On the two-and-a-half hour drive from Kochi airport to Vengunad in the Palakkad region, my colleague, Sanjiv Valsan, veteran of many trips to God’s Own Country, regales me with tales of his culinary experiences on Kerala’s highways. It is noon by the time we hit the road, and Sanjiv declares that it’s already too late for us to find toddy that’s worth drinking. “You have to have it by 9 o’clock latest, otherwise it gets disgustingly over-fermented and undrinkable,” he declares. Then he launches into mouth-watering descriptions of toddy shop fish curry and beef fry that he’s had at humble roadside stalls. By now, we are ravenous, having caught our flight early that morning, without breakfast. Alas, there are no toddy shops on this stretch of the highway. Sanjiv’s discourse on the delights of Kerala cuisine tails off when I remind him that we are here to write about Ayurvedic cuisine. “So then,” he predicts grimly, “we’re in for a diet of translucent vegetables.”

By the time we arrive at our first stop, Kalari Kovilakom, one of Kerala’s leading Ayurvedic centres, located in the magnificent palace of the erstwhile rajas of Kollengode at Vengunad, the lunch hour is long over, and we learn Rule Number One of Ayurvedic cuisine — the food has to be eaten within no more than two hours of being prepared. So, no leftovers, and no reheated food. We while away the afternoon exploring the lush grounds and the serene environs of the palace until it is time to head to the kitchen to watch preparations for dinner. And Sanjiv’s prediction proves bang on; there are heaps of translucent vegetables — snake gourd, bottle gourd, ivy gourd (tindli), white and yellow pumpkin, bitter gourd (karela), green papaya, cabbage, cucumber, banana stem, drumsticks — being chopped by a battery of cooks.

Charts pinned up on the kitchen wall have detailed lists of the food prescriptions for the eighteen guests staying here. They will each get a customized thali, according to whether their ‘dosha’ (constitution) has been diagnosed as dominantly kapha, pitha or vatha by the Ayurvedic doctors on the staff, or a combination of different doshas. To sum up: Kapha types benefit from pungent, bitter, heating and astringent foods, and small quantities of sour and salty foods. Pitha types benefit from bitter, sweet and cooling foods and must avoid sour and fermented foods like yogurt and fermented batters. Vatha types get salty, sour, sweet and heating foods, leafy vegetables and no bitter foods.  So, Rule Number Two: a strictly regulated diet is an integral part of any course of Ayurvedic treatment, as important as medication and other therapies.

The translucent vegetables are set to cook, without a drop of oil, in heavy stone pots and huge brass urulis, subtly seasoned with ginger, garlic, turmeric, mustard seeds, curry leaves and rock salt. Pepper and chillies, however, are taboo. Dals have been boiled and kept in earthen pots, ready to be seasoned and turned into soup just before the meal is served. The nutty red rice of the Palakkad region is steamed, appams are griddled, and dosas made of rawa, rice and white millet sizzle on hot iron slabs, again without a drop of oil. Bell metal thalis, each labelled with a guest’s room number, are got ready, with the foods ladled out in carefully portion-controlled amounts. When our thalis are being made up, Sanjiv and I ask if we can have rawa dosa as well as rice, and are sternly given Rule Number Three of Kalari Kovilakom’s Ayurvedic cuisine: No Mixing of Cereals; choose one or the other.

When the dinner bell sounds, hungry guests hurry out of the palace’s many rooms, corridors and staircases, and head straight for the airy covered veranda that wraps around one end of the building. This is the dining room. And now we discover Rule Number Four: No Talking, No Discussions During a Meal. This apparently disturbs the absorption of nutrients and the digestive process.

When I sit down to my meal of ginger-infused lukewarm water, buttermilk, pumpkin soup, cabbage thoran, cucumber avial and red rice, all in rather minute quantities, I am amazed to discover how delicious and flavourful this oil-free meal is, with the aromas and textures of the different dishes perfectly complementing each other.

That night, I’m in bed by 8.30, I sleep more soundly than I have in weeks, but wake up next morning craving my usual caffeine-nicotine fix. It goes without saying that the rules of traditional Ayurvedic cuisine, so strictly observed at Kalari Kovalikom, completely forbid such stimulants. By the afternoon of our second day, however, by which time I’ve had two more meals (breakfast and lunch), I begin to feel smugly virtuous. The frugality, subtlety and fine balance of Kalari Kovalikom’s Ayurvedic cuisine have not only instilled in me a new-found respect for translucent vegetables, they seem to have quietened my coffee-cigarette cravings. Sami Erol, a Turkish investment banker who has been coming to Kalari Kovalikom every year for the last five years, assures me that the cravings for meat, alcohol, cigarettes or caffeine — disappear after the first five days. “After that it’s much easier. And when we’re back in Istanbul we continue to follow about 70 per cent of the food rules — for example, we eat early and have meat only once a month.” Cherry Cherian, the urbane, genial general manager of Kalari, recounts his own experience of the benefits of Ayurvedic cuisine. When he took up this job six years ago, he was a portly man weighing eighty kilos, with a keen appetite for non-vegetarian food and dangerously high blood pressure; today, simply by eating the food the guests eat, he is down to a trim sixty kilos and his BP is normal.

Inspired by Sami and Cherry, I give up my plans to sneak out for a smoke to the parking lot of the palace, before we move on from Vengunad to explore Ayurvedic cuisine at other places in the belt stretching from Palakkad to Thrissur. This region has long been renowned for the authenticity and rigour of its Ayurvedic tradition, the knowledge and skills of its Ayurvedic physicians and the expertise of the Palakkad Brahmin cooks in preparing the food prescribed by them.

