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 you 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.
Paneer 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!
Of 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