Imagine food without any taste - no salt, no pungent, no sour...and so on. Flavoring makes food edible, but tastes also have certain physiological and emotional effects, which is why in the Ayurvedic paradigm it’s recommended to have all the tastes in each meal - especially the main one. Fortunately, awareness of the impact of tastes on health, especially in relation to the dearth of bitter in our diets, is growing. In this post, I share info about tastes from an Ayurvedic perspective, where astringent is considered a sixth taste.
Some tastes are better for certain kinds of people, or for when you’re in a certain state - too heated, emotionally or physically, for example, but everyone needs to routinely experience all tastes. Spices are a great way to inject some of the more difficult to get tastes, like astringent and bitter - and this is why they are used so much in South Asian cooking. Tastes also help with digestion - most cultures have a spice blend with aromatic, digestive-enhancing spices - and assimilation of food, and the demand for spices for flavor enhancement and health effects played a role in the colonization of lands where these spices originate.
Elements - earth + water
Qualities - heavy, cooling
Food components - carbohydrates (polysaccharides, pectins, simple sugars & complex starches), fats, and protein
Tissues most affected - all 7 tissues in the Ayurvedic framework (plasma, blood, muscle, fat, bone, bone marrow, reproductive)
Let’s start with the sweet taste - most people have a sweet tooth, even if they think they don’t, because the sweet taste is in many foods, not just sweets. It’s also the first taste babies experience, whether or not they are breastfed, a taste that humans are innately drawn to and don’t need to cultivate. There are few toxic foods with the sweet taste found in nature; toxic plants are more likely to be of the other tastes, the ones people have less of in their diet. The sweet taste comes through most fruits, grains, fats (oils, nuts, seeds, avocados), proteins (legumes, animal meat), root vegetables (with obvious exceptions), and spices like cinnamon and licorice. Sweet foods of summer, generally eaten raw, are appropriately cooling, whereas the root vegetables of winter are cooked, making them warming.
Made of the earth and water elements, sweet is nutritive, energizing, grounding, and calming. It helps to build tissues and bulk in the body, calm the nervous system and mind, and impart feelings of love and compassion. It makes sense, then, that it would be the taste that dominates a baby’s experience as they build up their body and form bonds. Later on, too much of the sweet taste can create congestion in the body, which often manifests as phlegm, mucus, dampness, or excess weight, and mentally, as attachment or passivity.
Elements - earth + fire
Qualities - hot*, heavy, moist
Food components - salts
Tissues most affected - plasma, blood, muscle, and fat
Saltiness is found in natural salts, seaweeds, and foods like miso and many processed foods and snacks. The salty taste helps make food more palatable and helps stimulate digestion, stimulating the release of amylase in the mouth, which starts the digestion of carbohydrates, and the release of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, which helps digest proteins. Salt also helps lubricate tissues and softens masses, and mentally, it can help relieve anxiety and sooth nervousness. Too much can create excess heat - high blood pressure, excess thirst, rashes, hyperacidity, water retention, edema etc. physically, or impatience, rigidity, criticism, anger, frustration in the mind realm.
*Natural mineral or rock salt is cooling and minimizes some of the problems associated with excess salt consumption.
Elements - water + fire
Qualities - heavy, moist, and cooling
Food components - organic acids
Tissues most affected - all except reproductive
Sour is found in most citrus fruits, yogurt, tomatoes, tamarind, many berries, cherries, pineapple, fermented foods, vinegar, and wine. The sour taste is sharp and stimulates digestion and circulation, moistens and helps to hold fluid in tissues, and sharpens the mind. In excess, it can dry out mucus membranes and cause some of the excess heat conditions mentioned above with excess salt.
Elements - air + space (also referred to as ether)
Qualities - light, cooling, drying
Food components - alkaloids, glycosides
Tissues affected - plasma, blood, fat, and reproductive
Bitterness manifests in dark leafy greens, graprefruits, olives, bittermelons, coffee and tea, and spices like fenugreek seed. Bitter stimulates release of digestive secretions and peristalsic action, lightens and detoxifies, clears heat and congestion, drains excess dampness, and cleans blood and liver. In doing so, it helps with excess weight, water retention, skin rashes, and burning sensations, and digestion, and contributes to mental clarity, insight, and detachment from worldly things. In excess it can contribute to bloating, depletion of vital energy (ojas) physically, and cynicism, depression, or isolation mentally.
