Most of us associate the idea of cravings with comfort—whether it’s chocolate, coffee, cookies, or ice cream, the foods we crave are messengers of important information about what our bodies and minds are experiencing. But not all cravings are of the sweet variety; our body can seek comfort in a number of different flavors—six, in fact, according to Ayurveda. The six tastes, or shad rasa, are just one way that we can understand the properties of our food and their effects on our bodies and minds. Since all foods are made of different combinations of the five elements, we can use that model to determine the qualities of the tastes they have when they hit our tongue. Those qualities further correlate to different stages of our digestive process, which helps us understand why we might have certain reactions to foods after eating them.
In keeping with Ayurveda’s pursuit of a balanced life, it’s recommended to have all six tastes present in every meal for optimal digestion and satisfaction. However, depending on the levels of your doshas—your current state, or vikriti, as well as the preferences and tendencies of your stable constitution, or prakriti—you may find yourself feeling cravings or aversions to certain tastes. It’s important to notice whether a craving is coming from a state of health—i.e., is a taste that will keep your constitution balanced—or a state of illness—i.e., one that will exacerbate a current excess in one or more of the doshas. Remember the foundational Ayurvedic principle that like increases like, so when a dosha is high it will send signals to the body to get more of the stuff that will further increase it, adding fuel to the proverbial fire.
Keep reading to understand more about the qualities and sources of all six tastes. Like all relationships, the more time you spend getting to know your foods in the sacred space of quiet, mindful meals, the deeper your connection to them will become, and the more nourishing your food will be.
The sweet taste is made of earth and water elements—the heavying, grounding aspects of nature, which is why sweet is the most comforting and nourishing taste for body, mind, and spirit. Most of us in modern times associate sweet with sugar—things like desserts and refined treats—but sweet is also present in whole-food items such as root vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes, beets, parsnips, winter squashes), whole grains, and fruits, which are the preferred sources of sweetness.
We experience the sweet taste during the first stage of the digestive process, when the food hits our tongue and moves through the esophagus, which is often why we can feel instantly satisfied by a bite of something sugary when we feel low-energy. A balanced Ayurvedic meal will usually start with something sweet for this reason as well—think about the bread most cultures serve as some kind of appetizer—since it naturally stokes your appetite, sending a signal to the rest of your GI system to get ready for the meal that’s about to come their way.
Sweet is balancing to both vata and pitta doshas, especially vata, because it provides grounding to these otherwise light and mobile doshas. That makes it most appropriate to consume during the fall, winter, and summer seasons, which is also when foods that are naturally sweet are in abundance. If you find yourself craving sweet foods, it may be your natural desire to balance vata or pitta (including imbalances in the mind), but it may also come from an excess of the kapha dosha, which is already high in earth and water elements. To determine which one it is, think about other things you’re experiencing in your life right now. Are you feeling stuck, clingy, emotional, and unmotivated? That’s kapha. Or are you racing through your to-do list, feel like you’re running out of steam but get a second wind from an energy bar of coffee, but crash at the end of the day? That’s vata and/or pitta.
Made of fire and earth elements, sour taste is another appetite stimulant and is essential for the transformation of our food during the second stage of digestion, in the stomach where digestive acids do the work of breaking down our food into nutrients and waste. Sour foods are usually easy to identify given their puckering and sometimes fragrant properties. All fermented foods (tofu, tempeh, kimchi, miso, alcohol, even chocolate) have an element of sour in them (that’s one way to remember the elements of sour—think of “the mother” of your kombucha or the starter of your sourdough bread, which is both earthy and heating), as well as some fruits (such as citrus, pomegranate, and grapes), and vinegars.
Sour is a friend to vata dosha, since it helps to bring warmth, boost the digestive fire, and stimulate appetite. However, it’s aggravating to both pitta and kapha, and in excess may result in inflammation throughout the body as well as disrupted digestion in the form of acid reflux and sour burps, as well as looser and/or urgent stools. Enjoy sour foods more in the cooler seasons, despite cultural tendencies to break out the margaritas and limes in the summertime.
Sour foods are usually part of a meal’s appetizer, too, and small bites of pickles, olives, or fermented lemon are a lovely way to bring some fire to the digestive system at the start of a meal. A squeeze of lemon or lime juice in a mug of warm water first thing in the morning is also a fantastic addition to your dinacharya, or daily routine, to help clear out the waste products of your body’s nighttime detox and prepare your body for all it will digest in the day ahead.
What first comes to mind when you think of salt? Maybe the sea, which is where our salt element originates as a food source as well as an elemental source. Made of water and fire, salt also acts as a digestive stimulant, but has a greater capacity to soak up and hold on, which is why it’s often associated with fluid retention (and even salty tears). In our culture salt is often an additive to foods, but we can find natural sources of this important taste in things like sea vegetables—kelp, kombu, dulse, and others. When purchasing salt for your table, keep in mind that our source of salt (the sea) is not what it once was. Pollution has made the sea a sink of microplastics, which are so small it’s nearly impossible to separate them out from the salt that is mined from the water. Himalayan Pink Salt and Redmon Real Salt are the most pure varieties, per our current knowledge.
