Monthly Archives: July 2014

The ‘wake-up call’ of the sour good taste

The fifth taste – but not quite the last – has a definite ‘wake-up’ effect at any time, not just after the more closed-in chill of winter.

The sour taste belongs to the spring season.

When yoLemons&thymeu think of the spring harvest veges, note how they have a little bit of ‘zing’ (or sometimes a lot!) – spring onions, chives, lemons (left), celery, sprouts, tomatoes, and you can add tamarind, short pickles, umeboshi plums, any plums, and fermented food such as sauerkraut and yoghurt.

Yoghurt is especially interesting. Made with whole milk so it retains the proteins, it not only provides the benefits of dairy products along with those of the sour taste, but like all fats it aids the digestion of legumes. This is why the traditional use of legumes in most cultures includes an accompanying dressing – olive oil, tahini, sour cream, cheese, and so on. Yoghurt contains acidophillus which is regarded as valuable for intestinal health, especially after the use of antibiotics as it assists in the restoration of the healthy bacteria which have been inadvertently destroyed.

The sweet version of dairy in cooking is ghee (clarified butter). Ayurveda uses only soft dairy – yoghurt (sour), ghee and paneer or panir (a cottage cheese), which is also sweet. In Indian vegetarian cafes, Butter Paneer (below) in a creamy spiced tomato sauce is as popular as Butter Chicken is for non-vegetarians, and there are many subtle variations on this theme.

butter_paneer_masalaPaneer is so easy to make. Simply heat gently 2 litres of whole milk until it just begins to simmer, stirring so it doesn’t catch on the bottom of the pan; remove from the heat and add 2 – 4 tablespoons lemon juice or vinegar. Stir for a couple of minutes as it literally curdles the milk (start with 2 tblsp and add more as needed), and watch as the curds and whey separate. Then strain it all through cheesecloth and allow the curds to set. You can eat it fresh, or sauté in slices, or add to sauces. Paneer will keep in the fridge for 3 to 4 days, covered so it doesn’t dry out. The whey can be used as a stock for soups or sauces: be mindful that it contains a little sourness from the lemon or vinegar.

Springtime grains include oats, wheat, rye and pearl barley, and the legume is soybeans. Soybeans are regarded as one of the least digestible of legumes so in most traditional cultures they are usually put through a fermentation process to produce tofu and tempeh, natto and miso.


The relevant springtime seaweed is wakame, which resembles sea lettuce and needs little preparation. For a wakame salad (left) simply soak a small amount of the dried seaweed in cold water for 5 – 10 minutes (and I do mean a small amount,  as wakame will swell to several times its dried size), drain, and its ready to slice and use. Mix with salad veges and toss with a very light dressing, such as rice wine vinegar with a tiny pinch of salt – no oil needed – done! 

I noted some Spiral brand wakame in a health food shop today, so would add that to my preferred brand of Mitoku, along with the US Eden brand of macrobiotic supplies.

Preferred springtime cooking styles are quick sauté and boiling.

Sour foods stimulate digestion and have a mild warming effect on your body. As you’d expect from the season, spring foods have a rising energy; you may have noticed that a little bit of sour food can have a ‘wake-up’ effect on you. The positive energies are inspirational, with humour and a refreshing sense of realism; the negative qualities are anger, frustration, envy and ‘sour grapes’. Balance, as with anything in life, is crucial.

The most frequent colour of spring foods – no surprises here – is green. Though that doesn’t explain the deep reds of tamarind and tomatoes!

Nori-avocado-rollsOf course, we instinctively combine some tastes every time we cook a meal. Even a simple nori roll (left) can contain all five tastes – short grain rice (pungent), shoyu or soy sauce (salty), wasabe (pungent), ginger (pungent, sometimes sweetened with sugar), avocado (sweet), nori (bitter), and spring onion and/or umeboshi plum (sour). Just add a little protein and salad to your place and it’s a winner.

We do tend to stick to the tastes we’re most comfortable with, although for a whole bunch of health reasons – because these foods have different elements our bodies need – we do need to get out of our comfort zones just a little. Really good cooks understand this and know how to use the full range of tastes.

Next blog: number 6 – the down-to-earth astringent good taste



The salt-of-the-earth good taste

Salt… we can’t live without it – literally!

There are a number of ways we can view healthy eating. Modern science examines food in terms of nutritional content and counts calories or quantities of fat or carbohydrates.

Traditional societies established a foundation of healthy nutrition from trial and error over many centuries. There is much to be learned from their wisdom. Using the five (or six, depending on your point of view) essential tastes is one of the guides to happy eating:  bitter, sweet, pungent, salty and sour, with an optional sixth – astringent.

Salt scoopSoldiers in the Roman empire received part of their wages in salt, which is where the word ‘salary’ comes from. Salt is that important to our survival.

Salt has had a bad press for many years, with some good reason considering the standard modern processed and fast-food diet and its devastating health effects. Happily, whatever the reasons that have determined we become vegetarian, once we start that journey we have a growing awareness of the value of healthy natural food. The problem for some vegetarians can be in getting enough salt. We don’t need much, but we do need some, and it’s more than just a matter of suiting our palate.