Elements - fire + air
Qualities - hot, dry, light
Food components - volatile oils
Tissues most affected - blood and reproductive
The pungent flavor comes through foods like ginger, garlic, horseradish, black pepper, and cumin, stimulating digestion and metabolism, clearing the sinuses, clearing excess moisture, and promoting sweating and detoxification. Mentally, it can motivate or fire you up. In excess, it can dry out tissues or contribute to anger or aggression.
Elements - air + earth
Properties - dry, cooling, heavy
Food components - tannins
Tissues most affected - plasma, blood, muscle, and reproductive
Astringency is more of an effect in the mouth (and elsewhere) than a taste - it absorbs water, tightens tissues, and dries fat. Astringency is found in turmeric, unripe bananas, most raw vegetables, apples, pomegranates, lentils, beans, and legumes.
The effect felt in the mouth - the pull on the tongue and membranes - is what it does elsewhere in the body, helping to heal wounds, cleanse mucus membranes, absorb water, scrape fat, tone and tighten tissues, or resolve excess bleeding, sweating, diarrhea. In the mind, it promotes cohesiveness and stability. In excess, it can slow digestion, or contribute to bloating or constipation, heart problems, weight loss, or excess thirst, and mentally can cause contribute to fear, worry, nervousness, or depression.
Most foods have more than one taste, but one dominates, and some people are going to need more of certain tastes than other people because of their naturally high levels of the opposite elements. For example, someone who is naturally high in air or space elements will need more of the sweet taste in terms of grains, etc. (not cane sugar), and be cautious about having excess bitter (e.g. coffee, dark chocolate) because bitter is made of air and space elements. Someone naturally high in the earth or water elements needs to be me more cautious with consumption of starchy foods that constitute the sweet taste - as well as salty foods, because excess can cause water retention - and have a higher intake of lighter, air & space element foods such as leafy greens.
People can get also gain qualities that taste imparts through other means; it’s often said that craving for sweet or salty foods may be partially caused by a deficiency in calming experiences e.g. time in nature, contemplative practices. The Sanskrit word for taste, rasa, also refers to enthusiasm, juiciness, and essence, in keeping with the significance in Ayurveda of tasting and processing food, emotions, and life in general, for wellness. In terms of food tastes, the sweet and salty tastes help calm the nervous system, and perhaps that's why many people in hyper-stimulated, over-scheduled societies crave them.
To find out your own elemental mix and understand what tastes and foods will generally support you, it's best to see an Ayurvedic practitioner, but you can get a an idea by doing a few dosha quizzes. There are some good ones here and here - just bear in mind there's an elemental constitution you were born with (which you can't change), but sometimes this is masked due to a current imbalance.
Lad, V. (2002) Textbook of Ayurveda: Fundamental Principles of Ayurveda. The Ayurvedic Press, Albuquerque, NM.
Led by Belle Benfield, herbalist and illustrator of The Sensory Herbal Handbook, founder of heARTfelt herbs and Shumaisa Khan, yoga health coach and community herbalist,
Phytology @ Bethnal Green Nature Reserve, Middleton St, E2 9RR
-Intro and Tea Ceremony
-Elemental observation and introduction to elements through Ayurveda and Sensory Herbalism
-Botanical drawing in the Phytology Medicine Garden and surrounding woodland
-Making plant medicine
-Bring & Share lunch
-Drawing the elemental influence of Autumn, with technical botanical drawing guidance and tips
-Free drawing – make your own botanical drawing of the plants that you're drawn to
-Closing ceremony and medicine bottling
Investment: £60 general
Concessions tickets available – please email email@example.com for more details.
Location: Bethnal Green Nature Reserve, Middleton St, E2 9RR
Tube - Bethnal Green (Central Line); Overground - Cambridge Heath Rd Station; Bus - 55, 26, 8
Sunday 25th August from 11 – 6 is a rare opportunity to explore an amazing network of community run gardens, from The Garrett Centre to Bethnal Green Nature Reserve, Rocky Park Garden, Keddleston Community Centre and beyond in East London! I'll be running a wellbeing space at the Phytology medicine garden at the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve, among lots of great activities happening on the day - see below for more info.
Pick up a free map from the Garrett Centre - 117 Mansford St E2 6LX, made by the artist Soofiya – and follow the trail through the gardens to find and collect stories, poems, and written treasures by local residents, artists and growers hidden along the way. There will also be opportunities to share your own stories, make a found poem or sow some seeds.
