SUJAL Torgal PATIL
We as medical practitioners routinely hear in our day to day practice about how some people have drastically cut down on their sugar or salt intake owing to some health issues or because someone advised them to do so. It is indeed necessary to keep a check on inadvertent eating and therefore in certain instances, this could be permeable but completely avoiding salt or sugar for a long time is uncalled for and moreover causes other health imbalances too. According to Ayurved, ‘Anna’ or food comprises of six tastes, i.e. the ‘Shadrasa’ namely sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent that come together to get exhibited in countless variations of food that we savour on a daily basis and it is utmost important to include all the six tastes in our everyday meal.
‘Rasa’ loosely translates as the (sense of) taste perceived by the ‘Rasanendriya’ i.e. the tongue. Therefore ‘Shad-rasa’ loosely translates as the six tastes mentioned above. ‘Rasa’ is, therefore, the first short-term action on the body when we put any food, drink, or drug in our mouth. The moment food comes into our mouth, taste is the first action that takes place and the digestion process begins. The saliva (bodhaka kapha) contains an enzyme that begins to break down carbohydrates before we even swallow. Once a taste has been perceived, a signal is sent to the brain. The brain then sends a signal to the gut allowing it to begin secreting the specific enzymes that will be needed for proper digestion. This is a major reason why we should always eat food with our full attention and awareness, tasting each bite. Rasa is, in a very real way, the essence of life and quite literally affects every aspect of our being – from structure and physiology, straight through to our overall state of mind and consciousness. Taste is assigned a much deeper significance in Ayurved; it is considered critically important in determining the effect that various foods, spices, therapeutic herbs, and experiences will have on our state of balance – body, mind, and spirit.
One of the fundamentals of Ayurved is that everything in the universe is made up of five elements – earth, water, fire, air, and ether (space). The tastes are no different; each of them contains all five elements but predominantly composed of two elements and therefore exerts different effects on the body accordingly.
Each of the six tastes tends to exert a somewhat predictable influence on our physiology. Each taste has an intimate relationship with the doshas and body’s equilibrium. In the described order of tastes i.e. sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent, the sweet taste or the Madhur rasa imparts maximum strength to the body and the aspect of providing strength decreases down the line. Therefore the kashaya rasa or the astringent taste gives the least strength to the body. The tastes basically are manifestations of the dominant pachamabhootas (five basic elements) viz. Prithvi (earth), Jala (water), Teja (fire), Vayu (air) and Aakash (ether or space).
Taste is also a guna (quality) of every eatable; each substance may have one or more tastes, which becomes known when the substance is put on the tongue. The first, clearly recognisable taste is known as pradhana rasa (primary taste) and the remaining tastes which are recognised later and mildly are anurasa (secondary taste).
Ayurved recommends that our daily diet should comprise of foods which are dominant in all the six tastes, although not in the same proportion. Our ancestral Indian system of ‘thali’ was ideally designed to incorporate these six tastes to the maximum. But now we are in the age of quick bites and therefore do not really give much importance to what we eat. We need to start our food with the sweet taste; therefore advisably desserts should be eaten at the start of a meal and not at the end. This should be followed by sour and salty dominant food and lastly with the foods dominant in pungent, bitter and astringent tastes. Therefore a hearty meal comprising of rice, dal, roti, vegetable, pickle, payasam and buttermilk can be loosely deemed to have all the six tastes in varied proportions. The individual inclusions may depend on the body type, seasonal variation, and geography of a place or other such factors.
If we evaluate the science of tastes with the perspective of modern biochemistry, we can observe the striking dominance of certain active chemical components present in specific tastes. For instance, madhura rasa or foods with the ‘sweet’ dominance are usually made up of natural sugar, amino acids and fat molecules. ‘Amla’ or sour dominant foods are mostly acids and ‘lavana’ or salt dominant foods are mostly natural salts. Pungent foods are made up of phenols and essential oils. Bitter foods are usually certain glycosides and alkaloids whereas astringents are dominant in tannins. Modern science has accepted only four primary tastes namely, sweet, sour, salty and bitter.
Rather than looking at nutritional labels for X amount of protein or Y amount of carbohydrates, the six tastes naturally guide us towards our body’s nutritional needs. Each taste feeds our mind, body, senses, and spirit in its own unique way. This where Ayurved’s science of nutrition and dietetics differs from that of the modern medical science, it is holistic and practical. In the following parts of this series, we will look into the details of each of these six tastes of wonder.
(Writer is the chief medical officer at Traya Natural Health Centre and can be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org)