“How many complex tastes do you enjoy at each meal? There are six dominant tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, and astringent. But the modern diet focuses primarily on sweet and salty tastes, so that’s what you crave.
You need to expand your palate to include other tastes and break the lock on your taste buds that steers you toward junk food. You need pungent foods, such as spices. You need astringent foods like citrus, vinegar, and celery. You need bitter foods, including greens, sprouts, and melons.
These aren’t just good fiber; they actually cleanse the palate and help you make better food choices.”
The food I grew up with, Russian food, is considered to be some of the blandest food in the world.
When I talk to my mom about it, she tells me it’s because it was hard to find anything in Russia – including food (I recently learned that I grew up on Australian Kangaroo meat because the local animal farming was severely lacking!). So there was no hope for fancy things like spices that are not local to the region.
The only savory spice available was salt, so that’s what my family used to cook with. And of course there was sugar, so homemade desserts were big things in my family.
When my family immigrated to America, we continued eating the same homemade foods. But once in a while, I would eat American food. Most junk food is either very high in salt or sugar to get you addicted.
I couldn’t handle any spicy food – in America, it’s like a contest to see who could eat the food without burning their tongue and throat off. I remember I once went to my Pakistani friend’s sister’s wedding, accidentally ate spicy food and thought I was going to die. She told me in surprise that the food was made extra bland for the American guests…
So I really didn’t taste any other flavors except salty or sweet all my life. In fact, if there were other subtle flavors in food, I thought it just didn’t have enough salt and I’d add more until those other flavors got buried.
Journey through India
It was only when I first traveled to India that I learned that “spicy” doesn’t necessarily mean burn-your-throat-off-hot. It means that different spices (including salt, but usually way more!) were added. One cook told me the dish had 17 spices mixed together!
They would even put different spices on fruits and vegetables they sold in the street – a different spice for each type!
And even when there were spices like chili pepper added, it was done in such a way where it brought a harmony to the food. So I was able to eat the hot spicy food even though I wouldn’t have been able to in America.
The spices added a completely different and rich flavor to the food. How did they know which spices to put on each food?!! There were so many!! It was like a whole chemistry!
Learning about Tastes
As I started learning about Ayurveda, the ancient Science of Life, I learned that there were six tastes: Sweet, Salty, Sour, Bitter, Pungent, Astringent. To optimize your health, you need different tastes based on your body type and the seasons.
In my case, I’m a Pitta (fire) Kapha (water). I read that to balance my firey side, I need to focus on Sweet, Bitter and Astringent tastes. What the heck is Astringent?!!!! And what foods are bitter?!!
I wanted to be healthy and eat these tastes, but it was super frustrating and confusing because I had absolutely no understanding of what foods went with each taste.
Even foods that are considered sweet in Ayurveda are not foods that I would think of as sweet. For example, did you know that Basil is sweet? And so is rice… Or Pomegranate is Astringent? Or that tomatoes are sour?
I ended up Googling every food I considered eating to try to understand whether I should eat it for my body type.
The Tongue Scraper
I was excited to read about how using the tongue scraper will enhance my taste buds:
“The tongue is a major absorber of pure chee from food and drink, which it detects as ‘flavor’ and extracts by prolonged contact during salivation and mastication of food in the mouth. Ever wonder what happens to the “flavor” of food chewed for a long time? It is the most volatile element in food, and it can be absorbed only in the mouth.
Those who bolt down their food in half-chewed lumps miss not only the flavor but also the purest form of its energy. Many people miss this flavor and energy even if they do chew well, because their overall dietary habits and internal pollution leave a perpetual sticky film on their tongues.
To remove this film from your tongue, simply scrape the tongue’s surface from back to front with the edge of an ordinary teaspoon. You’ll find a foamy white or yellow residue in the spoon, which is invisible when spread out over the tongue. This residue clogs the taste buds and leaves a constant sour taste in the mouth. Scrape the tongue clean each time you brush your teeth, and you will not only enhance your tongue’s ability to absorb chee from food and drink, but you’ll also increase its capacity to savor flavors.”
