… 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.
Macrobiotics 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 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: https://www.facebook.com/macrobioticrecipes
Ayurveda, 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 http://www.nzherald.co.nz/lifestyle/news/article.cfm?c_id=6&objectid=10802505
And you’ll find some more detailed info on Ayurvedic living and healing (they go together) at www.planetayurveda.co.nz
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.