Each garden will host different activities, workshops and skill shares suitable for all ages. These include: a creative nature connection workshop with local environmental educator Shaira, a billboard making workshop with Saif Osmani from the Bengali East End Heritage Society, Henna by Hafiza, free herb harvests, a tea and wellbeing space with the Mobile Apothecary, including Ayurvedic mini-consultations, music making, food by Bethnal Greens and Middleton Meals, face painting and much more! Pick up a programme on the day for more details.
After the trail, from 6:30 – 9pm, join us at Bethnal Green Nature Reserve for a feast and open mic. Bring a story, instrument – or tell us about what you found on the trail.
The Open Gardens Treasure trail has been co-curated by Earthlings, a partnership between poet Katherine McMahon and community gardener, Hari Byles – in collaboration with Teesdale and Hollybush TRA, Phytology/ Bethnal Green Nature Reserve and the Bengali East End Heritage Society.
Commissioned for the Garrett Centre Commission and Supported by the Live Art Development Agency (LADA). Supported by Mayor of London: Culture Seeds. For more information or to get involved, write to firstname.lastname@example.org
Before industrialization, people used to have their main meal earlier in the day, rather than as the last meal - this was probably the practice in most cultures and places. People everywhere were more tuned into the cycles of nature that we’re a part of. In Ayurveda, this is framed as the digestive 'fire' mirroring the peak of the sun in the day. So you might think that digestion is stronger in the summer with the more intense sun, but actually the opposite is true.
It's the digestive fire that generates a bigger appetite in winter. It’s stronger when there's more need for warmth in the body’s core and to help digest heavier, richer foods that add a warm layer (which nature helps to shed in spring with light, cleansing greens).
In the summer, the heat moves to the surface and out through sweat which cools us down, so the digestive fire is weaker. The complicated thing is that we're naturally going to want coolness, but too much coolness in our gut further dampens the digestive fire. And that could result in congestion in the gut or lungs, which can lead to summer colds or to greater susceptibility to colds a few months later. Inadequate digestion of food results in gunk, known as ama in Ayurveda, which is the starting point for discomfort, and if it builds up over time, for more serious disease.
Even plain, room temperature water dampens digestive fire, which is why people who are trying to manage their appetite better may be advised to drink water if they feel hungry between meals. Many fruits are also energetically cooling even if they are not chilled, as are salads - things people are drawn to in warmer months.
This is why in India people often add some kind of warming spice, like black salt or cumin, to fruit or water in summer. The Indian version of fruit salad has salt and black pepper at minimum, and often has some cumin and red chilli also. Raw food - with the exception of ripe fruit and very light greens - is harder on the digestive system for many people, so that's another thing to be wary of. Balancing energetically cool things with warming spices, or bean or roasted veg salads are good ideas, as is limiting the amount of chilled food and drink - but fine to have sometimes!
Preston Park, Brighton BN1 6SD
Sunday April 28th 2-4.30pm
Wild plants serve important functions for insect and other wildlife, but many can also serve as food and medicine for us! Come along to this walk in Preston Park and skill up in another way to reduce waste. Some of the plants considered weeds, and sadly subjected to pesticides, have traditionally been used as food and medicine around the world. The fact that they are so abundant and resilient means that with care and respect, they can be responsibly harvested. Some are like vitamins, which could replace the supplements that comes in packaging and don't offer the bioavailability that fresh whole plants do.
Even just small amounts of wild plants into our food and drink injects some more vitality, or prana, into us, and at this time of year is really important to do to break up the heaviness of winter. We'll also look at some useful medicinal plants, and explore the elements and how they shift with seasons, and how we can shift accordingly to stay more balanced. Ayurveda is about living in alignment with nature, so connecting with the local nature we are a part of, and seasonal changes, is key!
The meeting point is in Preston Park - location details will be sent to registrants. There are pay-it-forward options to help fund the same types of walks for a group of local refugees with an interpreter. You can book here.
Other events will include similar plant walks at different points in the year, and also rituals to connect more deeply with plants. Sign up here to stay updated.
On a related note, stop by Infinity Foods as soon as possible and fill in this postcard by Pesticide Action Network to tell all candidates in the local election to make Brighton pesticide-free! You can leave the postcard in the box at the shop, so super easy.
About a year ago, I began to notice that my knees sometimes hurt when I went down stairs (I live on the third floor (US)/second floor (UK)), but I didn’t pay too much attention to this - it wasn’t particularly painful, but it was something. Everyone has a certain mind-body constitutional make-up with unique areas of resilience and weakness - and for highly vata people like me, joint problems are not uncommon. This is because high amounts of vata - associated with air and space - can dry out lubrication in the joints. So, for example, my knees have clicked when I crouch down since I was a teenager, painless, but embarrassing!
