The Qualities of Taste
By Gary Gran, CYT, DAy.
Ayurveda is known as a qualitative science. Like all qualitative sciences it honors each person’s experience of life. Ayurveda also makes use of quantitative methods such as carefully studying cause and effect relationships or determining the specific nutrients that can be isolated in a particular food or herb. However, ayurveda remains qualitative first and quantitative second. One expression of this is observing quality over quantity in the diet. You may know how much vitamin C is in an average orange, but you probably don’t know how much vitamin C is in the specific orange you are about to eat. Qualities such as freshness, taste, aroma, color and shape become more important in our assessment of the orange. The quality of each substance has to be experienced first hand. In our day-to-day life we experience life, people, foods and herbs in our own subjective qualitative way. We experience things with our senses. Ayurveda is therefore a common-sense approach to health care. We examine things with our senses in terms of their qualities and we experience them in their full context, not in an isolated way. We honor the complex holistic context of each person’s life and resist reducing our conclusions to isolated variables, events or causes. Indeed, we often consider a-causal and synchronistic occurrences to be meaningful. We look to see the over-all patterns and connections that run through our lives and we honor the meanings we each find in our lives. This web of life and meaning is the field of our study.
On the other hand, as mentioned above, it is also a tenet of Ayurveda to look for specific causes to specific illnesses or conditions, or to see that specific qualities have specific effects. These laws of cause and effect are known as the karma or action of the person, food or herb being studied. In this more quantitative approach, if a single cause can be determined, the principle is to eliminate the cause of the suffering.* However, when there are multiple causes or no known single cause such as in a syndrome, then the qualitative holistic approach is taken. For this reason Ayurveda has a good success rate dealing with chronic conditions and syndromes.
In our most recent series of articles, we have been exploring the qualities of the six tastes and also their actions, taste being one of our senses and one of the ways we experience the world around us. Nature sometimes presents us with a substance that is of a single taste such as salt. We have also made the habit of extracting and concentrating certain tastes like sweet from their natural form. Ayurveda teaches that a single taste has a very specific action that leads to a very predictable effect. Repeated use of single tastes often leads us to an extreme, a fault, an imbalance. This is the meaning of the word dosha in Sanskrit – tending towards an excess or a fault. Single tastes can be most helpful for short-term use in a therapeutic context where a strong action may be needed to move the person away from an opposite extreme. For everyday use however, a blend or balance of tastes is recommended as they tend to balance or harmonize each other’s actions. For example, it is recommended to include all six tastes in a meal – sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent.
Before proceeding, let’s review and compare the qualities of the six tastes. Pungent taste is the most heating, followed by sour taste then salty taste as least heating. Bitter taste is the most cooling, followed by astringent taste, then sweet taste as least cooling. Sweet taste is the most wet, followed by salty, then sour. Pungent is the most drying taste, followed by bitter, then astringent. Sweet is the heaviest taste, followed by salty, then astringent. Bitter is the lightest taste, followed by pungent, then sour as the least light. For example, sweet taste is the least cooling, most moistening and the heaviest of the tastes.
We have already examined foods and herbs that typify the six tastes in previous articles. Here we shall explore those foods and herbs that contain multiple tastes:
Two tastes: There are many everyday foods and herbs that combine two tastes. Sweet and astringent are combined in such foods as nuts, poultry, corn, fish, beans, peaches, pears, asparagus, green beans and squash. Sweet and sour are found together in hawthorn berries, oranges, pineapple and yogurt. Sweet and pungent combine in cardamom, ginger and onion. Sweet and bitter herbs include dandelion, red clover, sarsaparilla and shatavari. Sour and astringent are together in cherries, cranberries and tomatoes. Pungent and bitter herbs are coriander, cumin, dill and myrrh. Pungent and astringent are found in bayberry, horseradish and turnips. Bitter and astringent are together in burdock, eggplant, golden seal, kale and yellow dock.
Three tastes: Many cooking spices and foods combine three tastes. Consider the complexity of basil, cinnamon, fenugreek, raw honey, pomegranate, rosemary, sage and tarragon. Many medicinal herbs also combine three tastes including many herbs that are favored in Ayurvedic herbology such as ashwagandha, brahmi, boswellia, ginseng, guduchi, sandalwood and turmeric. Turmeric for example is a complex of bitter, astringent and pungent tastes. The complex taste indicates a complex yet balanced action when ingested.
Four tastes: Substances that combine four tastes are rare. They include aloe vera, rose flower and guggul. Ayurveda has a whole group of medicinal preparations based on guggul.
Five tastes: Substances with five tastes are extremely rare and much prized for their balanced medicinal action. Examples are amalaki (Indian gooseberry), haritaki, schisandra and garlic. Amalaki and haritaki are two of the three ingredients in the famous Ayurvedic formula known as triphala (three fruits). Triphala is used by itself and also as a base for other medicines. There is an entire Ayurvedic treatise dedicated to just the medicinal qualities of garlic. In Tibetan Ayurveda haritaki is known as the king of medicines. Depictions of the Medicine Buddha invariably show him holding a branch of haritaki.
Six tastes: I am not aware of any single substance that includes all six tastes although many formulas and meals are prepared to include all six tastes. This blending of tastes is an art in itself as they are not usually included in equal proportions. For example, in a meal perhaps ninety percent of the foods will include the sweet taste and ten percent will be split amongst sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent tastes. There is a saying to let food be your medicine. Ayurveda explains that the food is that which is digested and the medicine is that which helps digest the food. In the above example, the sweet taste is the nourishing food and the other tastes help digest and balance that food.
In summary, we have seen how foods and herbs are classified first into six tastes. This is usually done by the predominate taste. Then we consider the presence of secondary tastes that give the food complexity and balance. We can also combine foods, herbs and tastes to create complexity and balance.
References for further study: “The Yoga of Herbs” by D. Frawley & V. Lad, “Ayurvedic Cooking for Self-Healing” by U. Lad & V. Lad, and “The Roots of Ayurveda” selected and translated by D. Wujastyk.
*This tenet is fully developed in the Buddhist approach to Ayurveda and leads to some enlightening views of the causes and cures of suffering based on the Four Noble Truths which we will save for a future discussion.