EpigenEating In India
I am currently in India on a ten month volunteer and research experience that will expose me to a different world of medicine. I will spend the majority of my time volunteering with non-profit organizations and hospitals that provide free or discounted medical care to the impoverished in southern India. When I am not volunteering I will be investigating the alternative healing customs of Ayurveda, a system of medicine that heavily relies upon natural products in its treatments. Recognizing that spices and herbs are potent sources of phytonutrients, the active compounds the stimulate changes in the body, I want to investigate the natural products used in Ayurvedic therapeutics in order to understand the effects of the medicines on a cellular and molecular level. As I am exposed to a multitude of treatments during my time in India I will search for studies investigating the effects of the active compounds used and thereby fuse western scientific research with ancient herbal medical practice. You can track the progress of my experience in India through my postings below.
September 30, 2014 - I watched cricket for the first time! A friend I made at the Academy took me to an indoor tournament held in this huge gymnasium. I had to watch for the better part of an hour, constantly checking the score board to see if my hypotheses on how certain plays were scored were correct, but with my friend's help I now understand the basics of cricket. It's a fun game to watch and it mirrors baseball in a lot of ways. The mental game between the batsman and the bowler reminds me very much of the struggle between the pitcher and the hitter to gain an edge. The bowler can bring it hard or they can bring it soft with a lot of spin. Almost every pitch bounces off the ground but it is not mandatory as I mistakenly believed. The only time the batter is retired is if the defense catches a batted ball on the fly or if the ball gets by the batsman and knocks over the wickets. When a bowler gets a wicket it's an absolute scene. The celebration is somewhere in between the the celebration of a sack in football and the celebration of a goal in hockey. There is a brief display of pageantry by the bowler before his team envelops him to congratulate his success. It was wildly entertaining.
The second level of class finished and I'm in the first week of the third and final level. The last week of the second level was a bit hectic. All four of us students were working frantically to finish our herbariums (books of dried plants with their medicinal description) while the teachers were trying to make up time because we were behind schedule. This school provides some great information but organization is not its strong suit and after coming from college it can be frustrating at times. Overall though I'm very happy with my choice of schools.
I learned another dish I'm excited to make at home and twist to incorporate more local ingredients. The dish is a dessert called payasum and it is a very sweet rice noodle pudding with a milk base and lots of cardamom. When I get home I want to substitute the rice noodles for rolled oats and the cardamom for lavender. Maybe slice some grilled peaches on top just to finish it off. I think it would be pretty good. While on the topic of Indian desserts, they do not cheat themselves. The amount of sugar used in some of these dishes is pretty incredible.
September 5, 2014 - Happy Onam! Well, truly it is the 7th day of Onam but we are having the celebration for Onam today at the Academy and at the Health Village (recently renamed from the River Retreat). Onam is the autumn celebration that is observed throughout Kerala. The origin comes from a beloved King who was wise, kind and very much admired by his people. It is said that he was asked a favor from homeless dwarf man who requested ownership of all the land he could cover in three strides. Being a generous king as well as acknowledging the diminutive stature of the man the king willingly granted his request. Upon these words the dwarf began to grow and grow for he was a magical trickster in disguise and when he strode out to claim his land his second step brought him to the edge of the Earth. Despite the trickery the king remained true to his word and offered his head for the giant to step on so his third step could carry him out into space. With that the king was banished from his lands and his people grieved his departure. Every fall near the first of September the Onam festival begins and lasts for ten days. All the people make traditional flower carpets, a form of mandala made of flower petals that get more intricate and ornate each day. They prepare traditional feasts served on banana leaves and each day they leave a meal next to the flower carpet for king to guide him home to his people.
At the Academy we had class in the morning and then helped make the flower carpet. Every student helped in some way, whether it was cutting up the brightly colored flower petals, drawing the design on the ground or filling the lamps with oil. The design (seen at the right) was a simpler one I was told but still intricate in my untrained eyes. I enjoyed how they worked in the cross, the crescent moon, and the ohm to make sure that none of the three major religions of the area were left out. We were then served a traditional feast by the local student. On my banana leaf a pile of rice was heaped with sammba, an indian vegetable stew of sorts. Then student after student came by and daintily placed a single spoonful of sauce or curry. In a traditional Indian meal the six flavors, sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent, should be present. Traditional Keralan feasts take the challenge for variety even further and some of the more extravagant feasts have been known to have fifty different sauces or curries present. As I ate I was told to grab a little bit of a sauce with my fingers and mix it into a morsel of rice. By doing this the flavors experienced can change radically from one bite to the next. For our feast we sauces that added flavors of ginger, coconut with lentils, banana mixed with curd, a savory dish that was a combination of different beans, and a delicious pineapple curry to list off a few. Afterwards everyone is served buttermilk to help the digestion.
