The Five Flavors of Food

The five flavors of foods include

  • pungent (acrid),
  • sweet,
  • sour,
  • bitter and
  • salty.

Pungent foods include green onion, chive, clove, parsley and coriander.

Sweet foods include sugar, cherry, chestnut and banana.

Sour foods include lemon, pear, plum and mango.

Bitter foods include hops, lettuce, radish leaf and vinegar (I list vinegar as bitter because the Chinese call vinegar "bitter wine." Vinegar tastes both sour and bitter; it is common for some foods to have two simultaneous flavors).

Salty foods include salt, kelp and seaweed.

The importance of five flavors

The flavors of foods are important in Chinese diet, because different flavors have their respective important effects upon the internal organs.

  • Foods that have a pungent flavor can act on the lungs and large intestine;
  • foods with a sweet flavor on the stomach and spleen;

  • food with sour flavor on the liver and gall bladder;
  • food with a bitter flavor on the heart and small intestine;
  • foods that have a salty flavor can act on the kidneys and bladder.

Let's take the sweet flavor as an example, that acts on the stomach and spleen.

It is common knowledge among Chinese and Western dietitians, that eating sweet foods will put on weight, but Chinese and Western dietitians give different explanations.

According to Western dietitians, eating sweet foods puts on weight because sweet foods contain a large number of calories; according to Chinese dietitians, eating sweet foods will put on weight because sweet foods can act on the stomach and spleen, which are in charge of digestive functions.

In other words, in Chinese diet, sweet foods are considered capable of improving the digestive functions, which is why they are good for people with a weak digestive system.

How about food without distinctive taste?

For Westerners, one question frequently comes up about Chinese diet: How do we determine the flavors of such foods as beef, pork and celery that have no distinct tastes? In Chinese diet, beef has a sweet flavor, pork has a sweet and salty flavor and celery a sweet flavor.

Some foods have one flavor, but others may have two or three. Undoubtedly, the flavors of many foods are very difficult to determine precisely, but the Chinese have done it through many centuries of experience.

The process may look like this: At the beginning, some foods with obvious flavors are found to act on some internal organs and perform specific actions in the human body. The basic relationships between flavors and internal organs and the actions are studied and analyzed by a process in science called the inductive method.

As time goes on, other foods whose flavors are more difficult to determine may be found capable of acting upon some internal organs and performing some specific actions. The flavors of such foods are determined on the basis of their organic effects and specific actions. This process in science is called the deductive method.

The common actions of foods in regard to their flavors

In general, the common actions of foods in regard to their flavors are as follows:

Pungent foods (ginger, green onion and peppermint) can induce perspiration and promote energy circulation.

Sweet foods (honey, sugar and watermelon) can slow down the acute symptoms and neutralize the toxic effects of other foods. Sour foods (lemon and plum) can obstruct the movements and are useful, therefore, in checking diarrhea and excessive perspiration.

Bitter foods, such as animals' gall bladder and hops, can reduce body heat, dry body fluids and induce diarrhea (which is why many Chinese herbs recommended to reduce fever and induce diarrhea taste bitter).

Salty foods (kelp and seaweed) can soften hardness, which explains their usefulness in treating tuberculosis of the lymph nodes and other symptoms involving the hardening of muscles or glands.

In addition, some foods have a light flavor or little taste. These foods normally have two flavor classifications. Cucumber, for example, has sweet and light flavors. Foods with a light flavor promote urination and may be used as diuretics. Job's-tears is one of the outstanding examples.

Foods of different flavors

The following are foods arranged by different flavors:

  • Bitter: apricot seed, asparagus, bitter gourd, wild cucumber, celery, cherry seed, coffee, grapefruit peel, hops, kohlrabi, lettuce, lotus plumule, radish leaf, sea grass, vinegar, wine.
  • Slightly Bitter: ginseng, pumpkin.
  • Light: Job's-tears, kidney bean, sunflower seed, white fungus, Chinese wax gourd.
  • Pungent: black pepper, castor bean, cherry seed, chive, chive root, chive seed, cinnamon bark, cinnamon twig, clove, Chinese parsley, cottonseed, dill seeds, fennel, garlic, ginger (dried or fresh), grapefruit peel, green onion (leaf and white head), green pepper, kohlrabi, kumquat, leaf mustard, leek, marjoram, nutmeg, peppermint, radish and radish leaf, red pepper, rice bran, rosemary, soybean oil, spearmint, star anise, sweet basil, taro, tobacco, white pepper, wine.
  • Slightly Pungent: asparagus, caraway.
  • Salty: abalone, barley, chive seeds, clam (sea, fresh water, river clamshell, sea clamshell), crab, cuttlebone, cuttlefish, duck, eel blood, ham, kelp, milk (human), oyster, oyster shell, pork, salt, seagrass, seaweed. (All recommended shells are crushed into powder before using them.)
  • Sour: apple, apricot, crab apple, grape, grapefruit, hawthorn fruits, kumquat, litchi, loquat, mandarin orange, mango, olive, peach, pineapple, plum, raspberry, small red or adzuki bean, star fruit or carambola, strawberry, tangerine, tomato, vinegar.
  • Extremely Sour: lemon, pear, sour plum.
  • Sweet: abalone, apple, apricot, apricot seeds (sweet), bamboo shoots, banana, barley, bean curd, beef, beetroots, black fungus, black sesame seeds, black soybean, brown sugar, cabbage (Chinese), carp (common carp, gold carp, grass carp), carrot, castor bean, celery, cherry, chestnut, chicken, chicken egg (yolk and white), Chinese wax gourd, cinnamon bark, cinnamon twig, clam (fresh water), coconut, coffee, common button mushroom, corn, corn silk, crab apple, cucumber, red and black date, dry mandarin orange peel, duck, eel, eel blood, eggplant, fig, ginseng, grape, grapefruit, grapefruit peel, guava, guava leaf, hawthorn fruits, honey, horse bean, hyacinth bean, ]ob's-tears, kidney bean, kohlrabi, kumquat, lettuce, licorice, lily flower, litchi, longan, longevity fruit, loquat, lotus (fruit and seed), malt, maltose, mandarin orange, mango, milk (cow's and human), mung bean, muskmelon, mutton, olive, oyster, papaya, peach, peanuts, pear, persimmon, pineapple, plum, pork, potato, pumpkin, radish, raspberry, red small bean or adzuki bean, rice bran, rice (polished), saffron, sesame oil, shiitake mushroom, shrimp, soybean oil, spearmint, spinach, squash, star anise, star fruit, strawberry, string bean, sugar cane, sunflower seed, sweet rice, sweet potato, sword bean, tangerine-orange, taro, tomato, walnut, water chestnut, watermelon, wheat, wheat bran, white fungus, white sugar, wine, yellow soybean.

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