Flavours of food for each season – Traditional Chinese Medicine

By Sallyanne Pisk

Last week the Five Elements were introduced. The elements explain the relationships between our environment and our health and wellbeing. The elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water are represented in food through flavours. Similar to Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine categorises foods by their flavour rather than nutrient content.

The flavours of food are salty, bitter, sour, sweet and pungent. Flavours describe the properties of foods rather than the taste (our sensory experience of eating). A balanced diet includes all of the flavours. Foods with the sweet flavour take centre stage as they are the most nourishing. Often ‘sweet’ foods provide the secondary flavours as well, otherwise these can be obtained from herbs, spices and condiments.

Flavours Foods
Sour Lemon, lime, sauerkraut. Sour and bitter: Vinegar. Sour and pungent: Leek. Sour and sweet: Aduki bean, apple, cheese, grape, mango, olive, raspberry, sourdough bread, tomato, yoghurt.
Bitter Alfalfa, rye. Bitter and pungent: White pepper. Bitter, sweet and pungent: Citrus peel, turnip. Bitter and sweet: Asparagus, celery, lettuce, papaya , quinoa.
Sweet Full sweet (strengthen and tonify): Meat, legumes, dairy, nuts, seeds, starchy vegetables. Empty sweet (cool and cleanse): most fruits.
Pungent Warming: spearmint, rosemary, garlic, onion family, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, black pepper, anise, mustard greens, basil, nutmeg. Cooling: peppermint, marjoram, elder flowers, white pepper. Neutral: taro, turnip.
Salty Salt and seaweed. Barley and millet (mostly sweet but with some salty properties).

Traditional Chinese medicine promotes mindful food choices through an understanding of how foods benefit us during the different seasons.

  • Spring is considered a new beginning, a time to pay attention to self-awareness and self-expression. Light foods eaten raw or lightly cooked are beneficial. Raw foods are not recommended though for people with digestive disturbances, general weakness or deficiencies. Sweet and pungent foods are ideal for spring.
  • Summer is a time of growth and abundance. Our diet should represent the variety of coloured fruits and vegetables available. On hot days cooling fresh foods are recommended e.g. salads, sprouts, fruit, cucumber, tofu; mint, chamomile and chrysanthemum teas and apples, watermelon, lemons and limes. Eating less and lightly helps us to maintain good energy levels during hot weather.
  • The last month of summer and the 7½ days prior to and after the summer and winter solstice are important transition periods. Ideal foods are those that are ‘sweet’, centring and golden to yellow in colour e.g. carrots, corn, soybeans, squash, potatoes, string beans, tofu sweet potato, apricots, and cantaloupe. Simple foods with mild tastes are recommended. Meditation and breathing are particularly supportive at these times.
  • Autumn (Fall) is a time of harvesting and gathering. It is an abundant season that also directs us to store in preparation for winter. Foods with a sour flavour are of benefit. Cooking with less water and lower heat for longer periods is also recommended. Add bitter and salty flavours as winter nears. Most western diets do not require additional salt but an increase in bitter foods is encouraged.
  • Winter completes the seasonal cycle. It is a time for rest, meditation and keeping the core of your body warm. Foods such as soups, whole grains, roasted nuts and steamed green vegetables such as kale and spinach are suggested. Slow cooking on low temperatures and the addition of foods with salty and bitter flavours help keep the body warm.

Flavours create balance within our body and bring us into harmony with the season. The first priority is personal balance then seasonal attunement. Next week we will learn how we can use our body’s signals to choose the right balance of flavours for our current needs.

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