Monthly Archives: June 2014

The life-enhancing bitter good taste

There are five good tastes (and maybe six).

cappuccino_cup_coffee_milchschaum_238527So you like coffee? Then you won’t be surprised to hear that like all bitter foods, it’s a fire energy – that’s exactly what bitter foods do – fire us up. If you don’t like the bitterness of coffee you may not need the fire energy, or you might dilute it’s effect with milk (sweet) or sugar (sweeter).

Chances are you might like another bitter food though: watercress, bok choy, nori seaweed, dandelion leaves, fenugreek seeds, lemon rind, or black beans. Or the summer grain sweet corn. Sweet corn? – yes, it combines bitter with sweet quite nicely. Look for the aftertaste of your corn on the cob and you’ll become aware of it. (If you like butter with your corn on the cob, you’re adding in a third taste: salty.) Dried corn, such as popcorn, or polenta, or cornmeal, has the corn sugar removed and what’s left is unmistakably slightly bitter. And nutritious.

You might have noticed that these are all summer vegetables, which makes sense for fire vegetables, doesn’t it? They’re deemed to be light on digestion as they have a rapid, expanding energy, and – no surprises here – cooking techniques are quick, like a brief sauté or stir fry or quick tempura (deep fry).

The relevant seaweed is nori, best known for its use to make sushi rolls.  Like land vegetables, sea veges are packed with goodies. Nori is high in iodine and and also contains Vitamins A, B12, Bs, and C, and calcium and iron; finding sources of B12, iron and calcium as we know are crucial for vegans. In Scotland, Ireland and Wales, its harvested and prepared as laver bread.

nori-seaweedTry slicing a strip of toasted nori into small pieces and scattering it over your veges or grains. Or you can wrap a thin strip of nori around a slice of firm-ish tofu before shallow sauté, or use a slice to wrap around and bind a sandwich of two slices of tofu filled with a nut butter, or miso and tahini perhaps with a smidgeon of finely chopped spring onion, then sauté…

The bitter taste is fascinating and modern research proves the point that each of these taste preferences is innate – that we are biologically programmed in our preferences. It also makes the point that taste is linked to specific nutrient components.

In a recent NZ Listener article, nutritionist Jennifer Bowden described her experience as a student when she gagged after being tested with a concentrated bitter tasting compound similar to those found in many foods. She is not alone but is one of the 25% who have a similar reaction. About 25% of us don’t notice the bitter taste at all and the rest of us do so moderately.

Having this sensitivity is a handy protection against many toxic plants, as well as rancid fats, smoking and many alcoholic drinks. It’s a mixed blessing though. This highly sensitive group also tends to avoid eating chilli, black pepper, and a range of foods and vegetables containing small amounts of bitter compounds known as phytonutrients that can reduce cancer and cardiovascular risk.

So if you’re not part of the highly sensitive 25%, it’s useful to know that bitter foods containing these disease-preventing nutrients include green tea, broccoli, brussel sprouts and dark chocolate.

This recipe is for a simple, deliciously flavoured Watercress Soup. It uses only watercress (bitter), onions (sweet & pungent), potatoes (pungent) and salt – four good tastes in one pot.

Watercress soupIn a large saucepan place 1 lb (500g) roughly chopped white onions; 1 lb (500g) peeled and roughly chopped potatoes; 3 cups cold water; 1 dessertspoon salt. Bring to the boil and simmer partially covered until the veges are cooked, about 40 minutes. Add ¼ lb (125g) watercress leaves and tender stalks, roughly chopped, and simmer for 5 minutes. Blend. Serve, garnished with a few watercress leaves. Add a swirl of cream if you wish.

Positive emotions associated with fire energy – no surprises here either – are joy, warmth, openness, outward and sociable behaviour. Negative behaviour is erratic and ‘hyper’ and can promote a sense of disillusionment. The moral – everything in moderation.

Next: the sweet-natured good taste


Five good tastes

Lacto-vegThere are five

… good tastes, that is, and a healthy balanced meal contains all five of them – bitter, sweet, pungent, salty and sour (and a possible sixth: astringent).

Not just because they make a meal taste good. Each of the tastes has it’s own purpose and effect on your health, both for body and mind. Of course you’ll prefer one, two or three kinds of tastes more than the others. Of course, most people will probably only want a small amount of bitter or pungent or sour foods. But we do need them all.

And here’s a curious fact: everyone has one of these five tastes dominant, and the one you like best may not be the one your partner or child or parent or close friends like best. In one family I know, both parents and one child naturally prefer pungent food, such as radishes and ginger and garlic, and they rarely eat sweets. Naturally, the cook (mum) prepares what she likes, so she doesn’t use sweet vegetables much. The other child is naturally drawn to these sweeter foods which bothers his parents as ‘it isn’t healthy’. It is, for him!

