Spices in Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine: Protect Your Agni in Summer

Posted by on Jul 9, 2014

Spices in Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine can be used to preserve what Ayurveda calls Agni–the metabolic fire that is what makes us warm blooded and that is associated with health, strength and vitality.  Chinese Medicine calls this physiological fire Yang or Ministerial Fire.  Agni and Yang are the basis of all the transformative forces in the body and mind, from the cellular level of utilizing oxygen and nutrients, to the gross level of chewing food, and on the mental level the digestion of experience and creation of wisdom through learning.

Curiously, Agni and Ministerial Fire are damaged by the fire of summer. In summer the air is hot and sun is high. In response we sweat hard, and our body’s energy rises to the surface away from the gut. . The problem is Agni and Ministerial Fire, or Yang, need to remain in the furnace, at the core of the power plant. When physical Agni is dispersed by sweat, it leaves the core where digestion occurse, and Agni and Ministerial fire weakens. Think about it–when its really hot out, unbearably hot, you tend to lose your appetite. Its too hot to even eat and all you want are cool drinks. But in Winter, we eat heavy foods with thicker flavors. This is universally true across cultures, and its because our Agni or Ministerial fire flares up to compensate for the cold weather, like when you turn the knob up on the heater when its cold.

So our Agni or Minsterial Fire is paradoxically lower in hot weather and needs to be thoughtfully engendered so that it does not get so low that a pathological cold damp condition develops in our gut or lungs. Chinese medicine has thousands of case studies showing how people who overate the naturally cooling sweet fruits of  summer became more prone to respiratory diseases in Autumn and Winter.  or doused by the excessive amounts of cold foods we eat and drink in the hot weather, then they it weakens. Its also true that an uncalm mind, a Vata elevated consciousness, since Wind is cooling, also leads to weak Agni and Yang. Think about it–when you are filled with worry or anger (in the case of Pitta elevation) it is hard to concentrate and do well on a test. This is because fear and anger disperse our physiological fire and create pathological fire, we see this alot with skin disorders like Acne, Eczema and Psoriasis.

To review. There are two challenges in Summer for protecting and nurturing your healthy physiological fire. One is to prevent Agni/Yang from becoming too dispersed. Second is to keep from over-chilling it. We will sweat in summer and we will drink more fluids and eat more cooling foods.  And even simple water is naturally cooling and therefore dousing to Yang. Try drinking a liter of water immediately before lunch and notice what it does to your appetite.

In summer we sweat and our yang energy or heat keeps getting dispersed and exhausted. On freezing cold days you feel cold, but on boiling hot days you sweat and become exhausted. And if you analyze the aspect of Agni and Yang that resides in the mind, when you are exhausted how does that effect your ability to take in new information, to learn? Its just not on. Much harder.  In winter in every culture people eat heavy high-calorie foods, but in summer switch to lighter food. That is in part because our digestive fire weakens in summer because the yang is at the surface.Conversely, in summer, because it is so hot, we eat lots of cooling juicy food like fruit and more raw food. Raw food is cooling, because your body has to provide the fire to break down the cellulose that is normally broken down by cooking. So raw food is harder to digest, but we eat a lot more of it in summer, at a minimum as fruit, but usually in salad, too. We need to drink a lot more in summer, and water is in itself cooling. That is why in the desert an oasis is cool. It’s not the shade so much as the green shade and presence of moisture. And we know that in Chinese medicine excessive amounts of cold and raw food of any kind, whether they are deemed “good” for you by health food store marketing or hollywood movie stars or not, damage the Yang of our digestive fire, Agni, and create a condition of excessive dampness, called Ama in Ayurveda, that is at the root of much disease. It is what westerners really should be thinking about when they speak of “toxins.”

For example, and this is a pet peeve, suddenly coconut water became the rage, due to marketing by people making money. Nothing wrong with earning a living. In India and Sri Lanka people drink coconut water when they have dysentery, to restore electrolytes, and in the hot season to refresh and cool. But in both cases they are very careful with the naturally cooling qualities of coconut water. It is has its appropriate use. Coconut water is cold the way cucumber is and the opposite of the way grilled lamb or black pepper or cinnamon are warm or hot. So with dysentery coconut water is taken with ginger added, to try to protect the Agni being damaged by the bacterium or amoeba. In summer they are careful not to overconsume coconut water, because it is so cooling, and its understood if you do overconsume coconut water you will be more likely to catch either a summer cold or colds in rainy season. Now, if you were somehow able to buy coconut water in rainy season or winter cold (it is seasonal and not available) and someone saw you drinking it, that would by definition mark you as mentally ill, probably schizophrenic. That is how strong the understanding of cold and hot in foods is in India.  But in USA, where, as P.T. Barnum once said, “a sucker is born every minute,” people guzzle coconut water and eat cold energy food regardless of the season. This is weakening of the immune system due to false marketing. Yes, it has electrolytes, no it is not good for you any time of year. There are other ways to get those electrolytes in winter.

