Did you know that it takes six tastes to make a full, satiating meal? Most people can easily guess three of these tastes—sweet, sour, and salty… and maybe even a fourth— bitter. But what about the fifth and sixth tastes?
According to Ayurvedic philosophy, umami isn’t one of them. The last two are pungent and astringent, and they’re just as important as the rest. Ayurveda teaches that a balanced diet should include all 6 tastes, as together they include all elements that the body needs.
You may be all too familiar with the sweet taste. Pastries, candy, chocolate, cookies, smoothies—the American diet is filled with sweet! But sweet doesn’t necessarily mean sugar.
Imagine a bite of plain sticky rice. While it’s not sugary, it most certainly does have an overall sweet taste. The same goes for plain wheat pasta, almond butter, milk, and butternut squash. Most grains and many vegetables are sweet, as are fruits and natural sweeteners like maple syrup, honey, and jaggery. Forget the notion that sweet is sugary, and you can see how so many other foods contain the sweet taste.
The sweet taste is the most nourishing of all six. It builds body tissues, lubricates, and softens. It’s also comforting to the mind, which is why we tend to reach for sweet when we’re feeling down.
Aside from sour candies, sour isn’t often a taste included in the American diet. But a little bit is very much needed. Sour both triggers the salivary glands and stimulates the appetite.
Many fruits, like lemons and grapefruit, are sour. Even a typically sweet fruit can be sour, like strawberries, blueberries, cherries, apples, and oranges. Sour is also found in fermented foods like yogurt, miso, and sauerkraut.
Salt is another all too familiar taste. For most people, a little salt is a good thing. It increases appetite, moistens the mouth, and softens the bowels. It’s too much salt that’s a bad thing, which can create burning sensations and lead to early aging.
Healthy salts come from Himalayan salt (pink rock salt), sea salt, and seaweeds. Saline is also found in watery vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, and even spinach.
The pungent taste includes, but isn’t limited to, spicy. It’s a taste with a punch—a pow—and some sharpness. The most obvious pungent foods are chilies and hot sauces. These pungent foods, though, are considered to be on the less healthy side of pungent. Better pungent foods are fresh ginger, garlic, radish, daikon, and most spices like cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves.
Pungent is the best taste for igniting digestion. A bite of fresh ginger marinated in lime and sea salt just before a meal, for example, will turn the digestive fire up. It also maintains metabolism and balances the body’s secretions.
Aside from Southern cooking, bitter is little known to the American diet. It’s mostly found in dark, leafy greens, which, thanks to kale’s stardom, is often seen on the plates of the health-conscious. Bitter is also found in collards, chard, endive, lettuces, dandelion, aloe vera, turmeric, and bitter gourd.
Bitter is the best taste for metabolizing toxins in the body (called aama in ayurveda). It increases appetite and cleanses the liver, making it a good taste for anyone with skin ailments.
The sixth taste is the most elusive of all. Astringent isn’t so much a flavor as a sensation. It’s that taste that dries out your mouth—like a raw banana or sometimes, cooked spinach. Astringent is found in beans, turmeric, black tea, many unripe fruits, and herbs.
While one’s diet shouldn’t be heavy in unbalanced astringent, a small quantity should be used by all. It’s somewhat constrictive in nature, which is why it dries the mouth. It’s best used for its ability to absorb and reduce secretions in imbalances like edema.
So, what does one do with this information?
Understanding the six tastes helps to prepare more balanced meals. Reflect on the tastes that you most often lean toward. Do you have any pungent, bitter, or astringent in your diet? Note if your diet is overly heavy on sweet, or excessively sour. This mindfulness is the first step toward creating a more balanced diet.
Next, start to identify the tastes in your foods while cooking. Suck on a piece of carrot or a cumin seed and try to decipher its tastes. Become aware that each food has one, if not more (and sometimes even 5!) of these six tastes.
Work toward bringing in tastes that may be missing. Here are some foods that can be easily incorporated into your current diet:
Sweet: whole grains, honey, root vegetables
Sour: lemon, like, sauerkraut
Salty: Himalayan salt, seaweed
Bitter: leafy greens
Pungent: fresh ginger, cinnamon
Astringent: lentils, turmeric
Creating meals with all six tastes is an art, at least until you’re comfortable with identifying individual tastes. For now, simply work with incorporating a little of each taste in your overall diet. Your body will thank you.
Tiwari, Maya. A Life of Balance. Rochester: Healing Arts Press, 1999.
Do you have any delicious recipes, that incorporate all six tastes, that you’d like to share? Please do so in the comment section below!