by Gary Gran CYT, DAy.
“I don’t understand what happened,” she was saying. “At first he was so excited, even elated. But now he seems to have soured on the whole deal.”
“Oh, it’s not so bad,” her friend replied. “He’s really just mellowed a bit. It’s not like that last time...”
“You mean when he was all sour-grapes about that break-up?”
“Yes, like we learned in Ayurveda, the sweet rasa really turned sour that last time.”
In Ayurveda, it is said that we taste our life experiences. The essence of each experience is called rasa. The six rasas are sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent. In this article we will explore the sour taste especially in regard to foods and herbs.
The general rule is that a sour-tasting substance has the attributes (guna) of hot, moist and light and implies the corresponding effects of heat, wetness, and lightness when ingested. Therefore, if a person is suffering from too much coldness, dryness, or heaviness, the sour taste may help.
However, keep in mind that compared to other tastes, sour is only mildly heating, and only slightly damp and light. The main use of sour foods is as a digestive aid. As we discussed in our last article, most foods are sweet-tasting (as in good-tasting rather than sugary) and have the qualities of cold, wet and heavy. When a sweet food is allowed to ferment the cold quality turns slightly warm and the heavy quality becomes lighter. Both of these changes imply that the food will be easier to digest, or that it is in fact being partially pre-digested.
It is important to understand how the digestive process works. In simple terms, most food is cold, wet, and heavy. The digestive fire has the opposite qualities of hot, dry, and light. If an individual’s digestive strength is over-matched by the quality or quantity of food taken, the fire goes out and digestion is incomplete. Undigested food becomes stuck in the system and is known as ama, one of the culprits in disease formation. We usually experience the initial build-up of ama as a general feeling of dullness, sluggishness and discomfort.
However, the body may be more intelligent than we are, and has a back-up plan. When the digestive fire is put out by our poor food choices, the mass of food begins to ferment. We experience what is called a “sour” stomach, perhaps with some gas, bloating, or gurgling.
The sour stomach is sometimes mis-diagnosed as an excess of digestive acids and anti-acids are prescribed. This only further weakens the already compromised digestive secretions. What is actually needed is to help the digestive fire, not put it out.
One way to help the digestive fire is to eat less. Another way to help the digestive fire is to eat less. And, oh, by the way, did you know that eating less will help the digestive fire? Another method is to use some sour foods to aid the digestion and pre-empt sour stomach. But do not try to justify over-eating by eating a lot of pickles. Too much sour food can itself lead to sour stomach, blood toxification and itching. That is itching of both the skin and the mind as in having an over-stimulated appetite where one is itching for more, more.
“More! More! is the cry of a mistaken soul.” said William Blake.
Important Sour-Tasting Foods & Herbs
General: Sour foods are anything that is cultured, fermented, soured, pickled, vinegared, yeasted and/or aged in order to preserve the food or enhance it’s flavor or digestibility. Ayurveda recommends this group in small portions only. Another source of sour taste are the acid and sub-acid fruits which are considered to be much milder and healthier. To put it another way, Ayurveda prefers fresh foods which are full of prana to aged foods.
The vata type individual may benefit the most from the sour taste. Vata types have cold, dry and light qualities with a variable digestion and can benefit from the slightly warming and moistening qualities of the sour taste in moderation. In contrast, pitta types’ hot qualities could be aggravated and kapha types’ damp qualities could be aggravated.
Grains: Grains are often fermented to make various beers, brews and spirits. However, alcohol is considered too strong and is best avoided. In Tibetan Ayurveda, some medicines are given to common people with beer as a vehicle. The idea is that the beer makes the medicine easier to digest. However, the monks do not take beer as it has a strong effect on consciousness and is considered overly rajasic (stimulating) followed by overly tamasic (dulling) to the mind.
Other examples are yeasted breads and sour-dough breads. Yeasted bread is less sour but the yeast can aggravate vata (too light and active). It may be necessary to eat day-old bread when the yeast is less active, or to toast the bread to de-activate the yeast. Sourdough bread is more sour as it generally uses both yeast and friendly bacterial cultures. Other examples in planetary cuisine are amazake, injera and various fermented batters.
