The Greens Family: Ayurvedic Perspective on Leafy Greens

If you hear the words "leafy green vegetables" and you can think of only iceberg and romaine lettuce, you are missing out on a lot of flavors and nutrients. Some greens, like spinach and chard, have enjoyed wide popularity across the country. Others, such as kale, collard greens and turnip greens, that are traditional in the South, have yet to conquer most American kitchens.

These vegetables are often called bitter greens because of their dominant taste. However, you can also find sweet (bok choy), pungent (arugula, mustard greens) and sour ones (sorrel) among them. Leafy greens can be divided into two main categories: tender, mild-flavored ones, and hardy, strong-flavored ones. Spinach, chard, bok choy and collards belong to the tender group while kale, mustard greens, arugula, dandelion, sorrel and turnip greens are members of the hardy bunch. There is also the cabbage family, characterized by a sulfurous smell when cooked. Relatives include kale, collards, bok choy, Brussels sprouts and a variety of cabbages.

Greens are good for you

Nutritionists often praise the benefits of leafy greens, which are excellent sources of antioxidant vitamins A and C, and also provide vitamin E, folic acid, vitamin K, iron, calcium, magnesium and fiber. They contain no cholesterol or fat and they are low in calories. Many varieties, especially the cruciferous (cabbage) family, contain unique enzymes that protect against cancer.

The Council of Maharishi Ayurveda Physicians also recommends bitter greens. They are good for the skin, hair, and for removing amavisha (toxic wastes) from the body. Leafy greens are both nourishing and detoxifying, so you have to make sure you adjust cooking methods and varieties to your dosha and imbalance.

Kapha body types or people with a Kapha imbalance can consume all varieties, if their colon is not sensitive. Greens should always be cooked with spices suitable to the individual's needs.

Pitta people or those with Pitta imbalance should use Pitta-pacifying spices and add white daikon radish when preparing their greens. Tender greens are more compatible with this dosha than hardy ones.

Vata people also do better with tender varieties and should eat less greens, especially in Vata season (winter). To minimize Vata aggravation, chop the greens finely and cook well with Vata-pacifying spices. Cabbages can also aggravate Vata, so they should always be cooked well with Vata-pacifying spices and eaten in moderation.

Since most greens have Vata qualities, you should eat more of them in Pitta and Kapha seasons, from March through October. Some greens exhibit more detoxifying properties than others. If there is a lot of amavisha in the physiology, you have to be careful not to overstimulate the cleansing process. Ask your ayurvedic expert to recommend greens that are suitable for you.

How to pick and prepare leafy greens

When shopping for greens, look for crisp leaves with a fresh green color. Choose organic produce to avoid pesticide residues. Try to select seasonal varieties. Collards, kale, turnip greens and mustard greens are in season from October through early spring. Swiss chard and beet greens grow from spring through fall. Dandelion greens are best in spring and summer. Tender, delicate leaves go bad quickly, so use them as soon as possible. The best way to wash them is to "bathe" them in a sink full of water several times. Remove hard stems and stalks before cooking. If the stalks are soft, you can cook them with the leaves.

Tender leaves such as spinach and chard need only a few minutes to cook. Hardier ones can take up to 30 minutes. When cooking from recipes, keep in mind that they cook down considerably, to one-quarter or less. Chop leaves either before or after cooking. The easiest way to prepare greens is to cook or steam them, then sauté in ghee with spices for a few minutes. You can cook chopped leaves in your dhal, soups, grains or with other vegetables. They are great for stuffing other vegetables or pies.

Do not cook greens in aluminum or copper pans, because they react with the sulfur compounds in the vegetables to create unpleasant odors and flavors, and this can also destroy some of the vitamin content.

In addition to their nutritional value, leafy greens can add a whole new flavor and color to your meals. With the right preparation technique, they all make delicious dishes. Browse through your cookbooks for recipes or check out ayurvedic recipes.

The sole purpose of these articles is to provide information about the tradition of ayurveda. This information is not intended for use in the diagnosis, treatment, cure or prevention of any disease. If you have any serious acute or chronic health concern, please consult a trained health professional who can fully assess your needs and address them effectively. If you are seeking the medical advice of a trained ayurvedic expert, call or e-mail us for the number of a physician in your area. Check with your doctor before taking herbs or using essential oils when pregnant or nursing.