The Five Tastes are not a Doo Wop group! They are taste sensations that can be categorized into five basic tastes of: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and pungent. The human tongue is covered with thousands of tiny bumps invisible to the naked eye. They are called papillae. Each of these papillae contain hundreds of taste buds. Between 2000 and 5000 taste buds live on the tongue, with others located on the roof, sides, back of the mouth and in the throat. Each taste bud contains 50 to 100 taste
receptor cells. This is one busy organ.
Taste sensitivity is a critical element in creating meal variety and taste satisfaction. The practice of blending different tastes is native to many cultural cooking styles, and offers us a greater sense of variety, while enhancing taste-appeal and better digestion.
The underlying principle of the five tastes theory is that opposite flavors can be complementary. For example, when you eat a meal including varied tastes, you tend to feel more satisfied due to the array of taste, reducing later tendencies for snacking or sweet cravings. The five taste theory teaches us to balance our food tastes more effectively by identifying the most dominant flavor, and if it’s excessive, balance it out with other tastes. For example, the popular combination of garbanzo beans and sesame seed paste, also known as “hummus,” contains pungent garlic, sour lemon and the salted taste of either soy sauce or salt and sometimes the spice taste of paprika. These ingredients help to balance the oil content while making this spread a more satisfying snack or meal addition due to its variety of tastes.
Salt, in moderation, can also bring out the sweet taste. Salt can make sautéed onions taste slightly sweeter and lessen the acidity of a spiced dish. With practice and observation, you’ll learn to create your own balanced recipes and meals.
The five most common “tastes” are:
Good quality sea salt, in moderation, improves the flavor of food, strengthens digestion, lubricates tissues, liquefies excess mucous, maintains mineral status, aids in the elimination of waste, supports nerve connections and helps muscle contractions. Salt can also improve the radiance of the skin, due to its tendency to attract water.
Properly balanced salt can help immune function by inhibiting the growth of harmful bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. It also enhances a stronger intestinal flora—the gut bacteria that creates better absorption. Recommended quality sources of sodium are from unrefined sea salt, sea vegetables and from some of the fermented salts that already exist in miso soybean paste and natural soy sauce.
In cooking, salt brings out the flavors and aromas of other ingredients in a dish. In addition, a moderate amount of salt an reduce the taste of bitterness, allowing other flavors to shine. Finely chopped greens, particularly parsley, can work well to diminish an overly salty dish—an example of bitter taste overcoming salty taste. The salty taste also enhances sweet foods, which explains why sea salt caramels of sea salt chocolate chip cookies are big sellers. The addition of salt magnifies the sweetness of those caramels and cookies. Understanding taste combinations allows you to create unique dishes with ramped up and memorable flavor.
A little bitterness can be an interesting addition to any meal and a healthy one. In Chinese medicine the bitter taste, in moderation, is said to nourish the heart. Ironically, a large number of natural compounds that are bitter tasting are known to be toxic. The average American rarely eats bitter-tasting foods. In contrast, Asian cuisine routinely uses, burdock root, a bitter tasting and fibrous vegetable that the Japanese call Gobo.
A popular Japanese recipe known as kinpira uses 3-times the amount of carrots to soften the bitter taste of burdock. In Asian folk medicine, kinpira was traditionally used to strengthen the reproductive organs. Some studies have suggested that burdock inhibits tumor growth and enhances immunity.
There are several easy ways to include bitter in the diet. Adding greens such as endive, chicory, dandelion or radicchio to salads, or garnishing soups with parsley are unique ways to include this antioxidant taste. The bitter taste is also found in herbs and spices (turmeric, fenugreek, anise, mustard and dandelion root), coffee, tea, unsweetened chocolate, citrus peel, and certain fruits (grapefruits, olives, and bitter melon). While bitter taste is usually not appealing by itself, it can stimulate our appetite and help to accentuate other tastes.
The bitter taste is also a powerful detoxifying agent (cilantro, burdock, parsley, dandelion) and has natural antibiotic, anti-parasitic, and antiseptic qualities. The bitter taste can also be helpful for weight reduction, water retention, skin rashes, fever, burning sensations and sometimes nausea. For overly bitter dishes, adding a sweet or salty taste can help neutralize this sometimes, overpowering flavor.
Hands down, sweet wins the popularity contest. The sweet taste is the most elemental of taste pleasures, a source of ready energy and the foundation of our food chain. Most people typically choose candy, soda or commercial pastries to satisfy this craving. However, these refined simple-sugar products are not healthy fare for frequent consumption.
What your body needs are the naturally occurring complex sugars found in whole grains and vegetables, such as carrots, sweet corn, yams, onions, cabbage and certain varieties of squash. This type of complex sugar tends to be the most satisfying and provides consistent energy throughout your day.
