Shad Rasa: The Ayurvedic View of Food and Taste
Ayurveda views food and spices as medicinal substances and good digestion as one of the main factors for optimal health. That is why he places great emphasis on the right combination of foods and the concept of shad rasa, or six flavors. These six flavors (sweet, sour, salty, spicy, bitter and astringent) must be present in balanced proportions in the diet. Understanding them and how they relate to our individual constitution can help us make better decisions to promote and maintain health.
According to Ayurveda, we are born with a unique constitution, which is an individual combination of the three doshas or principles that govern the function of our body on the physical, mental and emotional levels. These three energies are vata, pitta, and kapha. The disease is caused by an imbalance of either doshas and by the presence of ama, or toxic food by-products (foods that have not been fully digested).
Vata is the subtle energy associated with movement. It governs respiration, circulation, and elimination, as well as the pulsation of the heart and the impulses of motor neurons. When it becomes severe, it can lead to disorders such as flatulence, constipation, tremors, spasms, asthma, rheumatoid osteoarthritis and osteoarthritis, as well as many neurological problems.
Pitta represents the fire element in the body. It governs digestion, absorption, assimilation, nutrition, metabolism, and body temperature. Pitta-like disorders include hyperacidity, ulcers, all kinds 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 provides lubrication to the joints and organs. Unbalanced, kapha can cause problems such as obesity, high cholesterol, diabetes, edema, asthma, tumors, and a variety of congestive disorders.
According to Ayurveda, the best preventive medicine and support of the natural healing process is a diet and lifestyle specific to the constitutional needs of the individual and in line with the seasons and cycles of nature.
Due to their qualities and flavor, foods that tend to increase a certain dosha can aggravate it and in the same way, foods that decrease that dosha will pacify it and normalize its functions. Vata pacifying foods will have sweeter, acidic, and salty flavors and less overly hot, bitter, and pungent flavors. Pitta’s pacifying foods will be sweeter, bitter, and astringent and less acidic, salty, and spicy. Ultimately, kapha pacifying foods will be spicier, bitter, and astringent and less sweet, salty, and acidic. A quick overview of the six flavors can give us an idea of what types of foods will aggravate one dosha or another.
The sweet taste is present in foods such as sugar, milk, rice, wheat, dates, maple syrup, and licorice. Its qualities are usually oily, refreshing and heavy. In moderation, it promotes the growth of plasma, blood, fat, muscle, bone, bone marrow, and reproductive fluids. In excess, the sweet produces many disorders in all the doshas. Sweet foods can cause colds, heaviness, loss of appetite, obesity, abnormal muscle growth, lymphatic congestion, tumors, edema, and diabetes.
The sour taste is present in foods such as citrus fruits, sour cream, yogurt, vinegar, cheese, lemon, green mangoes, green grapes, and fermented foods. Its qualities are liquid, light, warming and oily, and it has anabolic action. In moderation, acidic foods are refreshing. They stimulate the appetite, improve digestion, energize the body and nourish the heart. In excess, this flavor can cause hyperacidity, 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 sensations in the throat, chest, heart, bladder and urinary tract.
All salts, shellfish, and seaweed are examples of a salty taste. The salty taste is so strong that it can easily nullify the effect of all other flavors. It is hot, heavy, and oily. In moderation, it is laxative and can decrease spasms and pain in the colon. As bittersweet, it is anabolic in action. It promotes growth and maintains the balance of electrolytes in the water. It stimulates salivation, enhances the taste of food and promotes digestion, absorption and elimination. Too much salt in the diet makes the blood sticky and thick, can cause hypertension, and aggravate skin conditions. Sensations of heat, fainting, wrinkles and baldness can be due to excess salt, as well as edema, water retention, ulcers, bleeding disorders, skin rashes, hyperacidity and hypertension.
The spicy flavor is present in foods like hot peppers, black pepper, onions, garlic, ginger, and asafoetida. Its qualities are light, drying and heating. In moderation, it improves digestion, absorption and elimination, stimulates circulation, breaks up clots, and kills parasites and germs. In excess, it can lead to sexual weakness, choking, fainting, and fatigue. If it leads to an aggravation of pitta, it can cause diarrhea, heartburn, nausea, peptic ulcers, colitis, and skin conditions. If it causes vata, it can cause tremors, insomnia, and muscle aches.
Examples of bitter taste are bitter melon, turmeric, dandelion, aloe vera, rhubarb, and coffee. It is the most lacking flavor in the American diet. Its qualities are dry and light. It promotes the flavor of all tastes, is antitoxic and kills germs. Bitter helps relieve burning sensations, itching, fainting spells, and stubborn skin disorders. Reduces fever and stimulates firmness of skin and muscles. In small doses it can relieve intestinal gas and act as a digestive tonic. Due to its drying quality, excess bitter taste can deplete plasma, blood, muscle, fat, bone marrow, and semen, which can lead to sexual weakness.
Green bananas, pomegranate, chick peas, yellow peas, okra, turmeric, alfalfa sprouts, and aluminum root are examples of the astringent taste. Its qualities are refreshing, drying and heavy. In moderation, it helps to heal ulcers and promotes clotting. In excess, it can lead to constipation, bloating, heart spasm, and stagnant circulation. It can also lead to sperm depletion and affect sex drive, and can lead to a variety of neuromuscular disorders.
Ayurveda encourages the use of aromatic herbs and spices, which are also considered medicinal substances, to create a balanced mix of all tastes. The most common spices found in Ayurvedic cuisine are: cumin, coriander, ginger, hing (asafoetida), ajwan, turmeric, fenugreek, garam masala, cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom. The regular ingestion of small amounts of these aromatic, stimulating and carminative spices helps to maintain the health of the digestive fire (agni) and of the entire gastrointestinal tract. The toxins that build up from poorly digested food can also be greatly reduced by slowly introducing these spices into the diet.
Obviously, there is more to food than just the taste. However, taste, from the perspective of its qualities, is very important to maintain good health. Ayurvedic cuisine is unique in that it ensures that each dish is cooked and seasoned to achieve maximum digestibility, prevent toxin formation, and nourish all tissues.
Understanding the qualities of foods, how they affect the doshas, and how they can be balanced is a great advantage in preventing illness. An Ayurvedic practitioner can make this a more practical task by providing specific guidelines and food tables for each person’s individual constitution and health needs. Ayurveda knows that the action of any medicinal substance begins on the tongue, so let your food be your medicine!
© Vishnu Dass. This article was originally published in New Life Journal, Feb. 2006.