Taste: The Six Tastes and the Emotions
by Gary Gran, CYT, D.Ay.
The word for taste in sanskrit is rasa. Rasa also means essential sap or juice. This refers to the essence of life in a food or plant, and also the essence of life in each of us. Ayurveda, being the science of life, is interested in methods to awaken the taste, the rasa, the essential life-juice in our foods and thereby feed the essential life-force, the prana, the sap of life in each of us.
Rasa also refers to our individual tastes, our inclinations. Here we see that we are inclined to certain tastes in our foods and also to certain tastes of experience. Conversely, we are disinclined to other tastes and experiences.
Perhaps most interestingly, rasa also refers to our emotions, our feelings, and our sentiments, including our religious sentiments. As you can see, the single word rasa has a wide-ranging set of meanings. Yet these meanings are not distinct, they are interconnected.
We could refer to a food as having a sweet taste. We can talk of a person as a sweet person. We can speak of a sweet experience. And we can feel the satisfaction of a sweet feeling or sentiment. All of these descriptions are linked. For example, the sweet taste of a food can directly affect the sweetness of your emotion.
It is also possible to describe something or someone as being too sweet, or lacking sweetness. As we shall see, all the possible tastes have their positive and negative expressions.
Ayurveda recognizes six tastes which are sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent. There are a total of sixty-three possible combinations of the basic six tastes: 6 single tastes, 15 mixtures of 2, 20 mixtures of 3, 15 of 4, 6 of 5, and one mixture of all six tastes.
All foods and herbs are classified by taste. The taste of a food gives us the key to its actions upon the digestion, the body, and ultimately our emotions and our sentiments. Because of this powerful interplay, understanding taste is of critical importance in understanding the methods of ayurveda.
Taste and Food
Sweet taste is also called neutral taste. This is to distinguish it from the idea of simple sugar or desserts. In fact, the sweet or neutral taste includes all the macro-nutrients - proteins, carbs and fats, as well as most of our fruits and vegetables. Thus it is said that about 90% of our food is of the sweet/neutral taste. Sweet taste has a nourishing effect. However, too much sweet, especially sugars, can lead to obesity, lethargy, loss of appetite, excess mucus, and even parasites.
Ayurveda tells us to let our food be our medicine and our medicine be our food. Many people are familiar with this idea. But ayurveda goes on to say that food is that which is digested and medicine is that which helps us digest our food.
If the sweet/neutral taste composes 90% of our food, it is the other five tastes that help us digest our food. The other five tastes are our medicines. Sour taste includes all foods that are aged, ripened, fermented or naturally acidic. They are considered to be partially pre-digested foods or digestive aids. Thus they help stimulate appetite. Too much sour can lead to blood toxicity, heartburn, acidity, or itching.
Salty taste stimulates the flow of saliva and the creation of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, thus aiding digestion. Too much salt disturbs the blood, leads to inflammation or fluid retention, and overwhelms all the other senses.
Pungent taste includes all foods and spices that are spicy, hot, and sharp. The warming quality stimulates the digestive fire known as agni. It reduces fluids and has a cleansing action. Too much pungent can lead to excessive heat, burning, dehydration, restlessness, and irritability.
Bitter taste is found in many vegetables and herbs. It works in a paradoxical manner. Being extremely cooling, it temporarily suppresses the digestive fire. The digestive fire then responds with greater vigor enhancing our appetite. Bitter has a purifying action and corrects all the other tastes. Too much bitter leads to emaciation, dizziness, and nerve disorders.
Astringent taste is found in fruits like pomegranate and cranberry, and also in beans, some vegetables and herbs. It has a corrective action. It tones up the surface areas of the digestive tract and helps dry up excessive fluids and stop discharges. This allows for a better functioning of the digestive tract itself. Too much can cause excessive dryness and constipation.
The idea then is to combine foods and herbs of all six tastes into a balanced whole. First, as mentioned, we can balance the predominant sweet taste with the other five tastes. A well-rounded meal uses all six tastes in due proportion.
Secondly, sweet, sour and salty have a building action, that is they help build tissues. Pungent, bitter and astringent have a reducing action. Therefore, we need to strike a balance between building and reducing. This is achieved by balancing the heavier proteins, carbs, and fats with the lighter vegetables, fruits, and herbs.
More specifically, sweet foods have a cool, damp and heavy quality and action. The perfect balance is provided by pungent taste which has the opposite qualities and actions of hot, dry and light. This is the strategy of adding hot spices to help digest heavy foods, such as adding pepper to a protein dish. Please note that a little pepper goes a long way. The idea is not to have equal quantities of protein and pepper, only equal actions. Sweet/neutral taste will still be about 90% of your diet.
There are many strategies that can be devised once the energetic qualities of the tastes are understood. For example, if you are a vata individual who tends towards excessive cold, dryness, and lightness, the best taste to add is a good quality salt which is warming, moisturizing, and heavy. A more subtle approach would be to introduce a full spectrum of trace minerals, the ‘salts’ of the earth, to one’s diet. The best tastes for vata are sweet, sour and salty.
A kapha person tends to be too cool, damp, and heavy. They especially benefit from the pungent taste, which is hot, drying, and light. The best tastes for kapha are pungent, bitter and astringent.
A pitta person tends to be too hot, damp, and light. The best tastes to add are bitter, astringent, and sweet. Bitter is strongly cooling and drying, albeit light in quality. Astringent is mildly cooling, drying and heavy in quality, a perfect balance. Sweet/neutral taste is cool and heavy in quality, albeit damp.
To review, any quality in excess can be balanced by foods and herbs of the opposite quality. This is called the energetic approach. The strongest cooling taste is bitter. The strongest heating taste is pungent. The most most moistening taste is sweet/neutral itself. The most drying taste is pungent. The most clearing and lightening taste is bitter, and the most nourishing, grounding, heavy taste is sweet/neutral.
Taste and Emotions
In the same way that we say that 90% of our foods are sweet, we say that 90% of each person is sweet, but the other tastes/emotions are there as well.
When a person becomes too sour we call them a sour-puss, or say they are feeling sour grapes. A salty person is called a salty dog, given in to their cravings. The hot-head, you know, the one with a sharp tongue and burning words, is a little too pungent. The bitter person has become cynical about life. The astringent type is shriveled like a prune, suffering from insecurity. An overly sweet person has a saccharine personality. Too much sweet taste, unchecked by the other tastes, also leads to complacency, over-satisfaction, dullness and apathy.
On the other hand, each taste/emotion has a positive potential when in balance. Sweet taste gives satisfaction and love. Sour gives exhilaration. Salty gives courage and strength. Pungent has a cutting through quality, which provides excitement and brings clarity and focus to the mind. Bitter gives realism, and astringency feeds our wit.
Ultimately, as we mature emotionally, we begin to see the place and purpose of all the emotions and begin to suspend our judgment of them. Rather we begin to seek a creative balance of emotions and develop a taste for the full range of human experience. Thus, just as the art of cooking can be seen as the art of combining tastes, the art of living can be seen as the art of harmonizing our experiences and our emotions. Eventually, we begin to intuit what is known as the one taste which is the essential unity or sap of life that pervades all the rest.