Food has the power to lift us up when we’re down, ground us when we’re scattered, warm us up, cool us down, and even treat or prevent illnesses.
The specific effects depend on the food’s inherent qualities, such as flavor, temperature, nutrients, and chemical composition. Chinese medicine refers to this as the energetics of food. I like to think of this as food’s natural superpowers.
You can tell a lot about a food’s superpower by simply tasting it.
Below is a simplified chart to help you hone your taste buds and choose the foods you need most.
The Five Flavors
Bitter: The bitter flavor improves appetite, stimulates digestion, and removes Dampness and Heat (we capitalize these in Chinese medicine when referring to a condition). Too much bitter, on the other hand, can dry us out and drain our Qi. Examples of bitter foods include rye, artichoke, asparagus, broccoli, chicory, dandelion leaf, kale, lettuce, turnip, pumpkin seed, basil, marjoram, and oregano.
Pungent: The pungent flavor promotes circulation of blood and energy. It stimulates digestion and drains mucus (due to the common cold, allergies, or environmental dampness). Examples of pungent foods include cabbage, daikon, mustard leaf, leek, onion, radish, turnip, bay leaves, juniper, clove, cinnamon, and horseradish.
Sweet: The sweet flavor is most common in foods, and harmonizes all other flavors. Naturally sweet foods gently stimulate the circulation and strengthen digestion—unlike overly sweet foods that can inhibit digestion. It’s the flavor most associated with nourishment in Chinese medicine. Sweet foods include buckwheat, corn, oats, rice, sorghum, wheat, beets, carrots, parsnips, potato, sweet potato, pumpkin, squash, most fruits, black beans, chickpeas, lentils, lima beans, peas, almonds, peanuts, walnuts, pistachio, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, anchovy, herring, lobster, mackerel, oyster, salmon, beef, chicken, duck, goose, lamb, mutton, rabbit, and turkey.
Salty: The salty flavor moistens, detoxifies, and stimulates digestion while regulating the balance of moisture in our bodies. Examples of naturally salty foods include kelp, nori (and other varieties of sea vegetables), clam, lobster, mussels, sardine, miso, and of course, salt!
Sour: The sour flavor stimulates contraction and absorption, keeping food moving along and preventing stagnation. Sour also counteracts the effects of fatty foods by stimulating secretions from the gall-bladder and pancreas. Some examples of sour foods include olive, tomato, apple, apricot, blackberry, blueberry, crabapple, cranberry, grapes, grapefruit, lemon, lime, mango, orange, pineapple, plum, pomegranate, strawberry, trout, pheasant, sauerkraut and other naturally fermented vegetables.
Mind Your Tongue
To develop your taste buds’ flavor-detection, simply begin by tasting foods you enjoy, and see what you notice. For instance, as you thoroughly chew your potato or rice, can you detect a hint of sweetness? Can you distinguish the pungent flavor of an onion from the bitter flavor of dandelion leaves?
As you practice, you may begin to notice more complex flavor combinations. A turnip, for example, is bitter, pungent, AND sweet in flavor! Don’t worry if you can’t detect every subtle nuance. Just pay attention to the flavors you DO notice. Your taste buds have a lot to tell you!
Which flavors do you think can’t be beet? And which ones make you turnip your nose? ;) Please share your “mmm’s” and “blech’s” in the comments below!
I’m a practitioner of Chinese medicine, specializing in digestive health and self-care. When I’m not teaching or writing, I’m most likely changing diapers, plunking my banjo, or making an impressive mess in the kitchen. Learn more here