Foundation of TCM dietary and herbology (2/4)- Five flavours
The five flavours are salty, sour, bitter, sweet, and pungent. These flavours do not always exactly correspond to what the food tastes like, instead, they reflect the energetic properties of the food. Consuming or avoiding foods from different flavour categories is one way we can promote harmony (or cause dissonance) among our bodily energies.
“In terms of flavours, the pungent and sweet flavours induce dispersion that corresponds to Yang, while the sour and bitter flavours induce vomitting and discharge that correspond to Yin. “
Huang Di Nei Jing
The five flavours and their correlating five natures were well illustrated in The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine (Huang Di Nei Jing). This text provided a sophisticated system for balancing the body that works as a foundation of TCM from ancient to modern practice. Its principles emphasize that when the five phases are in equilibrium, health and wellness prevail. On the contrary, when a phase becomes imbalanced, illness may occur in the systems and channels of the body.
The characteristics of the five flavours are
Bitter flavour is generally drying, cleansing and firming. It clears excessive heat and dampness. Bitterness is mostly associated with the heart system. When used in small amount, it helps with digestion. Some bitter foods according to TCM are: Bitter melon, citrus peel, dandelion leaves, tea.
Sweet flavour is strengthening, harmonizing and slowing. Sweetness is mostly associated with the spleen system. Sweet flavour is good for building up energies but the same energy in excess could turn into phlegm and heat toxins.
Do mind that Sweet flavour is not just a taste. What many westerners consider sweet is not the same thing that TCM would classify as sweet. According to TCM, grains and meats are sweet because they are mild and nourishing. Some other sweet foods are: goji berry, jujube date, honey, carrot, pumpkin, licorice, soy.
Sour flavour is contractive and closing. Sourness is mostly associated with the liver system. It is great for helping your body absorb any leaking conditions like excessive sweating, chronic cough, chronic diarrhea. When the flavour works on the liver system, it also activates the blood circulation and relieve Qi stagnation. Since liver system is in charge of our emotion, moderate sourness could be smoothing and calming for our mind. Too much sourness might affect our joints and soft tissues. Some sour foods according to TCM are: vinegar, lemon, sauerkraut, chinese hawthorn. [Read more: Qi deficiency: What is it and how do you manage it?] [Read more: the liver system and sourness are related to the spring]
Pungent flavour, or more precisely a aromatic fragrance, is dispersing and moving. It has the action of dispersing and promoting the circulation of Qi and Blood. Pungent fragrance is mostly associated with the lung system. They are useful for expelling exogenous pathogenic factors, like a cold or flu, and also for syndromes of Qi and Blood stagnation. But it’s important not to eat too much spicy food, as that can actually overstimulate your body and drain your Qi energy. [Read more: Strengthen your Wei Qi for better immunity]
Salty flavour is moistening, softening, and downward moving. The salty flavor has a yin nourishing, cooling, and moistening effect on the body. It supports the vitality of the kidney system, promoting urination and bowel movements. This flavor also dissolves congestion and softens hard nodules or phlegm.
"If people pay attention to the five flavours and blend them well, Qi and Xue (Blood) will circulate freely, and breath and bones will be filled with the essence of life."
Huang Di Nei Jing
What a Healthy TCM Diet Looks Like
A TCM diet can include vegetables, fruits, grains, seeds, nuts & legumes, meat, spices, herbs, and beverages. All plant and animal-based foods are assigned both a flavor and a temperature nature. For example, radish are cool and sweet. The coolness calms the heart from the agitation caused by heat in the chest. The sweet flavor is nourishing and building and generates fluids. [Read more: Foundation of TCM dietary and herbology (1/4)- Four natures] [Read more: TCM Dietary advice]
Another example is chicken, warm and sweet in the TCM understanding. The warm and sweet aspects of the chicken nourish the blood and Qi and strengthen the Liver. Chicken is a strong builder and replenishes the body. Cooking the entire chicken and using both the meat and bones is essential in maximizing its nourishing ability. Once you’re finished with the meat, make bone broth from the bones or put them in the freezer for later. However, chicken is not suitable for those who has excessive heat symptoms like skin conditions, insomnia, menopause, hyperactivity, etc.
A few examples of foods related to the five flavors:
Sour: pomegranate, vinegar, lime, lemon, and fermented foods.
Bitter: Parsley, mustard greens, kale, dandelion greens, collard greens, bittermelon, and coffee.
Sweet: Rice, chicken, whole grains, sweet potatoes, cabbage, carrots, squash, corn, many fruits, goji berries, and honey.
Pungent: Scallions, daikon radish, pepper, cinnamon, and ginger.
Salty: Seaweeds, miso, sea salt, tamari, pickles, ocean fish, and shellfish.
In conjunction with the four natures of Chinese herbs, an understanding of the five flavours of Chinese herbs provides practitioners with a understanding of their medicinal effects. It is important to understand that medicinal herbs with similar flavours can have different actions, for example fresh ginger and fresh mint are both Pungent (Aromatic) in flavour and posses a dispersing action. However, ginger is warm and can eliminate cold, while mint is cool in nature and thus can clear away heat.
As you can see, foods have medicinal qualities and can help the body heal or vice versa. This article covers just the beginning of the five flavours, and these five flavours are just one small component of Chinese Medicine Food Therapy. Stay tuned for the up coming series!