September 23, 2014 - The second class is finishing up. We finally started learning more about plants which has been really interesting but I didn't count on so many of them being indigenous to the Indian subcontinent. Some of the plants lose their appeal for applicable home remedies when I have to cross an ocean to collect them instead of crossing the threshold and collecting them from the kitchen garden. Despite that it has been fascinating learning about some of these plants I've never heard of and when I learn about their medicinal properties it makes me a tad jealous that we don't have these in North America. For example Amalaki or Indian Gooseberry (Phyllanthus emblica) is native to tropical Southeast Asia but it is one of the most prized plants in Ayurveda because it is said to help decrease all three doshas when they are aggravated in addition to being a potent rejuvenatory medicine and a high source of antioxidants to boot! It is commonly used in home remedies to help with such things as eye care, heartburn, vomiting, and wound cleaning to name a few. I have still been able to learn some great things about plants that we have access to back home. The take away lessons from these classes are make sure to include ginger, garlic, turmeric, pepper and basil in the diet. They all aid in proper digestion, a fundamental of Ayurvedic health as well as having anti-inflammatory effects and being good sources of antioxidants.
Here are some of the home remedies I have picked up:
Toothache - chew fresh ginger pieces (for some pain relief add in a clove or two as well).
Localized Swelling - make paste out of black pepper kernels and water. Apply to the affected area and leave until the paste dries.
Diarrhea - take 1g of cinnamon powder each day until the symptoms subside.
Insect Bite - paste holy basil leaves and add turmeric powder. Apply over the bite, it will act as an antitoxin.
Cough - fry turmeric powder in a dry pan without oil and add raw honey to make a paste. Can be taken frequently to relieve symptoms.
***DISCLAIMER: These are taken straight from my lecture notes. I have not had time to try these out myself and cannot vouch for their legitimacy.
August 31, 2014 - Today marks the one month anniversary of my arrival into Mumbai. After a month of being India I am finally feeling comfortable in this country that is so phenomenally different from the United States. Kerala (the state I'm living in right now) is known as one of the wettest states in India and with it being monsoon season for all of India I must say it has certainly lived up to its reputation. The first two weeks here I was studying to the constant patter of rain on tin roofs. I left Tacoma thinking that I wouldn't need to worry about studying in a rainy climate again...well at least it's warm here. The last two weeks have seen significantly less rain and it's effect is apparent in the water level of the Periyar River that flows next to the retreat where I'm staying. The picture on the right I took standing in the yard of the retreat is of a heron that got disturbed from its early morning breakfast in the reeds nearby.
Shortly after I arrived in south India I enrolled in classes at Kerala Ayurveda Academy, a school that is just one part of a bigger corporation that has been spreading the reach of Ayurveda for the last 80 years through their hospital, school, pharmacy and various healing retreats throughout India. My first course was three weeks long and we were in class for seven hours a day, six days a week. Having now received education in both India and the US I must say being in India makes me truly appreciate the two day weekends we have back home. My first course was called the Primary Awareness in Ayurveda and it was meant to be a foundational course for my next two months of study. We learned the basics behind the ideology and theory of Ayurveda, such as the five element theory, the three dosha theory, diet, body constitution and daily regimen depending on the season. Additionally we learned numerous treatments varying from massage and restorative treatments to the more intensive detoxifying treatments known as panchakarma (in Sankrit pancha = five, karma = actions/treatments.) The picture on the top left is of me practicing a treatment called Thakradhara on a classmate. It involves continuously pouring cooled buttermilk that is medicated with ten different roots over the head for 45 minutes. The therapy is used for people who are highly stressed, struggling with insomnia, experiencing premature graying/dandruff, as well as when a patient's Pitta dosha (a dosha is a fundamental unit of the body in Ayurveda, they view similarly to how we view a cell in western medicine) is aggravated. The material was very interesting because all of it was drastically different from most of the things I have seen but unfortunately there was not much of a focus on the properties of the herbs and spices used in the treatments. The second level is focused on learning the properties of the natural products used for treatment and recognizing when to use them. In the one week of class we have had we already covered topics involved in herbology, medication formulation, symptom recognition and how they relate to the Ayurvedic approach for pathology. I am excited to report back on the new information I will learn over the next month!
