Bitter. Salty. Sweet. Sour. Pungent.
These are the five tastes. A food will never exclusively contain one taste; there will be a variety. In traditional Chinese medicine, each taste has connections to several organs. It is said that a little of a particular taste can strengthen an organ system, whereas excess can weaken it.
BITTER – Associated with the early and mid-summer season (FIRE). Bitter foods are said to stimulate the heart and small intestine. These foods include dandelion, kale, parsley leaves, endive, celery, arugula, mustard greens, collard greens, burdock root, sesame seeds, cereal grain coffee substitute, and some types of corn.
SALTY – Associated with the winter season (WATER). Salty foods impart strength and are thought to influence the kidneys and bladder. These foods include sea vegetables, miso, soy sauce, sea salt, Umeboshi salt plum, and natural brine pickles.
SWEET – Associated with the late summer season (EARTH). Sweet food is thought to influence the pancreas, spleen, and stomach, which are organs of sugar absorption and distribution. Its nourishing effect is centering and relaxing. The sweet taste refers to natural whole foods and not the excessively refined sweet we know from white sugar. Sweet foods make up the largest percentage of our meals. These foods include whole grains and vegetables, especially cabbages, corn, cooked onions, sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, squash, yams, cooked grains, parsnips, chestnuts, and fruit.
SOUR – Associated with the spring season (WOOD). Sour tasting food has a constrictive effect, which quickens energy. It is thought to influence the liver and gall bladder. These foods include sourdough bread and other fermented dishes, pickles, vinegar (like umeboshi plum vinegar), wheat, sauerkraut, and lemon/lime.
PUNGENT – Associated with the autumn season (METAL). The pungent taste gives off a hot, dispersing energy and is said to be beneficial to the lungs and colon. However, an excess of these foods can irritate the intestines. Pungent foods have been known to stimulate blood circulation and, according to TCM folk medicine, have a natural ability to break down accumulation in the body. In most culinary cuisines, they are commonly combined with animal protein and with foods high in fat. These foods include scallions, daikon radish (or dried daikon), ginger, garlic, raw onion, peppers, wasabi (dry mustard), and horseradish.
While most of your meals will contain a minimum of 60% sweet foods (whole grains, vegetables, beans, and fruit) you can aim for a full range of other tastes with major meals. The other tastes can be represented in side dishes, sauces, and condiments, emphasizing any particular taste you may crave. There is a definite art to meal balancing.
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