I started using the tongue scraper every day, but sadly, I didn’t feel like my taste buds were enhanced…
The problem was, even though I was technically eating foods of different tastes that I needed for my body type, I was adding salt to them and masking the flavors. I was still eating primarily sweet and salty tastes.
Spicing Things Up
As I was reading a few Ayurveda books early this summer, I learned that the spices are not there only for flavor, but also to aid digestion:
“Cooking these fiber-rich foods in light oil or ghee with the addition of digestive spices, like cumin or mustard seeds, makes them easier to digest. These adjustments make fiber much more palatable as an anticonstipation diet strategy!”
“The primary healing spices in this chapter — turmeric, cumin, Himalayan pink rock salt, and coriander — help strengthen your digestion, thereby contributing to your overall health.”
So while before I was too scared to cook with spices, I decided to try it. I started using mustard seeds, fennel, turmeric, cumin, and coriander in all my cooking.
I kept adding salt to my food, so it didn’t change the taste that much for me. Fennel seed was pretty strong when I bit into it though.
Eating as a Spiritual Experience
Ever since I was young, I associated eating with watching TV. I learned through Ayurveda that I should be mindful of my food, my eating experience, but that was a hard barrier for me to cross.
But eventually, I did it! Something clicked, and I started eating with my hands. That forced me to pay attention and connect with my food. I stopped watching TV.
This is when everything started connecting. I started to taste my food! Slowly, I started tasting flavors other than just salt.
I’m not there yet, but I do want to cut out salt a lot more from my food. I noticed that when I initially taste my food, I react by thinking it tastes like nothing and add more salt to it.
Now, I take a few bites and really pay attention, taste the food, before adding the salt. This way, I’ve been slowly learning that I don’t actually need as much salt as I’m used to because there are other flavors I can taste!
The Tasty Awakening
I can now taste when my food is too salty – the difference adding more salt makes. I can taste the sweetness of ghee, clarified butter. I learned to add pungent spices such as pepper and cayenne pepper when my body needed them. I bought this super spicy kimchi and enjoyed the taste of the chili peppers awakening my body.
I got this Tulsi sleep tea – it tasted different and weird to me initially, but I now appreciate the complicated taste. Sweet and astringent. I am now starting to understand what astringent taste is!
The Body Connection
Now that I’m starting to understanding tastes, I’m starting to understand and feel what my body needs at each point.
As a Kapha (water) body type in Ayurveda, I actually do need spicy pungent foods to clear out mucus and water retention. I’ve been denying my-suffering-self powerful healing by not being open to pungent tastes before!
And even though I’m not officially a Vata (air) body type, I do experience a Vata imbalance once in a while, especially now as fall, the Vata season, is on the doorstep. I’ve been eating a lot more ghee and keeping myself hydrated to manage the dryness. I started drinking Ajwain tea as well.
The tastes and their healing properties for each imbalance are very slowly starting to make sense. I’m currently reading The Yoga of Herbs: An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine with absolute fascination. A whole world has opened up to me and I’m hungry to learn!
Todo: Tasty Ginger Drink
Recently, I read Change Your Schedule, Change Your Life, in which the author mentions a ginger drink that will refine my taste buds even further by activing all tastes at the same time!
Tasty Ginger Drink
- 2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger
- 4–5 teaspoons honey or Sucanat or date sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon Himalayan salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
In a glass container, mix all the ingredients well. Keep it in the glass container in the refrigerator, where it will stay fresh for about 1 month. Drink 1/4 teaspoon of this mixture first thing in the morning or before meals. You can dilute it with some hot or warm water, if the taste is too intense at first.
I haven’t had the time / resources to do this yet, but it’s definitely high on my list as soon as I get settled after my recent travels!
To be continued…
It’s been a very deep and emotional experience to connect with food in this way. It’s like I’m tasting food for the first time, and I want to taste more. A lot more! I’m just getting started 🙂