“Ayurveda states that the taste of an herb is not incidental, but is an indication of its properties. Different tastes possess different effects.
Usually we do not connect taste with therapeutic property. With foods we consider taste for enjoyment value. In western herbalism, we note the taste of an herb more as a means of identification rather than as a means of understanding its effects. There is the general recognition that spicy, pungent herbs tend to be heating and stimulating, or that bitter herbs help reduce fever, but this has not become the basis for any classification of herbs by taste.
The Sanskrit word for taste, rasa, has many meanings. All of them help us understand the importance of taste in Ayurveda. Rasa means “essence.” Taste thus indicates the essence of a plant, and so is perhaps the prime factor in understanding its qualities. Rasa means “sap” so that the taste of an herb reflects the properties of the sap which invigorates it.
Rasa means “appreciation,” “artistic delight” a “musical note.” Thus taste communicates feeling, which again is the essence of the plant. Through it the beauty and power of the plant can be perceived. Rasa means “circulation” “to feel lively/” “to dance,” all of which is reflected in the energizing power of taste.
Taste directly affects our nervous system through the Prana, the life-force in the mouth, which is connected to the Prana in the brain. Taste stimulates nerves, awakens mind and senses to make us lively. Thus taste sets our own rasa or vital fluid in motion. Through stimulating Prana, particularly the gastric nerves, taste affects agni and enhances the power of digestion. It is the good taste of food that is necessary to awaken our agni for proper digestion.
For this reason, bland food may not be nourishing in spite of its vitamin or mineral content. Without stimulating agni, there is no real power of digestion. Ayurvedic medicine has, therefore, always included the science of cooking with the right spices. Together, they are part of the field of Ayurvedic herbal science.
When we are sick, we lose our sense of taste and our appetite. Taste, appetite, and power of digestion are related. Lack of taste indicates fever, disease, low agni, high ama. To improve agni and eliminate disease, it is necessary to improve our sense of taste. This is why spices are such important Ayurvedic herbs. Desire for tasty food indicates hungry agni or disease. The problem is that we have perverted our sense of taste with artificial substances.
Taste is the sensory quality that belongs to the element of water. Plants are the life-form belonging to the element of water. Taste thus reflects the energies and elements that operate in a particular herb.
Cloud water originally has no taste, but all tastes are latent in it.These are gathered as it falls, as it passes through the five elements in the atmosphere and takes on their qualities.
Ayurveda recognizes six main tastes: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent. These derive from five elements; each taste is composed of two elements. Sweet taste is composed of earth and water; sour of earth and fire; salty of water and fire; pungent of fire and air; bitter of air and ether; and astringent of earth and air.
Sweet taste is basically that of sugars and starches. Sour taste is of fermented or acidic things. Salty is of salt and alkalis. Pungent is the same as spicy or acrid, and is often aromatic. Bitter is of bitter herbs like gentian or golden seal. Astringent taste has a constricting quality as herbs that contain tannin, like oak bark.
Though the six tastes transmit the properties of the five elements, they are all based on the element of water, which manifests them. It is only when the tongue is wet that we recognize taste.
Through their energy the six tastes fall into two groups: 1) pungent, sour and salty cause heat and increase Pitta; and 2) sweet, astringent and bitter cause cold and decrease Pitta. Energy, virya, tells us the effect of an herb on Pitta dosha.
Pungent is the most heating taste, followed by sour and then salty. Bitter is the most cooling, followed by astringent and then sweet.
Other Twofold Distinctions
Another important twofold distinction of tastes, though not an independent principle like energy is whether herbs are drying or moistening.
The main quality of Vata dosha is dryness, while that of Kapha is wetness. Tastes that are drying (bitter, pungent and astringent) increase Vata and decrease Kapha. Those that are moistening (sweet, salty and sour) increase Kapha and decrease Vata.
Pungent is the most drying taste, followed by bitter and then astringent. Sweet is the most moistening taste, followed by salty and then sour.
Drying herbs are composed mainly of the element air, while moistening herbs are composed mainly of water. They produce the effects of their element.
Another, but less important, twofold distinction is heavy or light– whether herbs tend to increase lightness or heaviness in the body. This distinction is similar to drying or moistening. Sour taste, owing to its heating potency and its power to increase digestion, tends to be light. Astringent taste, owing to its constricting effect upon the tissues, tends to be heavy.
Sweet is the heaviest taste, followed by salty and then astringent. Bitter is the lightest taste, followed by pungent and then sour. Tastes that are heavy in quality promote weight and firmness in the body. Those light in quality cause loss of weight, but are stronger in stimulating digestion.”