy and congesting properties of regular butter and clarified butter. To make proper ghee, always make it from unsalted, cultured butter.

2 lbs. (900 g) unsalted cultured butter

Melt the cultured butter in ceramic, glass or stainless steel pot, either in the oven at 250˚F/120˚C, or on low heat on the stove. Cook for 2-3 hours or so, until the butter separates into three distinct layers: a thin layer of impurities on the surface, the middle layer that contains the ghee, and the bottom layer which contains the milk solids.  Take it off the heat and pour it off into a second bowl through a very fine mesh strainer or paper filter, leaving the congealed milk solids behind. Store the ghee in a dry glass container in a dark, cool location. To get the ghee out of the jar always use a clean dry spoon to avoid contamination and spoilage. Depending on the quality of the butter, this recipe will yield a little less than two pounds (750 g) of ghee.

In Ayurveda, ghee is a highly lauded food supplement, used to boost energy, improve the eyes, enhance the complexion, nourish the skin, balance the mind and nervous system, treat infertility and problems of pregnancy, counter deficiency (vata) and balance inflammation (pitta). When combined with other herbs it is said that ghee is ‘yogavahi’, meaning that it has the ability to augment the effects of any medicinal agent combined with it. Ghee is especially suited to children and the elderly, and is a rejuvenative in pitta conditions, often combined with honey for its nutritive effects, but never in equal quantities.

Shatadhauta is a type of ghee that has been kneaded in a copper vessel with very cold water, rinsed and then kneaded again with cold water – for ‘one hundred washings’. When prepared in this way the ghee becomes white like the moon, and is believed to have a cooling property, used in the treatment of burning sensations, skin disease, wounds, scars, and burns. When ghee has been aged in excess of ten years, called puraan ghee, it is thought to be much stronger in its overall action than fresh ghee, and when used as a medicine, balances all three doshas.

Sometimes I let my ghee cook for 3-4 hours, causing the proteins to congeal, making it easier to filter them out. It imparts a delightful nutty flavor to the ghee that is too amazing for words, and it would be great if it weren’t for the fact that these flavor compounds are generated through a Maillard reaction, which also results in the production of pro-oxidizing compounds, and thus isn’t so great for shelf life, and if you ate this all the time, not so good for health.