In 1990, I was a culinary student at the Cordon Bleu in San Francisco and worked for Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. My goal was to study and work in France and ultimately I spent a year-and-a-half honing my craft in Paris and Provence. With all my formal education I must admit that the six tastes described in Ayurveda (sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent) found in the foods, spices, herbs and beverages we ingest were never explained nor understood from a medicinal or biological perspective—except in relation to how certain combinations of foods enhanced flavors and textures.
Fifteen years later, while attending the BKS Iyengar Yoga teacher training program, I was amazed to learn that these six tastes are directly connected to our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual balance, and they have shaped culinary traditions in India for hundreds of years.
Taste is one of the five senses – (Sight, Hearing, Smell, Touch and Taste) and in Ayurvedic philosophy taste is directly associated with the organs of perception and the five elements found in our universe.
The five elements are understood metaphorically as: Ether (Space), Air (Movement), Fire (Metabolism), Water (Fluidity), and Earth (Stability) and are further understood by 10 pairs of opposing qualities known as the Physical Gunas: hot/cold, wet/dry, heavy/light, mobile/stable, gross/subtle, solid/liquid, dull/sharp, soft/hard, smooth/rough and cloudy/clear.
For the sake of simplicity in this article we will address the relationships between tastes with the first four gunas: hot/cold, wet/dry, heavy/light and mobile/stable.
According to the teachings of Ayurveda, the body is made up of three basic energies known as the doshas (Vata, Pitta and Kapha) that govern our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual nature.
The Vata dosha is a combination of the elements of ether and air with the qualities of cold, dry, light and mobile.
Pitta is a combination of the elements fire and water with the qualities of hot, slightly wet, light, and mobile.
Kapha is a combination of water and earth with the qualities of cold, wet, heavy, and stable.
All of us have an inherent balance of these doshas, known as our constitution (Prakruti), which does not change. When the body is out of balance, we create our current state of health (Vikruti).
Imbalances can be associated with factors that include the change of seasons, our physical locations, what we ingest, and emotional and mental challenges. When out of balance, Ayurveda suggests the use of opposite actions with the five sense therapies to create harmony. For instance, if a person is feeling excess heat, coolness is introduced; and visa versa—when a person is feeling an excess of cold you would use warmth to cultivate balance.
The six tastes also play important roles in our digestion, assimilation, and elimination processes by helping to break down proteins, fats, carbohydrates, et cetera, as what we ingest moves through our systems. Long before the USDA established guidelines for a balanced diet, Ayurveda was using the Six Tastes to ensure overall balance in the meals a person consumes. Indian restaurants typically offer such a meal, known as a Thali, a large, round, metal plate with several smaller bowls in which all six tastes are served.
Here is a breakdown of each taste, it qualities and in which food groups they can be found.
Vata is cold, dry, light and mobile, so foods that are Sweet (heavy and wet), Sour (warm, moist, and heavy) and Salty (warm, moist, and heavy) are the best choices to cultivate balance. This includes supportive food choices such as grains, rice, sweet fruits, most nuts, dairy products and warmer spices like cardamom, fenugreek, and ginger.
Pitta is hot, wet, light and mobile, so foods that are Sweet (cool and heavy), Bitter (cool and dry) and Astringent (cool and dry) are recommended for quickly facilitating balance. Food choices that calm the hot pitta energy are cooler in nature such as rice, moong (or mung) beans, sweet fruits, cucumber, lettuce, bitter greens, melons, cottage cheese, peppermint, and cumin.
Kapha is cold, wet, heavy and stable, so foods with that opposite qualities that help reduce stagnation are found in the following tastes: Pungent (hot, dry, light), Bitter (dry, light) and Astringent (dry, light). Kapha-reducing food choices are low in fat and include pungent greens and warmer spices like cloves, cinnamon, and ginger.
At this point, you may be thinking that all of this information is is way too complicated, but once you understand your constitution and current state of health you can use these energetics to bring balance. The easiest way to get started is to have an Ayurvedic practitioner help you establish your constitution.
It also may seem that you might have to limit yourself to very specific foods, and while this may be true in some cases, you can also combine foods with different energetics to cultivate an overall experience of balance within a meal. For example, if you have a predominately Pitta constitution but love spicy food, balance that heat with tastes or energetics that are cool by adding a condiment like raita (a yogurt-based sauce.) People with an abundance of Vata energy who love popcorn, which is naturally dry, light, and mobile, find that they can balance its dryness and lightness with warm ghee and salt to add warmth, heaviness, and moisture.
It is optimal to choose foods and combinations that balance your constitution, but the use of spices are also supportive. One simple way to insure proper digestion, assimilation, and elimination is to incorporate culinary spices into a meal. Spice blends can be made for specific constitutions. Through Three Seasons Ayurveda I offer a Tri-doshic blend that includes all six tastes.
Another way to ensure proper digestion is to have a spoonful of what I call the “Six Taste Appetizer,” before each meal which allows you to ingest all six tastes in one delicious bite.
When you are getting started in your personal relationship with the six tastes, you can begin by simply noticing the different tastes as well as their effect on how you feel, all of which cultivates awareness. Try experimenting with taste and try adding some portion of all six tastes to your food. The exploration of Ayurveda is a lifelong journey. Savor it.