Well it looks like I may have spoke too soon on the rain lightening up. It has been pouring most of the afternoon and it has created small rivers on the footpath leading to the dining hall. I guess monsoon season isn't over quite yet. The smell of freshly cooked chapati and daal is wafting from the kitchen, I guess it's time to sign off and grab some dinner.
September 14, 2014 - I am most of the way through the second class at the Academy. This level hasn't been what I anticipated but it's been interesting none the less. For the first two weeks we learned about the pieces Ayurveda uses to prescribe, diagnose and treat disease. I find their approach to diagnosing disease very interesting because it's entirely symptom based. Using the symptoms of a disease they can fit it into any of the diseases that have been described in the ancient texts. For example if a new virus pops up and begins to infect people. Ayurveda doesn't classify a disease by what virus is infecting the person, it classifies the disease by the symptoms it presents. Let's take Ebola because it's been in the news. An Ayurvedic doctor trying to treat Ebola wouldn't change his or her treatment if someone told him or her that the patient has Ebola. The doctor would treat the case as described in the classical texts for hemorrhagic fever. It's very different way of looking at the root cause of a disease. In allopathic medicine it is essential to understand that a virus is present in order understand why a patient is having certain symptoms. In Ayurveda knowing that a virus is in the body is not as critical because the true cause the disease relates back to the dosha (or fundamental humor) aggravation and this aggravation is only initiated by the virus. I wonder if this philosophy would be effective for treating milder viruses? Would a person be able to recover quicker from the flu if they were more actively treating the Kapha and Pitta aggravation as soon as they started showing symptoms? I'm not sure the answer but I can promise you that every Ayurvedic Physician here would say "of course."
Now that I am done with most of my med school secondaries I can start hanging out in the kitchen a little bit more. This is a part I've been very excited about and I made it a point to befriend the kitchen staff shortly after arriving. Yesterday I was learned how to make daal, a vegetable curry, and a pumpkin soup. The pumpkin soup I can hijack into a roasted butternut squash soup at home that will be delish! I also finally learned the secret to rolling out perfect circles when trying to roll out dough for pies, crescent rolls, etc. Never let the roller go off the edge of the dough, always keep it over the majority of the dough. Then rotate the pie 90 degrees every couple of rolls. It will make a world of difference. I was making chapati, which is like a cross between naan and a tortilla, and they're supposed to be circular... let's just say that my first half dozen attempts weren't easily recognized by geometry. I finally learned the key after watching the head chef roll out ten perfect circles in the time it took me to roll out one lumpy oval.
September 7, 2014 - Went to the Thrikkakara Temple for the final day of Onam. It is said that this is the temple that the good king came to when he ruled Kerala and the temple is the epicenter for Onam celebrations every year. This year they were rumored to have fed close to ten thousand people the traditional Kerala feast over the course of two days. I snuck back to the kitchen clean up area and it was impressive to see the vessels they used to cook with. Many of the vessels were the size of water troughs used for cows! The temple was one of the larger ones I have seen while in India but that doesn't mean much because I have only seen a handful so far. It was a fun atmosphere to be in. There were stalls selling fried pepper, snacks and popcorn. Other vendors were flagging down passing customers trying to sell the 20 rupee (about 35 cents) cups of fresh squeezed cane juice. Then there were numerous stalls selling toys for kids. I was told by one of my professors that Onam is the time of year that kids love because they are spoiled by all there relatives with toys. The main attraction was the decorated elephants. One of my classmates had heard about this tradition and asked numerous people what time the elephants are decorated and walked around the temple. In typical India fashion we were told three different times on two different days and were left to make an educated guess. We ended up missing the decoration ceremony by about an hour unfortunately but we were still able to see the elephants unadorned. I am still taken aback by the sheer size of the animals and these are the smaller Asiatic elephants!