Salt is associated with winter and has a warming energy. Veges classified as salty include fermented foods such as miso and shoyu, and long time pickles, which are all used in small amounts just like salt itself. Also hard leafy greens.

Deep, cold, salt water – think of the ocean and you’ll understand that the related seaweed is the hardy kombu (below), or deep sea kelp.

Macrobiotic cooking does not use dairy or indeed much of any oil but recognises and deals with the issue of indigestibility of legumes by Kombuadding a small piece of kombu while they’re cooking. The kombu helps to break down the liptase inhibitor, which is what makes beans hard to digest. A good quality kombu such as the Japanese Mitoku brand will likely dissolve into the cooking liquid and flavour it; if it stays in one piece it will be soft and delicious to eat as it is – cook’s treat!

All sea weeds contain iodine, which is essential for healthy thyroid function. Lack of iodine can cause low-grade chronic fatigue, among other symptoms. A little-known fact about iodine is that when your natural iodine intake is insufficient, your body will take it from any source, including radioactive iodine resulting from the emissions of nuclear power. The increased rate of thyroid cancer is linked to the release of these radioactive elements. But natural iodine protects you – when a thyroid is fully loaded with natural iodine it blocks the uptake of radioactive Iodine 131. There’s more about the benefits of seaweeds here

Like all edible sea vegetables, kombu has many virtues, and this one includes binding with heavy metals such as lead to remove them from your body. Kombu is also a good source of fibre, Vitamins C & Vit K, pantothenic acid, zinc, copper, riboflavin, folate, calcium, iron, magnesium and manganese. That’s a whole lot wrapped up in one small package!

Buckwheat flowerWinter grains include buckwheat (left) – think of where it has been most widely grown, in the Himalayas, Northern Europe and Russia, and the need for hardy, warming grains to deal with their harsh winters. Incidentally, although buckwheat is regarded as a cereal it is technically not a grain but a member of the grass family, so is gluten free.

The most warming of the legumes are the small red aduki beans.

Wintertime cooking styles are long slow cooking such as baking, or using more water as in heartening winter soups, so remember to add a strip of kombu to your soup or casserole pot; after slow cooking a while it will almost dissolve into the mix with all its minerals and other goodies.

All these foods and slow cooking styles have the effect of aiding digestion.  Not all warming food has to be cooked for a long time to be effective – take miso, which has already been fermented for anything up to two years, and is ready for virtually instant use. Who doesn’t love a bowl of delicious light miso soup (below) on a chilly day?

miso-soupA small bowl of clear miso soup typically begins a macrobiotic meal, and those busy little digestive enzymes in the miso are much more effective than a glass of red wine. Plus its so quick and easy to make. Here’s a recipe for a mushroom variation, though you can leave the  mushrooms out if you wish and make the basic clear soup

And a tip about miso, which is most valuable when its added at the very end of cooking: place your miso in a small bowl and add a little of the warm stock. Mix into a sloppy paste, then when you stir the warm miso paste back into the soup pot, reheat it very gently until the miso just floats to the surface, very like champagne bubbling, and it’s done – too much heat will destroy those valuable digestive enzymes.

And another tip – the most versatile miso is Mugi, which is made from barley; it’s also the sweetest of the dark savoury miso types.

Used in balance, salt contributes to a flexible, adaptable personality, with courage, a sense of adventure and a sense of purpose. Too much salt produces rigidity, not just in our arteries, but in our thinking. In excess it is also regarded as being able to push our adrenal glands, sometimes to excess performance.

Salt can be addictive – look how hard it is to stop at just a couple of salted chippies or corn chips or salted nuts. And as we all know, too much salt results in too much moisture or fluid retention.

Next up: the ‘wake-up’ call of the sour good taste


The stimulating pungent good taste

ginger-honey-lemon-teaKeeping healthy is always a challenge, especially in winter. Knowing how to use foods linked to the five different essential tastes is a great way to start keeping yourself warm from the inside, as it were. It’s definitely a time to avoid chilled foods!

Using small amounts of these pungent foods can have a surprisingly large effect. Think of the stimulation to your taste buds when you add a dot of wasabi to a nori/sushi roll!

We all know fresh root ginger is warming – what could be better than a warm ginger, lemon and honey drink (above) on a cold day? – and we easily think of the same heating effect we receive from horseradish or wasabi, mustard, lime pickles, and daikon, the strong large white radish.

chili-peppers-on-a-treeOnion, pepper and garlic, chilli peppers (left) and hot spices are obvious choices to stimulate digestion and improve your metabolism. The legume is lentils; the grain is brown rice.

The stimulating pungent foods with their sharp, biting quality are harvested in late autumn and as you would expect have a dense, concentrated energy. Of course, in cooler weather we are naturally inclined to use cooking styles that send strong energy into the food, such as pressure cooking and baking. The slower growing energy-dense root and strong leafy green vegetables are ideal for the coming winter season and often keep well in storage. We tend to eat these richer, heavier foods to give us warmth, and pungent foods are a particularly useful gift from the garden as they cut through the richness to lighten the after-effects. Think of how adding a small knob of finely chopped ginger enlivens the heavy sweetness of pumpkin soup.