In addition to stimulating digestion, salty foods provide a feeling of satisfaction and a softening quality, both from that water element. This makes it an ideal taste for vata, but less friendly to pitta and kapha. Salt is best consumed during the fall and winter, when we want to retain a little more to stay warm and energized, but should decrease in the spring and summer so our bodies don’t hold onto too much of the water that’s already in our environment.
Our culture tends to run high on salt given the abundance of processed foods we take in, which use salt as a preservative and taste enhancer (along with fat and sugar). If you’re cooking most of your meals at home, though, it’s important to remember a dash of salt so you get those important minerals and nutrients, as well as improve the cooking process and flavor of your dish so it’s appetizing to your body and mind. An easy way to boost a low appetite is having a slice of fresh ginger with a squeeze of lemon juice and a pinch of salt 10 to 15 minutes before your meal. Combining sour, salty, and pungent tastes, this appetizer will get your salivation and digestive juices flowing so you’re hungry for your meals.
For most people pungent means “smelly,” but in this Ayurvedic context pungent is more associated with spicy: think, chili peppers, wasabi, cayenne, ginger, garlic…anything that takes your breath away or makes you sweat when you eat it! Pungent foods tend to be dry, light, and hot, since they’re made of the air and fire elements. They’re definitely stimulating to the digestive system for that reason, but in excess can cause similar inflammation to sour. This makes it a great choice for kapha, who tends to need a bit of a kick to get going, as well as vata (in a milder form), but not great for pitta—although pitta generally tends to crave spicy, because of its inherently pungent nature.
Spices are an essential component to a balanced meal, since they provide flavor, color, nutrition, and digestion-boosting properties to keep our agni happy. Everyone has a different tolerance and preference for spice, but spices shouldn’t be limited to pepper(s). Sweeter spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom, more cooling spices like coriander and fennel, as well as fresh herbs like parsley, mint, and cilantro, are all excellent ways to incorporate spice into cooking without adding heat. A favorite all-purpose spice blend to keep all the doshas in balance is cumin, coriander, fennel, turmeric, cardamom, and ground black pepper; it’s delicious in most savory dishes, and will bring out the flavors of whatever you’re cooking.
Very few people will openly admit to liking or wanting bitter foods, but this taste is quite important in rounding out the digestive process by providing space and movement from the first bite through to elimination. Made of the air and ether elements, bitter is the lightest of the tastes and can be found in foods with a similar lightness—leafy greens, as well as coffee, black tea, and chocolate. Bitter tends to produce gas and drying in the color within the digestive system, which is why a diet with a lot of salads, green juices, and coffee can produce those symptoms as well as constipation, lack of focus, and low energy—all symptoms of excess vata dosha. At the same time, bitter can bring beneficial cooling and reducing properties to the system for pitta and kapha, which is why foods that are naturally bitter are abundant in spring and summer. They’re especially good to support the liver, a hub of digestive processing that can be taxed by a diet rich in processed foods, sugar, and alcohol. Enjoy fresh beets, kale, dandelion root, and turmeric as part of a liver-nourishing regimen during spring and summer especially.
From a mental and emotional standpoint, bitter is an interesting taste to examine—consider how your mood may be connected to what you’re eating, and how feelings of bitterness might be balanced by bringing in more sweetness into your life, whether it’s through food or other means.
Astringent is another taste we don’t experience a lot of in our culture, so another way to think of it is tart. Naturally astringent foods include chickpeas (and most legumes), unripe bananas, cranberries, and honey, which leave behind a sort of dry, puckered feeling in your mouth when you eat them. That’s from the earth and air elements that make up the astringent taste, and why it’s so great for pitta and especially kapha. Clearing out built-up undigested food, which in Ayurveda is called ama, is a job built for astringent, and great to incorporate in springtime meals after you’ve spent winter building up your stores of sweet, sour, and salty tastes. But again, all things are best in moderation: too much astringent and you might feel your skin, eyes, lips, nails, and even your nerves getting a bit dry and frazzled.
As you come to experience the tastes on your plate, consider whether you’re also getting a balanced dose of all the tastes in your life as well. Everything we take in—food, relationships, information, and experiences—are all forms of nourishment according to Ayurveda, so while you may not be overloading on jalapeños you might be surrounded by pungent, hot-headed people, which may be having an effect on how you feel overall; similarly if you are going through a difficult emotional time, you might get more satisfaction from working through those emotions with a therapist or friend than taking another slice of cake. Rather than only relying on food to give us the tastes we crave, when the people, work, routines, and food we engage with every day are all making our lives taste delicious, then we can say we’re living in true balance and harmony with the universe.
Check out my recipes for ways to find the right tastes for your season and dosha!