Anyway, back to last year...later in the year, a volunteer at a community garden I was involved with mentioned she could tell whether it was raining out just by how her knees felt. Now, I’m sure you may have heard of older people complaining about this, but neither of us were remotely near that category, so I made a note to see if this happened to me. But last summer turned out to be first proper summer in England in a long time - it didn’t rain until some time in August.
Sure enough, on those rainy days, I realized that my knee pain on the stairs wasn’t random at all - I only had it on the rainy days. By accident, I also discovered a way to avoid having it. One day, I ate breakfast much later than usual - it ended up being more like a brunch. This was not deliberate, it just happened. On that rainy day, I didn’t experience any pain when I descended the stairs. Pondering what was different, I realized that I had inadvertently extended my overnight fast from 12 hours to something more like 16 hours. Of course, one day could just be chance, so I made a note to do an experiment the next time we had a prolonged stretch of rain - this being England, it was bound to happen at some time. I had to wait a while, but it happened - it was the first time I looked forward to weeks of continuous rain.
Happily, following the days I did a 16-hour overnight fast, my knees were fine on the stairs; 13-14 hours of fasting wasn’t enough. Everyone is different and has a different internal ecosystem, so effects of fasting will vary. For some people, an even longer overnight fast might be better. Moreover, not all joint pain is linked to rain. However, beyond my own personal experience, research is building up on the impacts of intermittent fasting on inflammation (which is a factor in nearly every chronic disease), detoxification - via autophagy (a way the body cleans out damaged and dead cells) and ketosis (which increases glutathione, a detoxifying agent), appetite and blood sugar regulation, and the body’s stress response (Longo and Mattson, 2014; Tello 2019).
Fasting is useful both to preserve health if one is fairly healthy, and to help improve health for those who may have particular problems. Yet it is not right for everyone, and at any rate, it’s best to try slowly - perhaps extending the overnight fast an hour at a time - and see how your body responds. If you’re not already doing a 12-hour overnight fast, then that’s a good practice that is fairly safe for everyone. This would look something like stopping food and drink intake (except for plain water) by 7pm and then not eating or drinking 7am.
The usual cautions exist - if you’re on medications, discuss with your doctor first. It’s also not something one should try while pregnant or breastfeeding.
Tello, Monique. Intermittent Fasting: Surprising update - Harvard Health Blog. June 29th, 2019. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/intermittent-fasting-surprising-update-2018062914156
Longo, V.D. and Mattson, M.P. (2014) Fasting: Molecular Mechanisms and Clinical Applications Cell Metabolism 19(2): 181-192
How sweet is this baby, slightly scraggly wild garlic (aka ramson) arising from the decomposing leaves of last fall? Every year, I mean to come look for it before it's out in full force in Preston Park, but never get around to it. This time I managed to. One week you can't see anything, and then suddenly these have erupted! I never fail to be awed by the seeming suddenness of spring growth. Of course, all kinds of activity goes on underground before our senses delight in the different shades of green and heady aromas of spring.
This photo is from a few weeks ago - I've been caught up in travel to the US to spend time with family - the wild garlic in Brighton is probably more lush now. It has been interesting to witness the drastic climatic differences between the NY metro area and Brighton - the snow here in NJ finally melted off the other day. In my 12 years of living in England and visiting the US, I hadn't yet come at this time of seasonal transition.
Alliums - the garlic and onion plant family - are somewhat polarizing in the world of Ayurveda. Ayurveda, like most herbal medicine traditions, recognizes the medicinal value of these plants (see below), but discourages consuming them as food. The reason being that they have certain properties which affect the subtle anatomy in less desirable ways. Garlic and onions, which are quite potent in flavor and smell, are thought to disturb the energy of the heart in particular. Whereas the ideal in Ayurveda is the state of sattva, or calmness and purity, garlic is considered rajasic - fiery and stimulating, and onions are considered tamasic - dulling. Most people are familiar with the sensory residue left after consuming alliums, which doesn't occur with other foods. However, some within the Ayurvedic community feel that there isn't a need to completely refrain from using garlic in food.
