Understanding the concept of Rasa or ‘taste’ is critical for understanding the medicinal value of foods. There are six different tastes, each of which has a post-digestive energetic effect on the doshas, influencing the ultimate state of the mind and body. Most foods are a combination of tastes.
In the West we think of a balanced meal as one which combines carbohydrates, proteins, fats and so on. In Ayurveda, a balanced meal is one that comprises all six tastes. We can then further tailor to dosha balancing needs by having more of some tastes than others. A healthy person is able to enjoy all of the six tastes, but if vikruti (imbalance) exists then we might develop an aversion to foods with similar qualities as the doshas that are imbalanced. These foods are then no longer palatable, no longer medicinal and in fact become unhealthy for us. So, we need to reduce these and use other foods as medicine to rebalance.
There are six tastes in Ayurvedic cuisine –
Sweet Foods with a sweet taste are calming and soothing to the system. Their grounding qualities balance Vata and their cooling qualities balance Pitta. But taken in excess, these foods will imbalance Kapha creating heaviness and slowing digestion. Sweet foods include sugar, honey, milk, sesame seeds, fruits and vegetables with a naturally sweet taste such as bananas, yams or fennel and also carbohydrates such as potatoes, rice or bread.
Bitter Foods with a bitter taste create lightness and clarity. They balance Kapha and Pitta but taken in excess, they aggravate Vata inducing dryness in the skin. Bitter foods include olives, dark leafy green vegetables like spinach or mustard greens, and coffee.
Sour Foods with a sour taste stimulate digestion. Their warming qualities balance Vata but taken in excess they will disturb Kapha and Pitta increasing body weight and skin sensitivity. Sour foods include yogurt and sour cream, citrus fruits, tomato or fermented foods such as vinegar and pickles.
Pungent Foods with a pungent taste decongest the system increasing digestion. Their drying and heating properties balance Kapha but taken in excess, these foods can disturb Pitta and Vata creating excess internal heat and dryness. Pungent foods include garlic, onions, wasabi and hot spices like ginger, cumin and black pepper.
Salty Foods with a salty taste are calming and enhance digestion. Their warming qualities balance Vata but taken in excess, they can disturb Kapha and Pitta leading to water retention and internal inflammation. Salty foods include seaweeds, salted chips and foods, and soy sauce.
Astringent Foods with an astringent taste create lightness. Their cooling properties balance Pitta and their drawing properties balance Kapha but taken in excess these foods can disturb Vata creating dryness and flatulence. Astringent foods include pomegranates, aloe vera, green grapes and chickpeas. All the six tastes translate into one of three post digestive tastes: sweet and salty tastes end up as sweet tastes and are digested in the stomach by the Kapha dosha. So, these foods should be eaten first, which makes a great case for having bread before a meal! Sour tastes remain sour and are digested in the small intestine by the Pitta dosha. These should be eaten next. Pungent, bitter and astringent tastes all end up as astringent and are digested in the colon by the Vata dosha and should be eaten last.
In the West, meals are typically served in courses. But in India small portions of food representing each of the six tastes are put together on large platters called thalis. This way, we can pick and choose what food to eat in the preferred order and also adjust our intake of the tastes according to the doshas we are aiming to balance.’
— Taken from ‘Inner Beauty ‘Discover natural beauty and well being with the traditions of Ayurveda”