There are also various vinegars made from rice and barley malt that are used as a condiment or for pickling.
Beans: Beans are often fermented or cultured to aid digestibility. Good examples are tempeh, tofu, miso, tamari, koji and natto from Japanese cuisine and the fermented rice/bean batters used to make idli and dosa in Indian cuisine. Tamarind is a naturally sour tree pod or legume that is used as a flavouring or digestive aid.
Vegetables: Vegetables are often pickled and used as a condiment. Examples are sauerkraut, pickled cucumbers, ketchup, kimchi, and all the various chutneys and pickles used in Indian cuisine. Please note that many of these products are complex and may contain more than just the sour taste. Naturally sour vegetables are tomato and sorrel. Sorrel makes a great addition to soups.
Fruits: The mildest and best source of the sour taste is from acid and sub-acid fruits. The acid fruits are oranges, grapefruits, tangerines, pineapples, lemons and lime. Lemon is especially prized in Ayurveda for it’s cleansing, digestive and protective effects and is used in place of vinegar. Along with limes, it has the special quality of being cooling rather than heating. Sub-acid fruits are apples, apricots, berries, cherries, grapes, mangoes, nectarines, peaches, pears and plums.
All of the above are considered to be cleansing, refreshing and an aid to digestive health. All fruits are best eaten raw on an empty stomach as they digest quickly. If they are eaten with other food they can easily ferment and cause gas and bloating.
In fact, many fruits are purposely fermented to create vinegars, wines and spirits. Wine is well-known as a digestive aid but like beer is not recommended for yogis.
Dairy: Another good source of the sour taste is fermented or cultured dairy products. These include yogurt, kefir, sour cream, buttermilk, and cheese. Even fresh cheese which is not aged or fermented uses a souring agent to curdle the milk. For example, paneer is made with lemon juice.
All cultured dairy foods are considered easier to digest with the exception of hard cheese. Those with active cultures like yogurt help maintain a healthy balance of intestinal flora needed for good digestion, assimilation and elimination. Ayurveda also distinguishes between fresh yogurt which is more sweet and old yogurt which is more sour.
Supplements: When digestion and elimination are not working well, it may mean that the intestinal flora has been compromised. This is often the case when taking anti-biotics. One can supplement with pro-biotics such as acidophilus and bifidus to restore the intestinal flora. Another useful supplement which is considered sour is vitamin C, aka ascorbic acid. Bromelain derived from pineapple has anti-inflammatory and digestive properties.
Herbs: Ayurveda often recommends amla, or Indian gooseberry, for it’s stable and high vitamin C content. Primarily sour tasting, it is listed as a rejuvenative herb for the whole body and is the prime ingredient in the rejuvenative formula known as Chavyan Prash. Rose hips are another good natural source for vitamin C.
Ayurveda often prepares herbs in the form of drachsa, or herbal wine. These preparations are traditionally fermented but not alcoholic. The ferment helps in the digestion and assimilation of the herbs. A modern variation of this practice is to prepare herbs in tincture form. The alcoholic tincture helps extract, preserve and deliver the medicinal principles. If a tincture is then added to hot water, most of the alcohol evaporates before being ingested.
Other valuable sour medicinal berries are hawthorn berries for the heart, schizandra berries for the liver & adrenals, elderberries for the immune system and bilberries for the blood vessels & the eyes.
In summary, don’t get too sour with life or your food. A little taste of sour we can handle. It mellows us a little. But too much sour can lead to distaste, resentment, disgust and aversion.
According to Vagbhata’s classic Heart of Medicine, “If it is used too much, (sour taste) makes the body slack, and causes blindness, giddiness, itching, pallor, spreading rashes, swellings, spots, thirst, and fever.” But if used judiciously, “the sour taste makes the digestive fire burn bright. It is smooth, as well as good for the heart, digestion, and appetite.”