According to Ayurveda, taste is more than a flavor or sensation on the tongue. There are six tastes, called the sad (six) rasa (tastes): sweet, salty, sour, pungent, astringent and bitter.
Each rasa or taste is connected to a combination of particular elements: space, air, water, fire or earth. Each taste can also have a specific effect on a dosha (Vata, Pitta & Kapha) by either aggravating or pacifying these energies.
But first, I would like to review how the tongue gets its sensation of taste. Remember the water element? When I introduced the elements, I talked about how that without water on the tongue, we couldn’t taste our food. You need the liquid and cohesive nature of water to perceive a flavor.
And, where exactly do we taste specific flavors? The taste buds on the tongue perceive sweet and salty at the tongue’s tip, sour taste buds are on the sides of the tongue and the bitter taste is perceived at the back of the tongue. The taste of pungent stimulates or irritates the mucous membranes of the mouth and the astringent taste tends to constrict or pull moisture from those membranes.
So, the water element is mainly responsible for our taste perception. But it is the combination of the various elements that provides the action of each taste.
You see taste is a perception but it also holds qualities and actions that can balance or imbalance our functional energies…and these actions can go deep into the layers of our tissues.
Now I am going to go through each taste, one by one, and present the elements that activate them, the qualities of each taste, how they affect each dosha (Vata, Pitta & Kapha) and then give some examples of which foods are known to contain specific tastes.
Let’s begin with the sweet taste (called madhura in sanskrit).
Sweet is made up of the elements earth and water so its main action is building.
The sweet taste is nourishing and pleasant, it increases strength and creates healthy body tissues and fluids. Specifically, sweet tastes help heal wounds, moisten the skin, improve circulation and create well-formed stools and clear urine. The sweet taste also creates a calm soothing quality for the mind.
If you’ve been following along, you might already know that the dosha that is most linked to this taste is… Kapha. An excess of sweet tastes will most likely increase the Kapha dosha due to this dosha’s moist, cool and heavy qualities. For Kaphas, this can lead to tiredness and a sense of heaviness. On the other hand, the sweet taste is pacifying or balancing for Vata and Pitta. If you want to learn more, visit my blogpost on doshas.
The types of food connected to this sweet taste are dairy, which includes ghee or clarified butter. The other sweet foods are wheat, rice, cereals, sweet fruits (like dates, mango, grapes and raisins), root vegetables, meats, nuts, maple syrup, sea salt and licorice root.
The next taste is sour or amla in Sanskrit. Sour is made up of fire and earth so its main action is to digest.
Sour increases one’s appetite and helps to promote salivation. It increases our digestive fire and reduces ama (or the toxin that builds up due to poor digestion). The sour taste also helps to form our blood, create sweat and cleanse the mouth and tongue.
Because the sour taste is so closely linked to honing our digestive ability, you can probably guess which dosha this taste is most connected to… the Pitta dosha. If this taste is taken in excess, it can dry you out (because it makes you thirsty and produces more sweat). So, its heating quality can definitely aggravate Pitta but its moist and heavy qualities are balancing to Vata.
Some examples of sour tasting foods are citrus fruits, yogurt, tomatoes, pickles, wine vinegar and other fermented foods.
The third taste is salty (known as lavana in Sanskrit). Like sour, this taste is connected to the fire element but with the addition of water instead of earth. Salt’s main action, again like sour, is to improve digestion. It enhances other flavors much like the spice of salt does.
The salty taste can cleanse tissues because they work by scraping out Ama. This taste also helps us to absorb minerals and maintain the electrolyte balance of the body. It is calming to the nerves and relieves spasm.
Its main qualities are moist, heavy and hot (like sour) but it is more hydrating and saturating (due to the water element). So, it’s more like the heavy and moist qualities present in the sweet taste. Therefore, it is balancing for Vata but it can aggravate Pitta (and Kapha) if taken in excess. And, if in excess, the salty taste can increase water retention, increase thirst and reduce the strength of a person.
Some food examples are: salt (of course), soy sauce and seaweed or kelp.
Next is pungent. This flavor isn’t as obvious as sweet, sour or salty but I can best identify the pungent taste by its warming quality. It contains the combination of fire and air elements. It opens the mind and the senses, therefore, it is purifying but in a heating manner. The word for pungent is katu in Sanskrit.
The qualities of pungent are dry, light and hot. It can increase metabolism and the absorption of nutrients. It decreases nerve pain, but it can also decrease strength, and virility (when taken in excess). Therefore, the dosha most like pungent is the Pitta dosha primarily because of its heating quality. But, the pungent taste can also be aggravating for the Vata dosha because of its drying quality.
The pungent taste can reduce fat but it also has the capacity to deplete the tissues. It can remove excess fluids from the body – however that means it has the ability to cause constipation and block sweat glands. So, there’s a give and take from this taste and it seems to walk a fine line.
The foods that are closely linked to the pungent taste are: onions, chilies, peppers in general, raw radishes, garlic, dry ginger and black pepper. And, here the growing location of a food can affect its level of pungency. For example, if you select a jalapeno grown in Canada, it will be less pungent than one grown in a warmer climate such as Texas or Mexico.
The astringent taste is even more vague, in my opinion. This taste is composed of the elements of air and earth. And, the main action of the astringent taste is absorbing. Kasaya is the word for astringent in Sanskrit.
Astringent is dry, heavy and cool. Because of its dryness, it can aggravate Vata yet it is balancing for Kapha. And, its cool quality pacifies Pitta. Astringent taste is known to constrict the vessels to stop bleeding and flow, so it is healing for wounds. But its drying quality also increases gas, bloating and anxiety. So, this taste is more difficult to digest (another reason why Vatas should avoid excess astringent tastes).
Some examples of astringent foods include: lentils, beans, broccoli, sprouts, leafy greens, unripe bananas, blueberries, cranberries, turmeric, goldenseal and teas (due to the astringent tannins they contain).
And, the last taste to acknowledge is the bitter taste or tikta as it is called in Sanskrit. Its main action is to cleanse. It is easy to digest and purifying in nature. It can purge negative emotions, clear skin disorders and metabolic disorders. The bitter taste is detoxifying and fat absorbing. In excess, it produces weakness and exhaustion.
Bitter taste is cool, dry and light so Vata is aggravated by its excess. But, Kapha benefits from its dry and light qualities and Pitta is pacified by the bitter taste because it is cooling.
The foods that represent the bitter taste include: dark green veggies such as kale, walnuts, cashews, green tea, neem and turmeric.
Those are the six tastes: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, astringent and bitter. On the podcast, I give more details on the deeper level of taste and the perfect menu for incorporating all six tastes into your diet.
Until next time, relish your food! 🍽 Kim