If a dish tastes too bitter or sour, you can add a sweet element. If a dish is too sweet, you can add a splash of vinegar or a squeeze of lemon to diminish that sweet. with the sour taste. If a soup is too sweet, wait until it is completely finished cooking before you add extra ingredients (or other tastes) to reduce the sweetness. The longer the soup, or stew, cooks the more the ingredients will condense and become more powerful, often naturally reducing the sweet taste.
That funny mouth-puckering face we make when we put lemon wedge to our lips is a reliable indicator that we have trespassed into sour territory. This sensation can be triggered from the acids in citrus, sourdough bread, vinegar or other foods that feature this flavor. Some scientists have theorized that the sour taste originally signaled that the food was decomposing and potentially unsafe to consume.
Most commonly found in citrus (lemons/limes), as well as fermented substances (wine/vinegar, pickles, sauerkraut, soy sauce, umeboshi plums and some dairy products), the sour taste is thought to stimulate digestion, aid circulation, promote elimination, energize the body, strengthen the heart, relieve thirst and sharpen the senses. It also reduces minerals such as iron from food, a biochemical reaction known as mineral buffering, so be nutritionally cautious with this flavor.
Sour foods such as citrus and vinegar can add zest to a dish and give it an edge to pump it up. Example: A squeeze of lime on an avocado, or lemon on guacamole. Big yum! Young tomatoes and many berries can also add a touch of sourness that helps to perk up a dish. If a dish tastes too sweet or spicy (such as too much hot pepper), or even too bland, adding a bit of sour taste can be a perfect quick fix.
If your dish suffers from an overly sour taste, adding the sweet taste of vegetables can tone down the sour, especially if the vegetables are roasted or grilled. In Indian cooking, they will often serve a small side dish of yogurt to calm the heat of the spicy taste.
Sometimes, there is confusion distinguishing between bitter and sour tastes, since they can taste similar. Here’s how you can tell the difference: bitterness imparts a harsh, unpleasant taste, while sourness is more acrid. Example: Taste a grapefruit. It has a pleasant, but sour taste, right? Now, try tasting a small piece of the grapefruit rind. That’s the bitter taste! This is a simple way for training your palate to identify these two tastes.
The last taste, pungent, is also described as spicy. The pungent taste is the hottest of all five tastes and can be found in numerous vegetables (chili peppers, garlic, and onions) and in spices (black pepper, ginger, and cayenne).
In small amounts, the pungent taste can stimulate digestion, clear congested sinuses, promote sweating and detoxification, help to discharge gas, improve circulation and relieve some types of muscle pain.
The pungent taste also helps emulsify fat from oily foods. Pungent foods included in this category are: fresh garlic and ginger, mustard, turnips, scallion, red, white or black radish, and horseradish.
Flavors can balance or counteract one another. Example: To balance spice with sweet, Mexican cuisine benefits from a pinch of cayenne pepper directly to the hot, steaming chocolate. The spice combines with the sweet of the chocolate producing a stronger, more dynamic flavor. If you find that a dish might be lacking something uncertain, try adding a bit of the pungent flavor.
Chart of the Five Tastes
Here are some familiar and compatible taste partnerships between the Five Tastes:
• Cooked or Raw Salad Greens
Use Lemon (Sour) with Soy Sauce (Salty), or Ginger (Pungent) with Miso (Salty)
• Whole Grain Dishes
As A Garnish
Use Parsley (Bitter), Chopped Salted Nuts (Salty), or Chopped Peppers (Pungent)
• Cooked Bitter Greens
(Ex: Collard Greens/Arugula/Mustard Greens) Use Well-Cooked Onions (Sweet), or Lime (Sour)
• Vegan Rice & Vegetable Sushi
Use Ginger (Pungent), Soy Sauce (Salty) and Daikon Radish (Pungent), as a dip
Try some of the examples below to select complimentary tastes for your meal creations:
Cooked Cabbage Carrots
, Fresh Corn, Select Fruits, Whole Grains,
Cooked Onions, Parsnips
, Butternut Squash, Kabocha, Squash, Yams, Boiled Radish, Cinnamon
Sea Salt, Capers
, Sea Vegetables, Fermented Preparations: Miso,
Soy Sauce, Pickles
, Vinegar, Pickles, Sauerkraut, Umeboshi Plum, Crab Apples
Collard Greens, Endive,
, Mustard Green,
, Turnip Greens, Citrus Zest,
White Daikon, Raw Garlic, Peppers,
Raw Onions, Red Radish, Scallions, Horseradish (aka: “wasabi”), Spices, Cilantro
Stay Tuned for Part 2 of this Blog: “The Five Textures”
• Photo: Image of chef extraordinaire' Angela Agrati Prange, in her kitchen somewhere between the mountains of Florence and Venice, Italy. © Copyright 2016, Verne Varona