Imagine there were to be just one kind of taste. I mean how would it be if all food tasted sweet? Or everything was spicy? Or bland? It’s a terrifying thought. Fortunately, the various foods we eat tick many boxes of taste. Sweet, salty, bitter, pungent, bland...Ayurveda corelates the foods we eat into six rasas, or tastes. It believes that health and well-being is a balance of six rasas, and as far as is possible, we should endeavour to include the six tastes in every meal we eat.
The six important rasas of Ayurveda are sweet, sour, salt, pungent, bitter and astringent. A good combination of these ensures the health of the digestive system and ensures that fewer toxins are absorbed into our body.
Why are the six rasas important? Each serves a purpose and ensures the body is at its best emotionally and physiologically.
SWEET: It provides the body with energy and vitality. It balances the burning sensation for Pitta and is good for health of skin and hair. Rice, wheat, milk, date, sugar, potato and ghee are considered to belong to the sweet rasa category.
SOUR: This keeps the body warm, enhances appetite and digestion. However, if had in excess, it can cause indigestion, hyperacidity and ulcers. The sour rasa decreases Vata and increases Pitta and Kapha. Tamarind, yogurt, tomatoes, gooseberry, sea food and alcohol are examples of sour rasa.
SALT: This rasa keeps the body warm, improves digestion and promotes growth in the body. If had in excess however, it results in sluggish lymphatic drainage, thus causing water retention and hypertension. It increases Kapha and Pitta and decreases Vata. Table salt and rock salt are examples of salt rasa.
PUNGENT: This helps in breaking down fat, aids digestion and absorption, and activates blood circulation. In excess, it can cause stomach irritation, heart burn and nausea. It increases Vata and Pitta and decreases Kapha. Ginger, garlic, onion, chili, tulsi and pepper possess pungent rasa properties.
BITTER: This is cool, dry and light, and good for digestion. This rasa enhances liver function and muscle tone. It increases Vata, decreases Pitta and Kapha. Neem, bitter gourd and spinach belong to this rasa.
ASTRIGENT: This rasa has anti-inflammatory properties and helps in absorption of nutrients and is very cooling to the stomach. In excess, it can cause constipation. The astringent rasa increases Vata and decreases Pitta and Kapha. Tea, coffee, pomegranate, asparagus, cauliflower and figs are examples of this rasa.
Each rasa or taste feeds our mind, body, senses, and spirit in its own unique way and thereby impacts us physically, emotionally and psychologically. It is vital all the six rasas be present in a balanced manner in a meal. Excess or lack of one rasa or the wrong combination can result in the body’s natural functions like digestion, metabolism and absorption becoming imbalanced. The meal should have a little bit of all the rasas, as seen in the case of the traditional Indian thali, which is comprised of rice, lentils (dal), vegetable dishes, roti, salad, chutney or pickle and a sweet dish. Dr Chandy adds,
It is also important to include spices like turmeric, ginger, cumin, fenugreek, coriander, cinnamon and cardamom in your cooking as these have medicinal properties and they have a harmonious blend of the six tastes.
Another Ayurvedic principle is to include rasas that are complex as opposed to pure. A pure rasa is sugar, that is purely sweet. This is primarily because pure forms of a rasa will increase the dosha more easily than a complex version like yoghurt which is a combination of sweet and sour.
Ayurveda also emphasises the order in which the six rasas are ingested.
Start with mild-tasting dishes that have an underlying sweet flavour. (Vegetables like xxx xxxx).
Followed by sour, salt, pungent, bitter and astringent in that order.
End with something sweet, like dessert.
This balance ensures that one does not feel bloated, tired, torpid or nauseous after a meal.
Example of a wrong combination: A pickle sandwich with milk. The contrast of sweet and sour upsets digestion.
In Ayurveda an increase in Pitta dosha is considered the root cause of skin allergies and an increase in Kapha is considered the main cause for nasal allergies. Dr Chandy says, “Our body has got an Immune system which guards us from a lot of ailments. Whenever the immune system perceives a substance which you have touched or consumed as a threat to the body, it reacts and sends out a warning signal and this is experienced by us as allergies.”
As per Ayurveda, an impaired digestion affects our reaction to certain substances such as dust and pollen thus triggering allergic reactions. One of the main reasons for increasing incidence of allergies in today’s world is the increase in usage of canned, frozen, processed and pre-cooked food. These are harder to digest, thus creating Ama. One should have more fresh fruits, especially citrus fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes and also use mild spices while cooking as most spices have different medicinal properties. To increase the body’s resistance to allergies one should make it a point to have tulsi (holy basil), neem (Indian lilac), black pepper, cumin, pepper, amla (gooseberry) and a little bit of ghee.
Ayurveda accords chocolate a special status. It has the mix of two rasas - sweet and bitter. In small quantitities, chocolate is good for the body. However, chocolates increase Kapha, so Kapha types need to go easy on the amount. However, chocolate balances Vata and Pitta dosha, so people with these doshas can be quite generous with the quantity. Isn’t that great news?
Sweets and chocolates stimulate the brain, relax the blood vessels and aid circulation, work as an anti-oxidant (we are specifically talking about dark chocolate here) and can reduce stress and control or pacify emotions. Chocolate in itself is calming and nutritious but the sugar and milk solids that go into making the final product interfere with the true nobility of this all-time favourite. Pure cocoa or chocolate is good for the body. As with all good things, moderation is key because oerindulgence can lead to an overstimulated mind. Also, the highs induced by chocolate will result in a ‘trough’ or a depressed state.
Ideal time to eat chocolate is after a meal, especially after breakfast or lunch. Avoid chocolate at night because while a small bite or two may relieve stress, the high sugar content can overstimulate the mind and rob you of peaceful sleep.