Fine-Tune Your Diet–The Six Tastes

With the winter holidays, we come home to tastes that conjure tradition, bring us pleasure and remind of us of past good times.  The six tastes enumerated by Ayurveda—sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent—are featured in many holiday feasts. In the United States, typical holiday meals contain all six tastes:  turkey is sweet and astringent, sage is predominantly astringent with a little bitter and pungent, squash and sweet potatoes are predominantly sweet, green beans are astringent, bitter and sweet, cranberries are sour and astringent, pumpkin pie spices are pungent and sweet. The salt we add to the meal enhances the flavor of our feast-foods and helps to boost our digestive fire so that we can digest the food.

This fundamental recommendation—that all six tastes be consumed, in appropriate amount, with sweet taste being predominant for health—can extend to our daily meal pattern, all year.  It is in knowing what is appropriate, where we can really foster our health and nurture our digestive fire.  Traditionally, Ayurveda characterizes tastes and the foods that carry them as hita: beneficial, or ahita: unbeneficial.

Taste or rasa also signals the elements that are predominant in the food and the effect it will have on our bodies. The Ayurvedic medical texts enumerate the many qualities and actions of tastes.  For this article, I have referred to the Astanga Samgraha, a compendium of the knowledge held in prior texts. In general, Sweet, Sour and Salty help to balance Vata; and Sweet, Bitter and Astringent help to balance Pitta; and Bitter, Pungent and Astringent help to balance Kapha; but, knowing the individual qualities and actions that each taste carries and does in the body help us fine-tune what we eat to support us in the moment and for the long term. 

Following are some of the qualities and actions described in the Asthanga Samgraha.

  • Sweet taste
    • Predominant in Earth and Water elements
    • Coats the mouth, brings pleasure to the senses and happiness to the body
    • Nourishes all of the tissues of the body and prolongs the life-span
    • Improves bodily strength and complexion
    • Fosters healthy skin and hair.
    • Balances Vata and Pitta
    • Heavy to digest, unctuous, cool, soft
  • Sour taste
    • Predominant in Earth and Fire elements
    • Stimulates the tongue
    • Causes watering of the mouth
    • Produces a burning sensation in the throat, chest and abdomen
    • Hastens the movement of feces and gas through the digestive tract
    • Improves the taste of food
    • Kindles the digestive fire
    • Produces stoutness, nourishes and moistens the body
    • Balances Vata
    • Although cold to the touch, is hot, unctuous, light to digest and spreading
  • Salty taste
    • Predominant in Water and Fire elements
    • Increases salivation
    • Creates a burning sensation in the throat and cheeks
    • Enhances taste of foods
    • Removes stiffness and obstruction
    • Spurs appetite
    • Improves digestion
    • Moistens at first—but in excess it dries
    • Balances Vata and liquifies Kapha
    • Spurs movement and spreading
    • Can cause destruction of vitality and create laxity in the bodily tissues and joints
    • Hot, sharp and penetrating; neither too heavy nor too unctuous
  • Bitter taste
    • Predominant in Air and Space elements
    • Cleanses the mouth and clears the throat but hinders the perception of other tastes
    • Dries excess moisture, fat tissues, feces and urine as well as the liquid part of Pitta and Kapha
    • Kindles digestive fire and aides in digestion
    • Relieves burning sensation
    • Cold and scraping
  • Pungent taste
    • Predominant in Air and Fire elements
    • Stimulating to the digestive fire but irritating to the tip of the tongue, throat and cheeks
    • Causes watery discharge from the mouth, eyes and nose
    • Improves taste perception
    • Addresses digestive issues characterized by heaviness and sluggishness
    • Dries both watery and oily moisture
    • Scrapes out accumulations
    • Cleansing, but causes burning sensation and impedes the healing of wounds.
  • Astringent taste
    • Predominant in Air and Earth elements
    • Inactivates the tongue and obstructs the throat through drying and binding action
    • Balances Kapha, Pitta and increased Rakta dhatu (red blood)
    • Impedes elimination of feces
    • Heavy to digest, drying and cold
    • Binding/mending to tissues

Divine Nourishment

Namaste!  Most commonly heard in yoga class here in the US, Namaste, Namaskar or Vanakkam are common greetings in India, like good morning or good evening.  These words add an extra dimension, though, because they mean, “I bow to you” or “Salutations to you.“  They acknowledge the divine essence in us all—a way of saying, good day, fellow divine being!

I just spent 2 months in India for study and fun and was fortunate to be able to listen to many learned teachers of everything from Ayurveda to Yoga Philosophy.  During my trip, I started to think about how we might acknowledge the divine in our food as well as in ourselves—how we might greet the food in our meals with a heartfelt, “Namaste!”. 

This reflection started in a yoga philosophy class, where the teacher was talking about Brahma (God) and that everything is Brahma (the divine).  The subject of wasting food was raised—a topic in which my Ayurvedic mentor and beloved teacher, Vaidya Yashashree Mannur is very passionate about.  Until then, I had assumed that her passion for this had the same roots as my mother’s—my mom grew up during the depression and came out of that experience with the conviction that nothing should be wasted.  Her desire to not waste food, or anything else, came from a sense of scarcity.  And, indeed, I still think that there is some of that in Vaidya Yash’s desire to not waste food. 

But the yoga philosophy teacher made the point that if everything is God, then food is God too and shouldn’t be disrespected or wasted—and then, I understood the main reason my teacher didn’t want to waste food.

I started thinking about how this was manifesting during my time in India—where instead of throwing left-overs away or letting them sit in the refrigerator to get stale, my Indian roommates would take whatever food was left over from our meals across the street to a group of laborers who always seemed glad to get it.  In this way, we respected the food and its power to nourish by making sure to not throw it away and to share what we had in excess with people who didn’t have much at all. 

In another variation on this theme, an older gentleman told me that it is best to give the first chappati off the grill, which is always a little imperfect, to one of the many dogs that live in the streets of India, instead of just tossing it into the garbage so that the food is not wasted or disrespected.

In Ayurveda, this recognition of the divine in food is implicit in the recommendations given for consuming a meal:

  • We are encouraged to sit quietly for a few moments and say a blessing for ourselves and the food before eating
  • We are encouraged to concentrate on eating and really be present with our food:  mindfully tasting and enjoying it
  • We are encouraged to take food that is Satmya (soul food); food that is pleasing to our souls
  • We are encouraged to take just the right amount of food, not too little or too much—just so that we are nourished and satisfied but not overly full or still hungry so that our agni (digestive fire) is able to function in proper order
  • We are encouraged to consume food in season and as freshly prepared as possible so that it is alive with prana and brings the qualities that are the result of natural ebb and flow of seasonal character

In Ayurveda, as well as much of Vedic thought, everything in the universe is also a part of us.  So, when we eat, all those qualities of the universe are brought into our bodies and exert effects—such as nourishing or lightening, heating or cooling, moistening or drying.  When we pay sensitive attention to what is happening—in our bodies and the world around us— we can best choose foods that enhance our body’s harmony.

In the spirit of treating our meals with respect and love, here is an idea for some thoughts we might direct at our food before we start to enjoy it:

Namaste (I bow to…) the nourishment you bring to me and am so grateful for it

Namaste to the pleasure of the taste of you and so grateful I can experience it.

Namaste to the traditions and wisdom you represent and am so grateful they have been passed down to me.

Namaste to the healing that you bring and open myself to receive it.