Not all winter food has to be slow cooked. Here’s a quick pickle using daikon (below) that can be prepared in seconds for the table.

Daikon radishPeel and grate a little daikon into a small bowl, cover with some shoyu or tamari (the latter is wheat-free and richer in taste) – and it’s done! Or make it ahead of time and leave it to marinate. It keeps for a few days in the fridge (keep it covered or it will dry out). But use it sparingly, by the teaspoonful. The sauce is salty and, if you like it, can be surprisingly more-ish. It’s great served with a simple base of brown rice, tofu and steamed veges.

Daikon, like anything pungent, is usually an acquired taste. Many people avoid it, but it’s worth learning to appreciate for its benefits. Pungent foods tend to be taken in small quantities, but those small quantities are important.

Pungent foods have a light, dry effect on on your body and are the most stimulating of all to your digestion. They can certainly clear your sinuses, and can have the same clearing effect on your mind! A bit of pungency can definitely be beneficial, as it’s a strong motivator and gets you moving. But be aware: too much can create anger, aggressiveness and resentment. Just as you would expect from over-stimulation in any form.

In some ways the pungent taste is not too different from the sixth: astringent. Some of the foods that qualify in Ayurveda as astringent include chillis and onions. Macrobiotics does not have an astringent category so they’re regarded as pungent. Still, it’s useful to be aware of the different properties, as we’ll see in a later blog.

Next up: the salt-of-the-earth good taste.

The sweet-natured good taste

pumpkin-pieThe sweet taste is the dominant one for more of us than any other, and we are naturally drawn to sweet foods. That can be a shame as we know sugar is added to just about every processed food around, even baby food, to the exclusion of other tastes. So children can be led to believe that only the sweet taste is normal and desirable, and the sweeter the better, and that has become a real problem. Especially as extreme sweetness leads us away from appreciating the other necessary tastes and the valuable foods that our bodies need.

Let’s look at natural tasting sweet foods that belong to the harvest time of late summer. Pumpkin (pumpkin pie, above) is obvious, but some of the others surprised me, such as parsnips, cabbage, chinese cabbage, round vegetables such as beetroot, seeds, chestnuts, cooked fruit, coconut milk, and arame sea vegetable. You don’t have to like all of them but if your own natural preference is for sweet foods, some of these will be among your favourites.

And  onions? – yes! – think of roasted or slowly sautéed onions and you’ll recall their natural sweetness. In macrobiotics, onions are classified as sweet, but in Ayurveda they are deemed to be astringent. In fact they’re both. Many foods have more than one taste combination. Cooked onions are sweet, raw onions are not – we’re talking about white onions here; red onions are less astringent and are sweeter.

hummusSweet grains include millet and basmati and sweet brown rice; the sweetest legumes are chickpeas… hummus (left), anyone?

Cooking techniques vary with different seasons too. You know how in mid summertime you prefer raw salads and quick cooking styles – who wants to be standing over a hot stove? And summer veges lend themselves to these techniques. During winter, baking and roasting are more popular. The longer and slower the cooking styles, the more they will draw out the sweetness, especially for root vegetables – who doesn’t love their roasted veges?

In late summer, slow sauté, and steaming with the lid on, are the appropriate cooking techniques for bringing out the natural sweetness in these foods. And many of them are yellow/orange or creamy in colour, which are the colours we associate with their season, when it is not yet autumn. Notice too that many of these harvest time foods are long lasting, good keepers throughout the colder winter months, when we need the sweet taste to lift our moods in the darker winter days.

Sweet foods tend to be heavy on digestion, and with eating too much of them that’s their effect – heavy in every sense – that they tend to have on your body.

The sea vegetable for the harvest time is Arame and it definitely lightens any heaviness! It doesn’t have the stronger taste of other sea veges and I love it served with brown rice. Known in the west as Sea Oak and found throughout the Pacific coastal shores, arame fronds are dried and cut into thin, fine strips. It’s high in iron, niacin, calcium, iodine, fibre and complex carbohydrates. Here’s a quick recipe to try:

arame-medSoak a small handful of arame in cold water for a few minutes; it will swell. Thinly slice some carrot. Lift out the arame fronds, leaving any grit in the bottom of the bowl, and place in a saucepan with the carrot and cover with water. Sprinkle with shoyu or tamari. Simmer gently, partly covered, for a few minutes until the carrots are cooked. There will be a little liquid left. You can either drain the arame and mix it through the rice or veges (it will be slightly salty from the sauce), or serve it with the liquid. The liquid can also be used as a stock. Any left over will keep in the fridge for a couple of days if covered.

My favourite brand for sea vegetables is Mitoku from Japan, available from health food stores. More on sea vegetables here 

These naturally sweet foods also have a naturally more descending or stabilising energy. The positive energies associated with this include compassion, empathy and roundedness. But when its out of balance, the negative characteristics are self pity and complaining and coldness.

So it pays to use the other tastes to enrich your life.

In fact, my next blog on the stimulating pungent good taste will highlight exactly how to do that.