One of the most frequently asked questions about coming on retreat to India is ‘What’s the food like?’ Lots of people worry that the food will be too spicy or that they’ll have trouble meeting their dietary needs, such as avoiding gluten, dairy, nuts and other allergens. Others have read about high levels of pesticides in fruit and vegetables in India and worry about food quality. This blog post describes the flavours, ingredients and quality of the food that we enjoy during our retreats and trainings in India.
The food at our retreat venue, Maitreyi Vedic Village in Tamil Nadu is exquisite - just like the beautiful natural setting of the village itself. This is clean, healthy, balanced eating at it’s very best. It all starts in the onsite organic farm that produces the fruit and vegetables that go into every meal on the retreat. The farm includes a coconut plantation (fresh green coconuts are served every day in the village café – free of charge), mangos, veggies and herbs. For non-vegans, the Gowshala (cow shed) supplies fresh organic milk for the buttermilk, paneer, chai and other delicious dairy products that are made in the kitchen. The blessing of the cows in the Gowshala is one of the highlights of the visit!
When the fresh produce arrives in the kitchen, it’s prepared according to the principals of Ayurveda. Everything is carefully cleaned and blessed and cooked with great care and food combinations are carefully crafted to ensure meals are both nutritious and easy to digest. All the food on the retreat is ‘Sattvic’. Sattva means ‘truth’ and it is one of three universal qualities known as the Gunas: Tamas, Rajas and Sattva.
The 3 Gunas
- Tamas: a heavy quality that represents darkness, inertia and atrophy.
- Rajas: an active quality that represents movement, passion and confusion.
- Sattva: balance, purity and goodness.
All three Gunas are necessary – we need the energy of Tamas to help us wind down and sleep at night, while Rajas provides the necessary movement to get us up and running in the morning. However, when Tamas or Rajas dominate, we end up feeling imbalanced and yoga teaches us to move towards Sattva through our lifestyle choices, including what we eat.
All food items can be categorized as Rajasic, Tamasic or Sattvic. Stimulating foods such as chili and caffeine are considered Rajasic. Heavy, sedating foods such as animal products are considered Tamasic. In order to maintain a healthy body and clear mind, Ayurveda recommends eating Sattvic food – high-nutrient, seasonal, organic vegetables, whole-grains, unhomogenised dairy, nuts, legumes and fruit.
On an Ayurvedic retreat, the food is chosen, prepared and cooked to be Sattvic. This boosts digestion, nourishes the body, calms the irritated gut and creates a sense of lightness in both the body and the mind. It’s the ideal food for practicing yoga and meditation as well as being healing and cleansing for the body.
The food at the retreat is South Indian, most of which is naturally gluten-free and non-spicy. North Indian dishes often include a lot of chilli, tomatoes and wheat products. South India is a rice growing area and there is little or no wheat in the diet – even the breads and pancakes are made with rice and lentil flour. The spices are more subtle, with cumin, coriander, cardamom, ginger and other flavoursome herbs taking the place of more pungent spices.
Our favourite dishes are the traditional South Indian Dosas and Idly. Dosas are large, thin pancakes and Idly are steamed savoury rice cakes. Both are made with a rice and lentil flour and served with sambar (a lentil and vegetable stew) and mild coconut chutney. Usually served for breakfast, Dosa and Idly are a delicious treat. A lot of South Indian food is made with coconut and several of the dishes on the retreat are made with fresh grated coconut – both mains and desserts.
Some of the vegetables used in the dishes are unfamiliar to visitors from the West. There are a multitude of ‘gourds’, a word that is sometimes used to describe pumpkins, but more accurately refers to members of the Cucurbitaceae family. From snake gourd to bottle gourd, these tasty vegetables turn up in a variety of stews and side dishes.
Once per week, lunch comes with dessert, traditional Indian sweets, combining grated coconut and jaggery, an unrefined form of sugar that is nutrient dense. Cashew nuts are often feature in the desserts and sometimes crop up at breakfast time, alongside the organic porridges. While nuts are used in the kitchen, staff are very aware of the need to keep nut products separate due to guest allergies and the food that is served in the dining hall is never prepared with nuts – all nut products are served separately to those who can consume them safely. Similarly, dairy products are prepared separately and vegans or guests with dairy allergies can easily avoid the milk and occasional cheese products. All food is vegetarian and no alcohol is served – in the interests of maintaining Sattva throughout the campus!
If you are undertaking the yogic cleansing practice of Pancha Karma while you are with us in India, the Ayurvedic doctor might modify your diet to help you get the most from your treatments. Some people have certain food types added or removed from their meals, or are invited to take a herbal supplement that improves digestion. Each person on an ayurvedic retreat will be offered individualised recommendations for their meals, which will be carefully prepared by the highly trained kitchen staff.
Nikola Ellis is the founder of Adore Yoga, yoga therapist, counsellor and teacher trainer. She conducts regular trainings that help people of all ages, shapes and abilities enjoy the benefits of yoga and meditation, including Meditation Facilitator Certificate Trainings; Level 1 200hr Teacher Training and Post Graduate Yoga Teacher Training in Mental Health, Adaptive Asana and the Foundations of Yoga Therapy and a highly regarded professional 650hr Graduate Certificate of Yoga Therapy.