If you’ve ever wondered why you like some cafes more than others, when the food seems to be just as well prepared, or why you prefer to use the cookbooks of certain writers, this could be why. Chefs are no different from the rest of us: they have their own taste preferences and will naturally cook to that. Good cooks will prepare a range of tastes within a meal, but don’t assume they will all do this or even know why it matters.

And it does, for a whole bunch of reasons.

There are two great systems of maintaining good health and healing through food that have been introduced to the West in recent decades: Macrobiotics, which is mainly vegan (occasional use of seafood is easily excluded), and Ayurveda,  which is lacto-vegetarian, though only soft dairy is used, such as milk, yoghurt and paneer.

Macrob mealMacrobiotics was developed from traditional Japanese practices by George Ohsawa, and in 1955 was introduced to the West by Michio Kushi. Famously known – and misunderstood – for it’s practice of using unpolished brown rice as a major component of meals, it is actually a method of maintaining health and using food to contribute to the prevention and treatment of a range of diseases. This includes some major ones such as diabetes and cancer.

Central elements of macrobiotics form the basis of the current fashion for healthy eating using whole grains, legumes and vegetables. Miso, tofu, tempeh and nori seaweed (used to make sushi) are some of the now familiar foods that were virtually unknown in the West until three or four decades ago.

A macrobiotic meal has a focus on simplicity and aims to enhance the quality and freshness of the ingredients, along with using cooking styles that bring out the natural flavours of the foods. A typical main meal may start with a small bowl of clear light miso soup, along with fresh vegetables, a whole grain (short grain brown rice with its slightly nutty flavour is the favourite), a small serving of tofu or tempeh or other legume, a little seaweed (packed with essential minerals), pickles, and condiments such as gomasio (toasted sesame seeds lightly crushed with a little sea salt).

Classical macrobiotic cooks rarely use sweets or desserts – there’s no need, as well prepared fresh veges provide the natural elements of sweetness we seek in a meal. Macrobiotic cooks never use sugar. Very little oil is used, and no dairy.

Aveline cookbook

Aveline Kushi’s Complete Guide to Macrobiotic Cooking is the gold standard for macrobiotic cooking. Everything you’d want to know, beautifully written, family recipes, a mixture of information and practical advice, including how to cook – you guessed it – brown rice.

Or go online for a collection of macrobiotic recipes:


ayurvedic mealAyurveda, which translates as ‘the knowledge concerning the maintenance of a long life’, is an ancient method of healing from India, at least 3,000 years old. It’s currently enjoying a resurgence in India and is being introduced to Western countries such as our own. While the choice and preparation of food is central to maintaining and restoring health, Ayurveda also has some specific body treatments and specialist lines of treatment for different diseases.  Ayurvedic traditions have always had a strong influence on Indian cuisine.

Ayurvedic meals are based on a serving of basmati rice, chapati or roti (wheat based pancakes), dhal (legumes), vegetable curries, pickles (tart lime is popular, as are fiery pickles, or raw onion), a sweet served with the meal, a cooling raita i.e. yoghurt plain or with chopped fruit or veges such as apple or cucumber. Coconut milk is often used in sauces. A proper thali is a complete meal based on the Ayurvedic principles.

Desserts are not served after the meal but a small sweet is included with it – the sweet foods are the first to be digested in the stomach, so eating them after a main meal creates disturbance. Alas, refined sugar has found its damaging way into Indian households. A healthy alternative and a useful between-meal snack would perhaps be a handful of raisins and a few soaked and peeled almonds.

Spices are used both to enhance digestion and for specific purposes – cinnamon and cardamon, for example, are carminative i.e. have a warming effect the body.

Interestingly Auyerveda adds a sixth essential taste: astringent. I wonder if astringent foods are used to balance the use of dairy foods such ghee, yoghurt and paneer. More on that later.


The co-authors of The Ayurvedic Cookbook are Western trained nutritionist Amadea Morningstar and Indian cook Urmila Desai. The book contains easy-to-read recipes and information about Ayruvedic cooking, how to use the spices,  and how they benefit you.

Here’s a short NZ Herald article on the benefits of Ayurveda

And you’ll find some more detailed info on Ayurvedic living and healing (they go together) at

Both macrobiotic and Ayurvedic systems of healing base good health on using healthy food, which include these five good tastes. This makes sense, as good food = good health, and we all know what bad food does. On a subtle day to day level, the food you eat has many effects on you.

In the next blogs I’ll write about each of the tastes, why they matter, the foods that contain them, how they link to the energy of the seasons, and how they can benefit you, starting with the life-enhancing bitter good taste.