Spices And The Sense (And Wisdom) Of Taste

by Eva Dusch

Ayurveda believes that health is based on the six rasas or tastes. It’s not just what we experience directly on our tongue when we are eating our food, but also how we dance (or struggle) with all the flavours of life. We may not always be able to choose what’s on our plate, but at least we can help to digest it better. Ayurveda explains the mental, physical and spiritual effect of spices and how taste moves and shakes us on a daily basis.

 ** This is part two of a two-part series on Spices in Ayurveda for the palate and health. Read part one here 

‘The main spice of any meal would be salt and pepper. They are so phenomenally successful in the herb and spice arena, they arrogantly sit on the table knowing that whatever you are preparing you require one of us.’ It’s a snippet from the comedy show My name is five spice by British comedian Michael McIntyre (recommended if you want to have a good laugh). We can’t deny that salt and pepper always seem to make it first to the table. Black pepper used to be the king of all spices hence the Dutch saying ‘peperduur’, it was golden stuff for spice traders. Same goes for nutmeg. ‘In ancient days they used to buy a house with a bag of nutmeg’, says one of our faculty teachers and vaidya Dr. Sayali Kendarkar. ‘That much wealth the spices held’. 

This may have counted mainly in most Western countries, but in many countries in the Middle-East and Asia it has been a whole different spice game for thousands of years. Putting a foot on the Indian continent goes hand in hand with a colorful wave of spice flavours that penetrates your nostrils. I can’t help but notice the glimpses on the faces of Dr Sayali and Gita Desai when talking about the old Indian spice traditions. Bringing in old family traditions and the wisdom of their Indian grandmothers. ‘In the Indian tradition it’s very common to have your own homemade masalas or your own family spice box called the masala dabba’, says Dr Sayali, ‘When we are making dal we temper our spices in some ghee or oil, like Panch Phoron (the Indian Five Spice) which contains fennel, cumin, nigella, fenugreek and mustard. Another common spice is hing (asafoetida) that brings a great smell into the kitchen and house that tickles our smell and so wakes up our digestive juices.’

Tickling the taste buds

What’s your flava has been a big theme song back in 2002 (or was it just me?). Though, I bet Craig David was not singing about his spice cabinet, was he? While in the West we consider spices mostly a matter of flavour, in Ayurveda it becomes a bit more complex (what doesn’t?) or, should we say, intriguing. It goes way beyond what’s happening on our tongue, explains Dr Martina Ziska (Ayurveda BAMS and Neurologist MD). ‘Taste carries a certain influence that affects the biochemistry and creates change in the body. In the whole body, not just the digestive tract. So for each spice we look at the actual taste but also the effect in the stomach and related tissues and organ systems and the after-effect (vipak) on the body. And then we have the so-called prahbav, which is an effect that we cannot really explain and goes against logic.’ 

Yes, you’ve just entered the Dravyaguna Vidya maze. Dravyaguna means substance and vidya means science, showcasing that every substance carries its properties and the five great elements or panchamahabhutas that make up the taste. Let’s take ginger as an example, better known as Universal Medicine. Heavily used nowadays in many parts of the world, but how many of us do réally know its true magic power? Martina: ‘It’s one of the very few substances or spices that despite being heating actually reduces inflammation, while all other heating substances will contribute to inflammation. That’s its peculiarity, who would have guessed that?’ 

And let’s make it even more complex. Because the effect also depends on the Anupan (vehicle carrier) with which you take the ginger. When we want to strengthen the anti-kapha effect we mix ginger with water (ginger tea) that can also be used for other spices or herbal medicines. Ginger combined with milk is more nourishing and so more beneficial for Vata, and with honey it helps to remove Ama (undigested food). If you add honey ánd lemon it can even be helpful for diabetic patients to remove fat or cholesterol. And aloe vera juice can be a great companion for ginger when someone is suffering from hyperacidity and you want to neutralise that sensitivity.

‘The tastes of our food tell us what particular effect it will have on our body’
Functions of taste

The incredible knowledge the great Ayurvedic sages had about spices is not to be taken lightly. So how do spices réally work? What is the science behind it? This is where the Ayurvedic math comes in, summing up the different elements that are taken into account, including taste.  ‘Ayurveda believes that health is based on the six rasas or tastes: sweet, salty, sour, pungent, bitter and astringent. As far as possible everyone should try to get all six tastes in every meal’, explains Dr. Sayali. The reason being that all tastes are made up of the five great elements, just like ourselves. Specific combinations of these elements determine the taste of that particular food. Water and earth make up the sweet taste, and then we have sour (earth + fire), salty (fire + water), bitter (air + space), pungent (air + fire) and astringent (air + earth).’ 