According to this pharmacological review, wild garlic, Allium ursinum, has many of the same properties as cultivated garlic (A. sativum):
- Reduces blood pressure (one study shows it's more potent than A. sativum)
- Inhibitory effect on cholesterol synthesis
- In vitro studies showed antimicrobial activity of A. ursinum extracts against:
Staphylococcus aureus, Bacillus subtilis, Escherichia coli, Proteus mirabilis, Salmonella enteritidis, and fungi: Cladosporium sp., Aspergillus niger, Rhizopus nigricans,
Geotrichum candidum, Penicillium expansum, Candida lipolytica, Mycoderma,
The highest amount of sulfoxides occurs in March & April, and the amounts of individual sulfoxides vary at various times in its growing season.
Traditionally, wild garlic has been used for:
- stimulating digestion
- antimicrobial action
- removing toxins
- preventing cardiovascular problems
- wound healing and chronic skin problems (applied externally)
My take on alliums as food
I think that one can use personal judgement and not be dogmatic about it. Certainly, if someone is feeling fiery in their psyche or body, then they might benefit from eliminating garlic (and maybe onions, too) and seeing if that helps calm things down. It may also be worth minimizing if doing some intense inner or spiritual work - most spiritual paths discourage garlic and onion consumption, understandably. You can also pair it with things that counter the stimulating, fiery aspects, like yogurt (plant-based or dairy).
To me, wild garlic seems somewhat less intense than garlic bulbs - I suspect it would take a lot of wild garlic to approach the rajasic level of cultivated garlic bulbs. On the other hand, subtle is, well, subtle, and I suppose if one really wanted to discern how this group of plants affects you, it would be useful to completely eliminate for a period and then reintroduce. I personally haven't yet done an experiment to see what happens - perhaps some day. It may well help to calm my somewhat fiery temperament! However, even if you choose not to consume garlic as food, it's lovely to walk into an area with wild garlic covering the ground and smell the distinctive, sulfury odor.
Apparently, one of the stories behind it being named Allium ursinum is that bears go for it when emerging from hibernation (ursus means bear in Latin). I don't know whether that's true, but it's fun to imagine.
Identification & ways to use
Wild garlic likes shady areas, and you'll often find it covering the ground in wooded areas. Make sure to gather the leaves from pollution-free and dog-free areas, taking a little and not stripping an area bare. Also be sure about the identity, as it can resemble the leaves of lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis) and crocus (Colchicum autumnale), which are toxic. In an area where it covers the ground, you should be able to smell the garlic in the air, but where less abundant, pick a piece and smell it to check. I like to blend wild garlic into pesto or add to salads and soups. You can find lots of recipes around, and Robin Harford has some great ones you can check out here.
Sobolewska, D., Podolak, I., and Makowska-Was, J. (2015) Allium ursinum: botanical, phytochemical and pharmacological review. Phytochemical Review 14(1): 81–97.
This is a video of a talk I recently gave for Brighton Natural Health Centre's series of community talks. It's around 40 minutes, so here is a little breakdown of what's in it:
1:01 - Context
5:30 - Macrocosm & microcosm reflecting each other
10:00 Paradox of institutions - Ivan Illich
14:30 - Forces/elements of nature (doshas) in us
20:19 - Biorhythms & Ayurvedic daily clock
27:43 - Common things people get wrong, and what to do instead
34:30 - Ayurvedic stages of disease
I'll be with Hearts and Flowers Brighton at their stall at Seedy Sunday, one of the biggest seed swap events in England, with lots of interesting stalls, food, talks, and activities.
We'll have winter plant and flower stuff and I'll have some flower-infused Ayurvedic treats.
Come along to get inspired, swap seeds, and learn!
Sun, Feb 3rd 2019
10.30 - 4
205 Dyke Rd, Hove
Weds Feb 6th 2019
Brighton BNY 1YD
Did you know that Ayurveda is the inspiration behind the golden milk and turmeric chai trend you may be seeing in many cafes? However, Ayurveda runs far deeper than spiced food and drink – it’s a way of life. A Sanksrit term, Ayurveda is often translated as the science of life or the art of living, and it provides a framework for living in alignment with nature and harmonising mind, body, and spirit. Dietary and lifestyle practices form the basis of maintaining balance in the universe that each human is, and they serve as the foundation for individuals to reach their potential.
In this talk, you’ll learn some basic concepts of Ayurvedic philosophy, the root causes of disease or imbalance, and some ways to prevent these and correct course when out of balance – which are increasingly being validated by biomedical research.
This talk will be held at The Brighthelm Centre. The event is FREE, but please sign up here to reserve your place as seats are limited.