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We need food. It satiates our hunger. It fills our stomachs. It meets our nutritional needs. But we often choose foods based on their basic function: calories in. What if I told you that food had a secret language? That it can guide us to choose what will nourish and heal our bodies and minds? That language is flavor.
Flavor is about so much more than “does this taste good?” Flavor teaches us all about the actions of foods. The most recognizable flavors are sweet, sour, bitter, pungent and salty. Like people, foods are complex; one single food item may offer more than one of these flavor profiles. Flavors can prompt specific physiological responses, such as salivation and the release of gastric juices to promote digestion. Some flavors may suggest specific characteristics; for example, sour can be indicative of antioxidant action. Other flavors are so subtle that you might not even perceive any flavor—but that blandness has medicinal virtue.
This concept of flavor energetics focuses on how foods and herbs heal. You use your senses, particularly those of smell and taste, and you rely on your own intuition—how foods make you feel.
Truth be told, our bodies already know how to do this. But we need to listen to our bodies and use our senses— instead of reaching for pharmaceuticals—to heal what ails us. If this book teaches you nothing else, I hope that it teaches you that you alone know best what your body needs.
What comes to mind when you think of sour foods? Lemons, oranges, Granny Smith apples, vinegar? Sour foods are the foods that make you pucker. Sour flavors are tart and induce salivation. Energetically speaking, sour flavors make me think of flow, fluid and movement.
Sour foods are often loaded with the antioxidants and vitamins that are essential to protecting cells. They play a vital role in maintaining a strong immune system, both helping to prevent acute illness and shorten the duration of symptoms. Sour food can also encourage detoxification and encourage digestion, while also protecting skin from damaging free radicals.
Sour Flavor Food Profile
- Fruits: Berries, Cherries, Grapefruit, Grapes, Green Apple, Kiwi, Kumquats, Lemons, Limes, Nectarines, Oranges, Peaches, Pineapple, Plums, Starfruit, Tamarind, Tomato
- Vegetables: Fermented and pickled vegetables
- Dairy: Buttermilk, Cultured butter, Kefir, Some fresh cultured cheeses, Sour cream, Yogurt
- Grains: Sourdough and traditionally fermented breads
- Herbs & Spices: Five-flavor berry (Schisandra), Hawthorne berry, Rose hip, Wood sorrel
- Other: Fermentation Brine, Fermented sodas, Kombucha, Vinegar
Think spicy. Think heat. These foods make your eyes open wide. They make your tongue dance from pleasure— and maybe a little pain. Pungent herbs and spices include garlic, chile peppers, horseradish and black pepper. Less obvious pungent foods are cinnamon, ginger, allspice and clove.
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Pungent foods are barrier breakers. These are the diffusive herbs, spices and foods that break up stagnancy and get things moving. Reach for pungent foods when you have an upset stomach, stuffed-up sinuses or pelvic fullness and cramping. Pungent foods can increase digestion—and can even act as an aphrodisiac!
Pungent Flavor Food Profile
- Fruits: Quince
- Vegetables: Arugula, Chile peppers, Garlic, Leeks, Onions, Radishes, Scallions
- Grains: Buckwheat, Spelt
- Herbs & Spices: Allspice, Anise, Bee balm, Black pepper, Cayenne, Cinnamon, Cloves, Ginger, Horseradish, Mustard, Nutmeg, Oregano, Paprika, Red pepper flakes, thyme, Turmeric
Oh, bitter . . . you have an undeserved bad reputation. And your general absence from the modern diet is a serious problem. Dark chocolate and coffee remain fan favorites, but dark leafy greens, radicchio, endive and eggplant—not so much. Bitter foods may take a little cajoling to make them culinary masterpieces, but they are extremely important to the daily diet.
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Bitter foods are perfect for digestion—and it is vital that we taste the bitterness. When we eat something bitter, a cascade of physiological responses takes place. This triggers the release of gastric juice and bile, essential for the digestion of rich foods and heavy fats. A lightly dressed salad of bitter greens may be just the ticket to protecting yourself from indigestion. Additionally, bitter foods, such as tea, tone and tighten mucus membranes, making them appropriate for treating coughs and diarrhea.
Bitter Flavor Food Profile
- Fruits: Citrus zest and pith, Grapes, Persimmon (unripe)
- Vegetables: Artichokes, Beet tops, Bitter melon, Chicory, Collards, Cucumber, Eggplant, Endive, Kale, Radiccihio
- Grains & Seeds: Amaranth, Millet, Quinoa
- Herbs & Spices: Bay, Chervil, Dandelion, Hops, Mugwort, Rosemary, Saffron, Sage, Turmeric, Wild lettuce, Wormwood
When herbalists talk about sweet as a flavor, we aren’t just referring to the sugary, candy-like flavor that you may be thinking of. We mean sweet in a broader sense. In fact, sweet can be rather bland and one dimensional. It can even be boring if not prepared with insight and creativity.
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Sweet foods are typically carbohydrate-rich, sometimes mucilaginous and even a bit starchy. Oats and various other grains might be considered sweet, as are some vegetables such as corn, beets, potatoes and okra. Fruit is also sweet. Even milk and cream possess the nourishment that the sweet flavor profile suggests.
Sweet foods are typically nutrient-dense foods, although modern milling and breeding may have diluted the nutrient value of these foods. Seek out heirloom grains for complex nutrition. Try mushrooms for immunity- modulating polysaccharides.
Sweet Flavor Food Profile
- Fruits: Apples, Bananas, Dates, Figs, Paw paws, Pears
- Vegetables: Beans, Beets, Carrots, Corn, Lentils, Okra, Potatoes, Pumpkin and winter squash, Sweet potatoes and yams, Zucchini and summer squash
- Dairy: Cream, Milk, Sweet cream butter
- Grains & Seeds: Cashews, Flax, Oats, Pumpkin seeds, Rice, Sesame seeds, Sunflower seeds, Wheat
- Meat & Eggs: Chicken (white meat), Pork
- Herbs & Spices: Allspice, Basil, Cinnamon, Fennel, Fenugreek, Mint
- Other: Stevia, Vanilla
Salty is a flavor profile that may not be what you think it is. Salty foods often taste mineral-like, even slightly metallic. Even a sweet banana has metallic notes indicative of its high potassium content! Salty foods also may have a varying degree of salinity, from seaweed to spinach to stinging nettle. The category also includes meat and seafood—both containing a variety of important vitamins and minerals that are rare in the plant world.
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Salty foods are important in the restoration of electrolytes. After illness or strenuous exercise, your body needs these foods to bring back the balance of minerals such as sodium, potassium and magnesium. Salty foods also can help regulate the body’s natural water content—retaining fluid and minerals where they are needed and sending any excess to be excreted.
Salty Food Flavor Profile
- Fruits: Banana, Cantaloupe, Coconut, Honeydew melon, Watermelon
- Vegetables: Brined and fermented vegetables, Celery, Green beans, Seaweed, Spinach
- Dairy: Aged cheeses
- Meats & Eggs: Dark-fleshed poultry and fowl, Eggs, Organ meat, Red meat & game, Seafood
- Herbs & Spices: Alfalfa, Clover, Nettle, Raspberry leaf, Salt, including sea salt, kosher salt, Himalayan salt and artisanal salt
- Other: Soy sauce, Tamari
The key to a healthy diet is a balance of all of these flavors. By learning about them, you can make informed food choices to address your acute and chronic concerns.
Excerpted with permission from The Herbalist's Healing Kitchen by Devon Young (Page Street Publishing, 2019).