So the tastes of our food tell us which elements are present and what particular effect it will have on our body. Sweet gives instant nourishment to the body and is according to Ayurveda the most important taste because it forms the bulk and building blocks of our body. It’s the taste we are naturally most drawn to and should eat the most of. But – yes there’s a big but –  this is not your one way ticket to the next door bakery for speculaas croissants and chocolate. By sweet taste we mean natural sweets like milk, grains, dates, molasses and certain fruits. 

The sour taste causes salivation, functions as an appetizer, improves digestion and energizes our five senses. A bit of lemon on the tongue and we reckon you’re fresh and awake again. The salty taste improves salivation and makes everything taste better (does anyone disagree?). Bitter is a cleansing taste, it breaks stagnation and helps the process of the digestive juices. It’s also recommended to finish your meal with a bite of bitter because it naturally protects you from overeating. The pungent taste enhances all other flavors, kindles the digestive fire, supports the elimination of excess fat and helps in the digestion of heavy fatty foods. Lastly, the astringent (the ‘what does that even mean’ taste) tones the tissues and cools excess heat in the body.

‘Garlic has five tastes except for sour, so it’s a pretty complete medicine on its own’

From sweet to bitter

Spices make up a great and easy solution for including all the different tastes in one meal. Some contain almost all the flavours – fennel, saffron, nutmeg, cardamom and cinnamon all carry sweetness in them. According to Ayurveda there are seven types of salts. Bitter we taste in spices like fenugreek, dill and turmeric. Pungent is often the most obvious when we think of black pepper, ginger, paprika and mustard. Astringency we find in bay leaves, caraway seeds, oregano and turmeric. And some spices tick almost all of the boxes, like garlic. ‘Garlic is a very special spice, explains Dr Sayali, ‘because it has five tastes except for sour, so it’s a pretty complete medicine on its own.’

Ayurveda also explains when to eat which taste (we told you, it’s becoming more complex with every step) more profusely – from particular season to time of day and even during the same meal. The recommendation is to eat sweet at the beginning of the meal because it’s the most heavy and nourishing taste. Think of rice with cardamom and cinnamon. ‘To satisfy our Kapha’, Dr Sayali says. You want to start with dessert? Ayurveda gives you the green light. Midway there ideally would be more of the salty and sour taste. ‘Sautée your veggies in salt, lemon juice and carom seeds’. And you can end your meal with small amounts of bitter and astringent, like fennel seeds sauteed in paprika powder or a tinge of lemon. Dr Sayali: ‘Every taste feeds our body, mind and senses in its own unique way. It has to do with the subtle or sukshma quality that penetrates deeply and carries all the essential elements of the spices into the deepest tissue level or to the target organ. That’s why spices can be easily used as medicine. Even when people are not keen on taking medicine we can help them with the help of spices.’

Keep it simple

But then comes the question: which tastes suit you best? Is knowing your dosha enough?  ‘Ayurveda is personalized medicine. Every single being is unique and you are your best knower, your own best doctor, your own best intelligence. So try Tulsi, mint, ginger and then stop, pause and take a deep breath and ask your body. How does that feel? Is it what you want and need? Try them one by one and see which one are your allies, your friends; what are the spices that are most supportive to you? And be curious about where they come from or how they grow’, says Laura Plumb, founder of VedaWise and best-selling author of Ayurveda Cooking for Beginners.

One of the staple meals in Ayurveda is kitchari. The rice, mung and veggies form a complete meal on its own, but would be not as tasty and healing without the spices. Depending on different factors like dosha, season and imbalances you can adjust the amount and type of spices. ‘Try instead of making it with twelve different spices to make it only with one spice, like fresh ginger or with cinnamon. And in summertime you can have some fresh mint and cilantro sprinkled on top of it.’

‘Every meal is a chance to recognize that nature loves and supports you’
Whole body “ohm”

‘Always be gentle when using spices’, Linda keeps repeating, making a slight nod to all the hot spicy food fanatics. Having a clear preference for certain spices does not always mean that is what your body actually needs or will benefit from. ‘Your whole digestive system and tissues carry water and acids to digest the food. If you add a lot of heat and hot spices then it’s no longer sattvic (balanced) and instead becomes rajasic (fiery) and your stomach and intestines have to protect themselves from excess heat (acid) and aggravation. So it will produce more mucus through the epidermal layer. Once you’re producing more mucus you’re increasing kapha in your system and that is the opposite effect of what you want. Anything in excess can have the opposite effect, that’s why you have to be gentle. Sattva gives you energy and a clear mind, a feeling of balance in mind and body so you can walk peacefully through life.’ 

All spices carry a story and ancient wisdom. So be open to cultivating a relationship with the spices and herbs that you’re using. Why are you using them and for what? How do they make you feel? What effect has it on you? Where do they come from? Laura: ‘Look at the ancient cultures and rituals or the ones from your own family culture. Then you’ll find that spices are not only delicious but also make you feel good. They give you a whole body “yum” or whole body “ohm”. Every meal is a chance to recognize that nature loves and supports you.’ 

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