Shad Rasa: The Ayurvedic View on Food and Taste
Ayurveda considers food and spices to be healing substances and good digestion to be one of the main factors in optimal health. Because of this, great emphasis is placed on the right combination of foods and on the concept of shad rasa, or six tastes. These six tastes—sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent—should be present in the diet in balanced proportions. By understanding them and how they relate to our individual constitution, we can make better decisions to promote and maintain health.
According to Ayurveda, we are born with a unique constitution that is an individual combination of the three doshas or principles that govern our body’s functioning on the physical, mental and emotional levels. These three energies are Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Disease is caused by an imbalance in one of the doshas and by the presence of ama, or toxic food by-products (food that has not been fully digested).
Vata is the subtle energy associated with movement. It regulates respiration, circulation and excretion, as well as the pulsation of the heart and motor neuron impulses. If it gets worse, it can cause disorders such as bloating, constipation, tremors, convulsions, asthma, rheumatoid and osteoarthritis, as well as many neurological problems.
Pitta represents the fire element in the body. It regulates digestion, absorption, assimilation, nutrition, metabolism and body temperature. Pitta-type disorders include hyperacidity, ulcers, all types of skin rashes, chronic fatigue, Crohn’s disease, colitis, and numerous inflammatory problems.
Kapha is the energy that forms the structure of the body and lubricates joints and organs. When out of balance, kapha can cause problems such as obesity, high cholesterol, diabetes, edema, asthma, tumors and a variety of congestive disorders.
According to Ayurveda, the best preventative medicine and support for the natural healing process is a diet and lifestyle that is tailored to the constitutional needs of the individual and is based on the seasons and cycles of nature.
Because of their properties and taste, foods that tend to increase a certain dosha can aggravate it, and likewise foods that decrease that dosha will calm it down and normalize its functions. Vata-calming foods have more sweet, sour, and salty tastes and less overly pungent, bitter, and pungent tastes. Pitta-calming foods are sweeter, more bitter, and more astringent, and less acidic, salty, and pungent. Finally, Kapha-calming foods are pungent, bitter, and astringent, and less sweet, salty, and acidic. A brief overview of the six tastes can give us an idea of what types of foods aggravate one dosha or another.
Sweet taste is present in foods like sugar, milk, rice, wheat, dates, maple syrup, and liquorice. Its qualities are usually oily, cooling, and heavy. In moderation, it promotes the growth of plasma, blood, fat, muscle, bone, marrow, and reproductive fluids. Excessive consumption of sweets produces many disturbances in all doshas. Sweet foods can cause colds, heaviness, loss of appetite, obesity, abnormal muscle growth, lymphatic congestion, tumors, edema and diabetes.
Sour taste is present in foods such as citrus fruits, sour cream, yogurt, vinegar, cheese, lemon, unripe mangoes, green grapes, and fermented foods. Its qualities are liquid, light, heating and oily, and it has an anabolic effect. In moderation, sour foods are refreshing. They stimulate appetite, improve digestion, give energy to the body and nourish the heart. In excess, this taste can lead to acidosis, ulcers and perforations. Its fermenting action can be toxic to the blood and cause skin conditions such as acne, dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis, boils, and edema, as well as burning in the throat, chest, heart, bladder, and urinary tract.
All salts, seafood, and sea vegetables are examples of salty tastes. Salty taste is so strong that it can easily negate the effect of all other tastes. It’s hot, heavy and oily. In moderation, it has a laxative effect and can relieve spasms and pain in the colon. How sweet and sour does it have an anabolic effect. It promotes growth and maintains the water-electrolyte balance. It stimulates salivation, improves the taste of food and supports digestion, absorption and elimination. Too much salt in the diet makes the blood viscous and thick, can cause high blood pressure and worsen skin conditions. Flushing, fainting, wrinkling and hair loss can be attributed to excess salt, as can oedema, water retention, ulcers, bleeding disorders, skin rashes, hyperacidity and high blood pressure.
Pungent flavor is present in foods such as hot peppers, black pepper, onions, garlic, ginger, and asafoetida. Its qualities are light, drying and warming. In moderation, it improves digestion, absorption, and elimination, stimulates blood flow, dissolves clots, and kills parasites and germs. In excess, it can cause sexual weakness, choking, fainting, and fatigue. When it causes pitta aggravation, it can cause diarrhea, heartburn, nausea, stomach ulcers, colitis, and skin disorders. When it provokes Vata, it can cause tremors, insomnia, and muscle pain.
Examples of bitter tastes include bitter melon, turmeric, dandelion, aloe vera, rhubarb, and coffee. It’s the flavor most lacking in the North American diet. Its qualities are dry and light. It enhances the taste of all flavors, is anti-toxic and kills germs. Bitter helps with burning, itching, fainting and stubborn skin diseases. It reduces fever and stimulates skin and muscle firmness. In small doses, it can relieve gas and act as a digestive tonic. Due to its drying properties, excessive bitter taste can deplete plasma, blood, muscle, fat, bone marrow, and semen, which can lead to sexual weakness.
Unripe bananas, pomegranates, chickpeas, yellow split peas, okra, turmeric, alfalfa sprouts, and alumroot are examples of the astringent flavor. Its qualities are cooling, drying and heavy. In moderation, it helps heal ulcers and promotes clotting. Excessive amounts can lead to constipation, bloating, heart cramps and stagnant circulation. It can also lead to a lack of sperm, affect sex drive and lead to a variety of neuromuscular disorders.
Ayurveda encourages the use of herbs and aromatic spices, which are also considered medicinal substances, to create a balanced blend of all tastes. The most common spices in Ayurvedic cuisine are: cumin, coriander, ginger, hing (Asafoetida), ajwain, turmeric, fenugreek, garam masala, cinnamon, clove and cardamom. Regular consumption of small amounts of these aromatic, stimulating and digestive spices helps to keep the digestive fire (Agni) and the entire gastrointestinal tract healthy. Toxins that build up from improperly digested foods can also be greatly reduced by slowly incorporating these spices into the diet.
Obviously there is more to eating than just taste. However, in terms of its qualities, taste is very important for maintaining good health. Ayurvedic cuisine is unique in that it ensures that each dish is cooked and seasoned for maximum digestibility, avoiding the formation of toxins and nourishing all tissues.
Understanding the properties of foods, how they affect the doshas and how to balance them is a great asset in preventing disease. An Ayurveda clinician can make this a more practical task by providing specific guidelines and nutritional charts for each person’s individual constitution and health needs. Ayurveda knows that the effects of all medicinal substances begin in the tongue, so let your food be your medicine!
© Vishnu That. This article was originally published in New Life Journal, February 2006.
Thanks to Vishnu Dass