I’ve experimented with many different healing modalities, and I’ve gotten something valuable from each one. Of all the different philosophies I’ve studied, Chinese medicine has been around the longest. I do not profess to be a master herbalist, but I think learning the 5 flavors is extremely helpful in healthy meal-planning. Not only do you get a balanced meal, these flavor principles are similar to those cooking schools. So it’s not just healthy, it can make you a better chef!
Americans often overuse 2 of the flavors (salty and sweet), and leave out the others. You can still keep some salt and some sweet, but it’s so important to integrate the other flavors into your cooking. Here are the 5 flavors, and their nutritional purpose. I’m pretty impressed that the Chinese figured this out 2,500 years ago.
Sour: A sour flavor comes from fermentation. Traditionally, all cultures had fermented food. Sauerkraut in Eastern Europe, sour bread in Ethiopia, kim-chi in Korea, sourdough in England/America, and tempeh in Indonesia. There’s a reason it pops up in every area of the world…the “healthy” bacteria in fermented food is super important to digestion and the immune system. (It’s also a natural preservative). Healthy bacteria helps fight off food poisoning and viruses. It also digests some food; so a lack of healthy bacteria can lead to digestive problems. So add some raw vinegar or fermented foods to almost every meal! Remember, they must be heated at low heat or unpasteurized (or the healthy bacteria dies.)
Sour Foods: Raw apple cider vinegar, nato, tempeh, kim-chi, sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir, home-made honey wine, etc. If you want to make your own fermented food, check out the book Wild Fermentation for tons of recipes.
Bitter: When we eat bitter foods, the bitter taste signals our pancreas to secrete more digestive enzymes. It also signals our brain to secrete more saliva and gastric juices. This is very important for digesting food, and may help alleviate indigestion. Americans have almost eliminated the bitter flavor from their cuisine, but if you can slowly re-incorporate it, you begin to enjoy it and crave it. If you don’t want it in your actual meal, you can enjoy a cup of bitter tea or tonic after a meal.
Bitter Foods: Dandelion, unsweetened coffee or chocolate, Mate tea, marmalade/citrus peels, hops, bitter gourd, citrus peel, and wild chicory. You can buy bottles of bitters at the store. For an after dinner tonic, I suggest putting bitters in sparkling water with a squeeze of lemon.
Sweet: Most people know the sweet flavor all too well…it’s been over-used in our modern society. But this flavor does have it’s place: In Chinese medicine it’s very cooling, and the sweet taste releases hormones (dopamine) that make us feel good. (Hence why people reach for chocolate and ice cream when they’re having a bad day.) Since most people have too much sweet, which can make the body unbalanced, I suggest a sweets reduction. But you don’t have to give it up all together….I just bake my own desserts, and reduce the sugar content 50-75%.
Sweet Foods: Sweet potatoes/yams, fresh sugar-cane, honey, maple syrup, coconut water, etc.
Spicy/Pungent: Spicy and pungent foods, (such as hot chiles and ginger) increase circulation and blood flow. This can be good for someone who has cold hands and feet, (which often means slow circulation) or who is internally chilly. It is also energizing if you’re a bit sluggish. In Chinese Medicine, they say it helps clear up stagnant Chi/Blood, and correlates with the Lungs and Large Intestine.
Spicy/Pungent Foods: Hot peppers, chiles, garlic, onions, chives, spearmint, and ginger.
Salty: Salt is an overused flavor in Western cooking, but it still has medicinal purposes. Salt breaks up mucous, so it can used to treat the cold or flu. (Hence the practice of salt gargling or eating soup.) Salt also increases blood pressure, which may be a negative effect for many, but it can help someone with low blood pressure or adrenal fatigue. Soaking in an Epson salt bath or taking a walk by the sea can give you a daily dose of Magnesium, a much needed mineral that promotes relaxation. ****An important note: Most negative salt reactions come from processed salt. Natural salt is chock full of important minerals, but most salt is bleached and refined, stripping it of any nutritional value. How to tell? If you’re salt is white, it’s unnatural. Salt should only be grey or pink.
Salty Foods and Sources: Grey sea salt, Himalayan pink salt, celery, zucchini, seaweed, miso, cucumbers, and celery salt.