How do we know water is cooling and that most fruit is cooling? Which would you rather have in hot weather, and which would be more cooling, a dried apple or peach, or a fresh one? Dried fruit is warming and fresh fruit is cooling. The difference is the presence of water in the one. This is why in India, where you have to drink a lot of water due to the heat, they often put cumin seed in the water, called jeera pani, to protect the digestive fire/Agni  from the naturally cooling effect of water. You want to cool the body, but you don’t want to chill the digestive fire. This is the paradox. Digestion is a warm process of transformation, and transformation of all kinds requires Agni or Fire, what we call Spleen Qi in Chinese Medicine. In Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine it says that if you weaken Agni/Digestive Fire, or Spleen Qi, especially in summer when Yang accumulates,  to to be gathered or harvested in Autumn and stored in Winter when yin accumulates, your will be more prone to colds, flu, and allergies. It is part of the immunity process, preserving the yang/fire. It’s what makes you strong instead of doughy. It’s yang energy that fights infectious and autoimmune disease. Autoimmune diseases are chaos, and it’s yang that makes order. It’s easy to “damage” our digestive fire by eating cooling raw food like fruits, salad, and beverages in summer. So one of the remedies is to create balance by adding fire to water, yang to yin, like adding cumin to water, or adding warming spices to fruit pie, or eating watermelon with a little salt. Hence the cinnamon in the below tart, which conveniently also has an amazing flavor. In fact if you look at the way traditional cultures approach food, it’s always in tune with nature and an attempt at balance. In the south of France, in Langue d’Oc, across the border from Barcelona, by November the cuisine changes to heavier fattier dishes, grounding the body and soul for the approach of winter cold. Next,  an example of using Saigon Cinnamon to preserve Agni in a Summer Fruit Tart.

Healthy Summer Fruit Tart

Here is one of my favorite summer fruit tarts, delicious and healhty to eat and share!

Ingredients

Please note: I do not measure anything, but go by eye, so will do my best to imagine the quantities I have used. But know that you may have to adjust.

Crust

  • Whole wheat pastry flour, Â ¼ cup
  • Barley flour, 2/3 cup
  • Salt, a dash
  • Coconut sugar, 1 tsp
  • Macadamia nut oil, 1 Tbsp
  • Milk, water, soy milk, kefir, or yogurt, enough to make a dough, maybe 1/3 of a cup. (Use egg if you want it richer. Kefir and yogurt go especially well with cardamom and saffron.)

Filling

  1. Choose your favorite fruit. My favorites include pear, plum, peach, apricot, berries.
  2. Slice the fruit in whatever shape you like. Cut some in in half, others in slices.
  3. Add sugar (regular or coconut) to taste. In the last tart I made, I used about 1 Tbsp sugar on the fruit.
  4. Add cinnamon or other spice to taste. In the last tart I used probably 2 tsp dark Vietnamese cinnamon.
  5. Put my cinnamon into the spice grinder with the coconut sugar, which is quite coarse, and in that way the sugar is finer and the cinnamon evenly dispersed.

Recipe

  1. Mix the flour, knead it, roll it in my hands into a long rope, fold it over and fold it over in my hands until it’s soft enough. You could use a pin, of course, and maybe it will be softer, but the less to clean up the better as far as I am concerned. It’s also fun. Have your child help with this part.
  2. Place it in a Pyrex pie dish in the center, press it down and out and push it until it reaches the end. Then I either push the ends up and make a little bundle with the edges to keep the fruit in, or I use the end of the dish, like a regular American pie, so that the end of the crust flares out.
  3. Layer the fruit onto the crust. I like to make it pretty by alternating face up with face down, or putting face down in the outer circle and face up in the inner, like some kind of pinwheel galaxy of baked fruit.
  4. Sprinkle your cinnamon and sugar on top as evenly as you want. Sometimes I make it uneven so that when you have your pie you get bites without cinnamon and then surprise bites of high intensity.
  5. Bake at 365 degrees for about 30 minutes. I may have put it back in for an additional 7 minutes. Again this is a function of how cooked you want your fruit and how dark the crust.
  6. Allow it to cool and show off your art to your guests.
  7. Enjoy!

Low Sugar * Low Fat * High Flavor * Good Nutrition * Vegan * Low Gluten!

Have a healthy and tasty summer!

 

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