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 proper combination of foods and on the concept of shad rasa, or six flavors. These six tastes (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 how our bodies function on a physical, mental, and emotional level. These three energies are vata, pitta and kapha. The disease is caused by an imbalance of any of the doshas and by the presence of ama, or toxic food by-products (food that has 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 the motor neurons. When severe, it can cause disorders such as flatulence, constipation, tremors, spasms, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, as well as many neurological problems.
Pitta represents the fire element in the body. She governs digestion, absorption, assimilation, nutrition, metabolism, and body temperature. Pitta-type 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. Out of balance, kapha can cause problems such as obesity, high cholesterol, diabetes, edema, asthma, tumors, and a variety of congestive disorders.
According to Ayurveda, the best medicine to prevent and support 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 likewise, foods that decrease it calm it down and normalize its functions. Foods that pacify Vata will have more sweet, sour, and salty flavors and fewer overly hot, bitter, and spicy flavors. Pitta pacifying foods will be more sweet, bitter and astringent and less acidic, salty and spicy. Finally, kapha pacifying foods will be more pungent, bitter and astringent and less sweet, salty and acidic. A quick look at 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, marrow, and reproductive fluids. In excess, sweets cause many disorders in all 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, calorific 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 sea vegetables 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 a laxative and can decrease spasms and pain in the colon. As a bittersweet, it is anabolic in action. Promotes growth and maintains the hydroelectrolytic balance. It stimulates salivation, enhances the flavor of food and helps digestion, absorption and elimination. Too much salt in the diet makes the blood viscous and thick, can cause high blood pressure and aggravate skin conditions. Sensations of heat, fainting, wrinkles, and baldness may be due to excess salt, as well as edema, fluid retention, ulcers, bleeding disorders, skin rashes, hyperacidity, and hypertension.
The spiciness is present in foods such as 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, dissolves clots, and kills parasites and germs. In excess, it can cause sexual weakness, suffocation, 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 triggers vata, it can lead to tremors, insomnia, and muscle aches.
Examples of bitter taste are bitter melon, turmeric, dandelion, aloe vera, rhubarb, and coffee. It is the flavor that is most lacking in the American diet. Its qualities are dry and light. Promotes the flavor of all tastes, is anti-toxic and kills germs. The bitter helps to relieve burning sensations, itching, fainting and persistent skin disorders. Reduces fever and stimulates the firmness of the 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, chickpeas, yellow snap peas, okra, turmeric, alfalfa sprouts, and alum root are examples of the astringent taste. Its qualities are refreshing, drying and heavy. In moderation, it helps heal ulcers and promotes clotting. In excess, it can cause constipation, bloating, heart spasms, 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 blend of all tastes. The most common spices found in an Ayurvedic cuisine are: cumin, coriander, ginger, hing (asafoetida), ajwan, turmeric, fenugreek, garam masala, cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom. Regularly ingesting small amounts of these aromatic, stimulating and carminative spices helps maintain the health of the digestive fire (agni) and the entire gastrointestinal tract. 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 taste. However, the 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 spiced to achieve maximum digestibility, prevent toxin formation, and nourish all tissues.
Understanding the qualities of food, how they affect the doshas, and how they can be balanced is a great advantage in preventing disease. 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 on February 1. 2006.