Taste in Chinese Medicine

man in blue jacket pouring water on white ceramic bowl

Taste in Chinese medicine

For health, we need healthy food. No matter how well you sleep, nor how much exercise you take, nor how well you love and are loved, if you eat wrong you’ll get ill. Fact.

The ancient Chinese had none of the advantages of modern Science. They didn’t know about protein, carbohydrate, fats and pudding.

But they did have ill people, and one of the ways people got ill, they realised, was because of what people ate. Over time, and no doubt with input from other countries, (like from India the health tradition of Ayurveda) they worked it out.

Then they wrote it down in a form that related taste to health. That gives us the meaning of taste in Chinese medicine.

From that knowledge, assembled maybe 2500 years ago, we can often tell you when you’re eating too much of something and what you should eat more of.

There are five main tastes recognised in Chinese medicine and its culture.

Balanced taste in Chinese medicine
Every herb is classified by its taste.

So, for health, what is the message?

Everyday aim to eat foods from each of the five tastes. You don’t have to have all equally represented at each meal, though you’ll feel better if you do, but at least try to have some of each taste every day.

And, if you understand taste in Chinese medicine, when ill you can often improve your health by changing the balance of tastes in your diet. Read our pages on each of the tastes for what foods of a given taste do.

Now, I know you’re thinking, how can you get round this? What’s the smallest amount of each taste you need?  (Or drink, of course – this covers liquid and solid!) … and get away with?

How about you take:

  • For the SOUR taste, a drop of apple cider vinegar
  • For the BITTER taste, a granule of good instant coffee
  • Concerning the SWEET taste, how about a grain or two of white sugar, or since we’re trying to be healthy, make it a crystal of black molasses sugar. Come to think of it, let’s make sure the cider vinegar (above) is unfiltered and organic, and has been lovingly prepared by crushing mature, moist cider apples between the virgin thighs of … (ahem…)
  • Re SPICY taste, we’ll add a pepper corn (or seed)
  • And for SALTY? Easy, a salt crystal!
Taste in Chinese medicine
How not to do it!

You could put all five in a single teaspoon, take it with breakfast and well: ‘taste in Chinese medicine’? – Hah! Job done!

(In the image above, you can just see the grain of salt, the granule of instant coffee, the peppercorn and several brown sugar crystals. I didn’t add the drop of vinegar because it would have dissolved the sugar and salt. Think of it as being there in spirit!)

What’s wrong with that, you may say: – all the tastes are present, and roughly equal?

Well, this wasn’t quite what the original authors had in mind. They were talking about a sensible diet and making it easy for people to recognise how to balance what they ate.

To help, they considered a wide range of foods and classified them by what they did and for ease of recognition, by taste. This means that they looked at how a food worked in the body and if, for example, over time they realised it helped your Liver and Gallbladder, then it had SOUR properties, whether it tasted very sour or not.

The sweet taste contains many foods that aren’t particularly sweet on first tasting, such as beef. Of course, it includes sugar too, but remember that 2500 years ago, the closest many people got to a pure sweet taste wasn’t sugar but root vegetables or, for the rich, honey. In summer, mature fruit could be sweet, and when dried, many forms of fruit develop sweetness.

Instant Coffee?

Funnily enough, they didn’t have instant coffee granules either! They did have vegetables that were bitter, however, including some like Brussels sprouts – which is why children don’t often like these, because of their bitter taste. They also had almonds, some of which are also bitter. (By the way, you don’t need much bitter-taste food for health, but you do need SOME!)

So, in those days, to get the taste you had to eat the food associated with it. Which meant eating real food.

And of the acrid, pungent or spicy taste, I suppose you could take a single peppercorn, but really, would you do that? Surely, you’d use it as a flavouring, and one peppercorn might be not enough for a whole dish! Besides, there are many other pungent foods that make dishes delicious. (Think of herbs used in Indian cookery, or Western herbs like Thyme and Rosemary.)

And what about salt? Well, inland, this was much prized, and eventually enterprising individuals worked out how to prepare salt from the sea.

white rock formation on sea under blue sky during daytime
Salt pans

Hence the long traditionof salt-panning.If you couldn’t obtain salt from that source, you had to eat foods classified as having the salty taste, which was better anyway.

Whole Food Nutrition

In fact, the underlying message is to eat across a range of foods that, put together, supply all your needs.   (Same as Western science recommended, some 2500 years later!)

Was it organic? 2500 years ago, probably all food would have been what we now call organic and ‘whole’.

They didn’t know about modern chemical fertilisers, let alone pesticides and herbicides. Nor, apart from salt, did they have preservatives, so most foods were fresh.

What else? Well, if you want to absorb what you eat through the lining of your gut, make sure it is not a ‘dry’ food. Instead, ensure it is a ‘WET food“. That’s another important consideration!

Concentrated Essences?

None, or very few, would have contained processed, concentrated essences.

However, herbalists, initially using kitchen wisdom, began to use some plants and other materials in concentrated forms to achieve medical aims.

Eventually herbalists expanded their knowledge of the properties of the herbs, to include also how warming or cooling they were, and into which acupuncture channels the herbs ‘suffused’.

In the modern world we have manufacturers who supply just flavours. That’s no use, for health. Pure flavours lack nutrition and, possibly, they subvert your body’s ability to use taste in Chinese medicine for your health. The same goes for artificial sweeteners, like aspartame.

Other pages to read:


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