Let Flavor Be Your Guide
By Ellasara Kling
Generally, whether we plan a meal or one dish, we think of the flavor of the foods we are going to use to create a particular taste. We choose seasonings and food combinations that harmonize with each other so that the end result will be pleasant to eat. We don’t combine foods that are going to “fight” with each other or usually don’t even think of combinations such as a sour dill pickle with poached pears. It’s not a natural combination and we don’t think of them as belonging together. The astringent quality (contracting) of the pickle doesn’t “work with” the moisturizing, sweet property (expanding) of the pear. Each food wants to move your energy (Qi) in a different direction and while there are combinations for sweet and sour that work very well together, the pear and pickle combination is one we intuitively know does not work.
Often we find that we gravitate to particular flavors on a regular basis. By utilizing information from the principles of TCM and Five Element Theory, this draw to certain tastes can give us a lot of knowledge about the level of balance in the functioning of our organ systems and how our bodies are trying to create greater balance and harmony. Balance and Harmony are always the ultimate goal of everything in the Universe; even when that may not seem to be so on the surface.
Most people favor one or two tastes and look for them when deciding on what to eat. Please remember each of these flavors (taste sensations) are just fine, none is better than the other. What is important is balance in flavors and choosing foods that support your heath at a particular time and in a particular manner. There is much “health information” that says eating sweets is a negative thing. However, the sweet taste is part of the majority of available, natural (unprocessed) foods. Often we are so accustomed to sweetening our foods with extra honey, maple syrup and/or sugar that we may not realize how sweet a simple carrot is on its own. Many foods, such as tomatoes, for example, are both sweet and tart. Foods such as cucumbers are sweet and “light” in flavor or neutral, which is another TCM taste category. Unfortunately, the bitter taste is not in high regard these days; nonetheless, it is an important and necessary ingredient in our healthful eating.
According to TCM principles there are five flavors: Sour, Bitter, Sweet, Pungent (sometimes called Spicy) and Salty. Referring to the chart below the flavor relationship to each season is readily discernible and its relationship to the other flavors is equally available. If you cook, you have probably learned “cooking tips” such as: to reduce the bitter flavor of a food, you can add something a little salty to tone down the bitterness just as the water element of the Winter Season can help balance (restrain/control) the Fire element of the Early Summer.
[Sour: Liver/Gall Bladder; Bitter, Heart/Small Intestine; Sweet, Stomach/Spleen; Pungent (aka spicy), Lung/Large Intestine; Salty, Kidney/Urinary Bladder]
What does flavor information tell us that we can use on a daily basis? Let’s imagine for a moment that you are someone who always wants spicy food. What does pungent food do? It creates internal heat and disperses the Qi. It can cool a person off by creating perspiration from the expanding heat — the effect of which causes cooling as the perspiration evaporates. A small amount or a mild spice can just create warmth. Both ways, spicy foods also help to “dry out” internal dampness and can, for example, help disperse phlegm from the lungs. Spicy foods are also usually quite fragrant. Its message is then warmth, dispersion, fragrance, and opening. Some pungent flavored foods are onion, ginger, scallion, peppermint, cilantro, pepper, rosemary, and star anise.
Sour foods are contracting in nature and therefore gather energy and have a drying effect. While some sour foods can aid in certain digestive problems, too much sour in the diet will cause the retention of water. Some sour flavored foods are citrus fruits, apples, tomato, vinegar, cheese, olives, and pickles.
The Bitter flavor has a couple of effects. One is cooling and the other is to dry dampness in the body. A familiar example is that a little coffee can be pleasantly stimulating whereas a large amount can cause “the jitters” and have a strong diuretic effect. Some Bitter foods are ginseng, pumpkin, asparagus, eggplant, celery, coffee, rhubarb, and dandelion leaf.
Sweet foods comprise the largest group of foods and many foods are combinations of sweet and sour, or sweet and bitter (coffee) and so on. There are two different groups of sweet foods. There are sweet foods that are warming such as legumes and nuts and sweet foods that are cooling such as fruits, sugar and honey. Some other sweet foods are potatoes, rice, tomato, carrot, coffee, honey, beet roots, licorice, longan, barley, and cheese. Sweet foods can have the effect of being calming, moisturizing the body and strengthening the muscles.
