We’ve all learned how important it is to eat a balanced diet to ensure whole-body health. But did you know that certain foods and herbal medicines can support the health of specific tissues and body systems? In Ayurveda, digestion is described as a multi-step process, in which each of the seven dhatus (tissues) receives nourishment in a sequential and selective way.
When you eat a spoon of beans, for instance, the proteins, fats, and carbohydrates (and all the other components) of that food will be broken down and passed from tissue to tissue, five days for each one, even as certain elements of the food will be nabbed by certain systems because they need them most. Overall, the process takes thirty-five days; at the end the whole body gets fed as it should, and you’re left with a refined, distilled essence of vitality called ojas.
Muscle tissue, known as mamsa dhatu, is third in the chain of dhatu-digestion, following the lymph/plasma layer (rasa dhatu) and blood (rakta dhatu). Muscle is responsible for binding the structure of the body so we can move with stability and agility. Protein helps maintain muscle. The Ayurvedic approach to digestion offers that all foods will support all the tissues, especially whole, unprocessed foods, because what nourishes rasa will nourish rakta, and what nourishes rakta will nourish mamsa . . . and so on down the line.
Rather than guzzling powdery protein shakes and noshing on crumbly power bars to feel strong, then, a more holistic—and tasty—way to support healthy muscle is to ensure you’re eating meals that will be easily digested by your whole system, from start to finish.
Support Your Muscles
This bowl offers an unconventional take on muscle support through a balance of foods, tastes, and textures that take advantage of seasonal, summertime ingredients—when we might be focusing on building (and showing off) our muscles as we play and exercise outdoors. While summer might keep many of us out of the kitchen, it’s important to consume lightly cooked foods during this time of year when our digestive fire, known as agni, is a little lower than other times of year. Typical sources of protein (namely, meat) might be difficult to digest when agni is low, hence this creative take on protein-rich plants, which are lighter and thus easier to break down from the start of the digestive process, and thereby pass down the dhatus.
Parts of a Whole Experience
While the elements of this bowl are designed to make your whole body feel happy and strong, many of them have a particular affinity for mamsa dhatu. Muscle likes foods that are warm, sweet, and dense (just like muscle itself!) according to Ayurveda, qualities that this bowl boasts in every bite. Tofu, while typically cold in nature, gets warmed up when, rather than being “breaded,” gets “seeded” with a coating with warming, aromatic seeds, and colorful spices.
Buckwheat groats (which are technically a seed, not a grain) are chosen for their ability to support weakness and improve circulation. Hearty greens support it all, and a very warming, sweet-bitter dressing to top it all off. The decoction of ashwagandha and cordyceps combines some of the most potent medicinal plants we have to support the formation and recovery of muscles. You’ll get extra support from the addition of cacao, which is aphrodisiac and adaptogenic, and honey, the sweet and astringent properties of which make it perfect for summer and which delivers herbs directly to muscle tissue; in other words, this dressing is an herbal medicine, all dressed up and ready to party.
Building and maintaining muscle contributes to our sense of power and confidence, in our bodies and spirits. This makes muscle more of a yang element in the body on the surface (as opposed to the quieting, softer, more feminine yin elements), but take note: the density, heaviness, and stability of muscle offer a healthy dose of yin, too. That yin-yang balance is present in the recipe; there are a few steps, which require patience, focus, and cool-headedness in the kitchen. As you move through each step, bring your full attention to the food in front of you; that alone will ensure that you not only get high-quality mamsa at the end of the digestive process but glow with the radiance of ojas that will keep you feeling powerful inside and out.
For the Seeded Tofu
1 block firm tofu
¼ cup hulled sesame seeds
¼ cup raw sunflower seeds
1/4 cup hemp seeds
1 tablespoon chickpea flour
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
½ teaspoon ground paprika
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon flax meal
¼ cup warm water
1 tablespoon olive oil
For the Greens
1 bunch julienned asparagus
2 teaspoons olive oil
½ large red onion, chopped
1 bunch (about 4 cups) collard greens, chopped
1 bunch (about 4 cups) fresh spinach, chopped
1 can hearts of palm, drained and chopped
For the Buckwheat
1 cup raw buckwheat groats, rinsed
2 cups water
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon dried dill, plus more to serve
For the Dressing
½ cup water
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, chopped (or 1 teaspoon dried)
1 teaspoon ashwagandha root powder
1 teaspoon cordyceps
1 teaspoon raw cacao powder
1 tablespoon raw honey
Juice of ½ a lime
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Prepare two large baking sheets with parchment paper.
- Make the tofu: Press the tofu by wrapping the block of tofu in a paper towel and setting inside a strainer over a bowl with a weighted object (like another bowl or a can) over top. Let sit for at least 30 minutes, up to overnight to release the extra water. Cut the pressed tofu in 5 pieces lengthwise, then in half, to make 10 even squares of tofu.
- Toast the sesame, sunflower, and hemp seeds in a large dry skillet over low heat for 5 minutes, until golden and fragrant. Stay close by because the seeds will burn quickly! Let cool, then grind in a food processor until fine. Combine with chickpea flour, turmeric, paprika, and black pepper in a shallow bowl or dish.
- In a separate shallow bowl or dish, combine the flax meal and water, and let sit for 5 minutes. Add the olive oil, and stir well to form a gelatinous texture.
- Using two forks, take a piece of tofu and place it in the flax mixture, flipping to coat both sides. Transfer to the dish with the seed mixture, and coat both sides evenly. Place on one of the prepared baking sheets, and repeat the batter-seed dipping with the remaining pieces of tofu. Reserve any remaining seed mixture for topping the bowl.
- Make the greens: On the second baking sheet, arrange the asparagus and drizzle with 1 teaspoon of olive oil. Bake the tofu and asparagus for 20 minutes, flipping the pieces over halfway, until the seed coating is golden and the asparagus is crisped.
- Place the remaining teaspoon of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the red onion and cook 5 to 8 minutes, until starting to brown. Add the collards and spinach, stir to combine, cover and cook until the greens are wilted but still bright.
- Make the buckwheat: Place the water and the salt in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, then add the buckwheat. Reduce heat to maintain a simmer, cover slightly, and cook for about 15 minutes, until the grains are soft and most of the water is absorbed. Remove from heat, and let cool. Stir in the dill.
- Make the dressing: combine the water, rosemary, ashwagandha, and cordyceps in a small saucepan over low heat. Cook until the water has reduced by half, around 20 minutes. Let cool, then stir in the cacao, honey, and lime juice.
- To serve, place a scoop of the greens, onion, asparagus, and buckwheat in each bowl. Top with 2 or 3 pieces of tofu, a few rounds of the hearts of palm, and drizzle with dressing. Sprinkle with additional dill and any remaining seed mixture, if desired. Store the greens, tofu, grains, and dressing in separate air-tight containers in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
Note: If you’re short on time, you can absolutely substitute the seeded tofu for another plant-based source of protein, such as pre-baked tofu, tempeh, or beans (adzuki are a great source of muscle support!).
Want to learn more about herbal and Ayurvedic cooking from Jennifer? Check out the Root & Nourish Book Club, starting June 10th!