This is the lucky last in our series on the five good tastes. Although of course its really the sixth – recognised as a separate taste by some food cultures and not others – and definitely worth exploring!
They say a little bit of what you don’t like must be good for you – that’s certainly the case for many people with the sixth taste: astringent foods!
Fortunately, there are very few foods that have a predominantly astringent taste. Mostly it’s a secondary characteristic (apart from unripe bananas) – many if not most foods have more than one taste characteristic – and the astringent quality is usually not the main one.
This is so with the colourful, exotic pomegranate (left), and also with cranberries, crab apples and quinces, all of which have a sour component as well as being astringent. As an example of the health benefits of foods, pomegranates are rich in Vitamin C, are a good source of many vital B-complex groups of vitamins such as pantothenic acid (vitamin B-5), folates, pyridoxine, and vitamin K, and minerals like calcium, copper, potassium, and manganese – that’s a lot of goodness in a single fruit!
Fenugreek seeds are astringent, as is the tannin in tea. Many green veges have an astringent component, such as silver beet.
If you enjoy Thai and other South-east Asian cuisine, such as this Thai laksa (left) you’ll know that their dishes are distinctly comprised of sour, hot and astringent tastes.
So what are some of the virtues of including a little astringent food in your life?
Astringent foods have a contracting effect and can slow down digestion (in herbology, astringent herbs in a concentrated form are used for constricting blood vessels to slow down haemorrhages). The essential nature is cooling in your body, and it’s closely related to the pungent effect.
Used in small amounts, an astringent taste can promote a ‘no-nonsense’ approach – a let’s-get-down-to-basics perspective that can be usefully grounding at times – and explains the enduring value of a good cup of tea after a trying day!
And if you’re wondering what to do with a fresh pomegranate – I was certainly puzzled at first by this exotic fruit – try leaving the fruit whole and rolling it firmly back and forth on a hard surface to soften its flesh. Then cut it in half and squeeze out the refreshing juice. The seeds are edible too, and crunchy, and leave a slightly dry sensation in your mouth, which is precisely the effect astringent foods have in your body – they’re a little drying, which is beneficial if you’re inclined to retain fluid.
Summing it up
Most foods have a combination of tastes. Most people have definite preferences for certain tastes. One type of food, or one type of meal, does not suit all. Both macrobiotic and Ayurvedic traditions are inclined to have the cook place their range of dishes on the table and diners choose the foods and amounts – and tastes! – that most suit their individual needs.
One of the delights of being vegetarian is how sensitive your taste becomes to the natural qualities of different foods – not merely a matter of pleasing the palate, but instead your palate becomes a guide to what your body really needs. It can take a while to re-learn this. If you feel unsatisfied after a meal, and it isn’t to do with the quantity, perhaps you’re instinctively seeking a missing taste that will provide the physiological and emotional stimulus your body needs.
And once you become aware of the possibilities, the world is your pomegranate…