Salty foods have the ability to hold fluids in the body. They are more cooling in nature and their energy goes inward and downward. They can soften hardness and help to retain heat in the core of the body. Some common salty foods are seafoods, barley, duck, celery, seaweed, and salt.
There is also another flavor that is not tied to any particular Season or System and that is the Neutral/Bland flavor. Usually this flavor is in combination with another taste such as a cucumber which is sweet and neutral.
The above information is just a beginning for understanding how important a role flavor has in our diet. It’s not just there to taste good, but also to help us bring greater harmony and balance to our internal systems. Flavors do this through their affects upon the functions of each system. While your TCM practitioner can assist you in finding specific diet recommendations, generally speaking, adding all the flavors into your diet is part of the basis for healthful eating. In addition, you can apply some of the ideas found here to your daily routine. For example, pay attention to the flavors you gravitate to and see if you can identify what message that holds for you. Or, after discerning what flavors are dominate on your plate, try adding in other flavors and discover how that feels. Remember that moderation is best and a bright, beautiful plate carefully prepared with a variety of color and flavor will aid you in your pursuit of optimum health.
Anytime self-massage, especially in Winter: Ear Rub: Using your thumb and index finger, grip the outside fold of your ears where they join to your head. (left hand to left ear, right hand to right ear) (You can do one ear at a time or both ears together) Firmly, slowly, “inch” your way around your ear until you reach your ear lobe. Rub the lobe a few times and then give it a little tug — gently, but firmly. Start again at the beginning and repeat as many times as you want being certain to massage both ears. When you are done, your ears should feel nice and warm and tingly. This simple massage connects to our entire body, organ systems and /meridians as TCM teaches us that the ear is a microcosm of our entire body.
Here are a few simple recipes, meant to be repeated often because of their usefulness for self- healing.
To relieve head congestion from a cold or sinus infection:
Ingredients:2 inches of fresh ginger – chopped 5-6 scallion whites only (more if they are really skinny) Peel of 2 dried tangerines 4 cups of water Rock sugar to taste
Put all the ingredients in a pot and bring to a boil. Immediately turn down the heat and simmer for about 5 minutes – not longer – too much causes an unpleasant bitterness
Remove the solid ingredients, sweeten to taste and drink hot.
Mix together about 2 TB toasted black sesame seeds and a teaspoon of honey. Chew very well.
For additional energy and especially good for elderly people:
Mix together about 2 TB black sesame seeds with 2 TB of ground walnuts and 1 TB of honey. Eat 1 tsp. whenever you need a little “boost”.
Or try this energy boosting cereal:½ cup uncooked rice 1-1/2 TB ea ground black sesame seeds and ground walnuts 3 cups of water 1 TB wolfberries (goji berries) Honey to sweeten
Cook the rice with the seeds and the nuts (as you would normally cook rice) and about five minutes before it is done, add the wolfberries. When cooked, sweeten with a little honey.
Soup is one of the best foods we can eat. Here is a recipe for a quick warming soup for the person on the go:
Ginger Sweet Potato Soup
Ingredients:2 medium sweet potatoes 2 quarts of water (or 1 qt vegetable broth and 1 qt water) ½ tsp salt 1/8 tsp ground white pepper ¼ cup rice wine or dry sherry 2 TB chopped fresh ginger (or 6 thin 1” diameter slices) chopped cilantro
Peel the sweet potatoes and cut into 1-1/2” rounds, then cut in half again. Place with all the other ingredients (except the cilantro) in a soup pot and simmer until the potatoes are soft but not mushy. Sprinkle with a little bit of chopped cilantro and red bell pepper before serving. Note: some people like to add a bit of honey or brown sugar to this soup.
Yield: serves 6-8 people
Wishing you good health! Remember to smile at all things.Following the threads of her personal tapestry, Ellasara, a long-time student of Master Nan Lu, weaves her life around the exploration and sharing of self-healing through a variety of modalities, primarily focusing on food, common herbal plants, Qigong Meridian Therapy and Qigong for Women’s Health. For comments, questions, consultations, firstname.lastname@example.org