We spend the next two nights at the Perumbayil Ayurveda Mana, a renovated six-hundred-year-old mansion set in spacious gardens, a few kilometres from the great Guruvayoor temple. A newly built treatment centre has been added to the house, presided over by Dr Varun Vinayak, a sixth-generation Ayurvedic physician, and his younger colleague, Dr Sruthi. Dr Varun’s food regime is more relaxed — apart from the usual vegetables of the gourd family, we happily mix cereals as we choose between  boiled rice, upma, puttu, idiyappams, chappatis and pathiri — the rice flour rotis that are a speciality of  Kerala’s Muslims. We also get boiled bananas (“If we don’t boil them, they could cause constipation,” explains Dr Varun). And, to our surprise and delight, there’s tea and coffee at breakfast!

An amble through the bustling market at nearby Thrissur reveals that herbs and condiments regarded as beneficial in Ayurveda are an integral part of daily fare at local homes: the shops specializing in these are thronged with customers buying them to add to milk or curd, or to seasonal vegetables. About a forty-minute drive from the Perumbayil Mana is the Punnathur Kotta, an elephant sanctuary. And here we find there’s even a special Ayurvedic diet to rejuvenate old and retired elephants — they are fed a mixture of beaten rice, milk, salt and turmeric.

We continue our journey northwards, to the famous Arya Vaidya Sala at Kottakkal, in Malabar district. Founded more than a century ago by P.S. Varier, a legendary Ayurvedic scholar and practitioner, we find a more purist version of Ayurvedic cuisine here than at Perumbayil. Tea and coffee are out; coconut water is regarded as an elixir. And here we learn Rule Number Five: No Siesta After Lunch; it causes indigestion. As the kitchen staff puts together a typical lunch thali for us, Suzana, a Spanish woman, joins us: she has checked in for a two-week stay, to get treatment for the general debility caused by her bouts of chemotherapy. And she enthusiastically attests to the amazing detox effect of the food she’s been having. The thali has cabbage thoran; steamed cauliflower, carrots and beans; rice; roasted papad; medicated water; an amla preserve; and buttermilk with turmeric.

Our final destination is the Kadavu Resort and Ayurveda Centre on the outskirts of Kozhikode, idyllically situated on the banks of the Chaliyar river. Here we learn about the special therapeutic properties of certain vegetables: White pumpkin (ash gourd) is good for the heart and destroys excess heat and fat in the body. Karela is a rich source of vitamins, minerals, calcium and iron. Beetroot is a natural detoxifier and blood purifier. Tindli controls diabetes, purifies blood and strengthens bones. Okra prevents constipation and curbs the absorption of sugar. Cabbage helps regulate blood pressure, is a natural antihistamine and helps in the production of blood-clotting proteins.

The chief physician, Dr Remia Sivadas, has given Ayurvedic cuisine an inventive new global twist here, given the number of Arab patients who come to her Ayurveda Centre: On the Ayurvedic menu for them that day are bamiya bi zayt hummus (okra and chickpea stew), kousa marak (braised zucchini), fattoush (salad with onions, tomato, lime and cumin), with wholewheat pita bread. “But of course they’re used to meat, and some of them do cheat,” smiles Dr Sivadas. It’s our last night, and Sanjiv and I decide to cheat too. Bright-eyed, detoxed and energetic after five days of super-satvik fare, we head to the Kadavu Resort’s restaurant and binge on Malabar mutton biryani, prawn moily, beef coconut fry and Malabar parotta. And then we go on a guilt trip.

The information

Where  to stay (and eat)

Kalari Kovalikom, Kollengode, Palakkad (04923-263921, cghearth.com)

Perumbayil Ayurveda Mana, Pavaratty Road, Paluvayil, Guruvayoor (9846045696, ayurvedamana.com)

Arya Vaidya Sala, Kottakkal, Malappuram District (0483-2808000, aryavaidyasala.com)

Kadavu Resort and Ayurveda Centre,NH-17 Calicut Bypass Road, Azhinjilam, Malappuram District (0483-2830570, kadavuayurvedaresort.com)

Some Ayurvedic dishes to try in your own kitchen, based on my close look at what the cooks at Kalari Kovilakom were doing. Make sure you use the heaviest pot you have, to avoid the food getting scorched, because you won’t use any oil.

Pumpkin soup
Keep ready some boiled arhar (toor) dal cooked with turmeric, asafoetida and rock salt. Also keep ready some grated coconut ground into a paste with garlic, and some cumin powder.

Dice the yellow pumpkin and steam it with turmeric, rock salt and chopped ginger. Use just enough water to let it cook in its own steam, and keep stirring. When it’s tender, add it to the dal along with the coconut-garlic paste and a pinch of cumin. Stir well to mix. The consistency should be fairly thick.

Tip: You can also make this soup with moong dal and spinach

Cabbage thoran
Heat a heavy pot and add mustard seeds and cumin seeds until they crackle, then some  finely chopped onion, turmeric, grated coconut and curry leaves. Keep stirring until the onions lose their raw smell. Then add chopped cabbage, previously steamed lightly, and stir well to mix.

Tip: You could substitute long beans or raw papaya for the cabbage

Cucumber avial
Lightly steam diced cucumber with finely chopped ginger, rock salt and curry leaves, until the cucumber turns slightly opaque. Add coconut milk and heat through.

Beetroot pachadi
Lightly steam finely chopped beetroot. Grind together coconut and mustard seeds into a fine paste. Add this to yogurt together with chopped ginger, rock salt and curry leaves. Finally mix in the steamed beetroot.

Tip: Can also be made with bitter gourd or banana stem.

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