The 5 Flavors of Chinese Medicine
Eating a balanced meal with all 5 flavors is considered the healthiest way to eat in Chinese Medicine. in this blog I will walk you through the 5 flavors sour, bitter, sweet, pungent/aromatic, spicy and salty. Explaining how each flavor is associated with the 5 seasons wood, fire, earth, metal and water. There is a intimate relationship with the flavor of food that tells us which season and which organ system it interacts with. It is a complex, old world way to look at food but when you begin to study the nature of the 5 elements you will start to see how everything is connected to the seasons. Then you will start to see how to understand how to identify what is causing disease and what is creating harmony. I will begin to explain how this way of thinking works through this 5 flavors sweet potato bowl recipe.
This sweet potato bowl recipe is an example of how to eat all of the 5 flavors in one meal. Sharing how doing this daily can impact our health and how each ingredient acts within the body. This way of thinking of food is a lifetime study. Take it in slowly and have fun with it! You can let your taste buds guide you to create your own 5 flavors bowl with many food combinations for a endless creative and easy way of eat a holistic diet. Eating healthy is never about perfection it is about moderation and finding your own definition for balance.
Sweet: Sweet Potato
Naturally sweet foods are most important when trying to nourish the body and help it recover. The sweetness in foods means they are loaded with carbohydrates an essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. Sweet is associated with the Earth element, the late summer and spleen. The energetics is slightly warming, harmonizing and moistening. Helping strengthen weak digestion function.
Multigrain, bone both and root vegetables are the ideal foods that satisfy the body’s need for sweet. Processed sugar and fruits should be consumed in moderation because they can quickly cause excess dampness, metabolic issues, obesity, skin problems and spleen imbalances.
The sweet flavor in these sweet potato bowls nourishes the spleen and pancreas. Moving qi though this area. Giving us more energy and vitality. Removing toxins from the body building yin fluids and functions within the kidneys. Working to heal and relieve dry and inflamed conditions.
Learn more about eating seasonally for the late summer with the Earth element food guide.
Aromatic – Spicy: Ginger
Warm, spicy, pungent, aromatic foods are associated with the metal element, fall season, and the lungs. When it comes to food think cozy chai lattes, aromatic curries, soups loaded with garlic, leeks, and onion. All the delicious meals you crave in the fall season. The aromatic flavor moves qi, loosens stagnation, disperses cold and dampness and strengthen the lungs. Protecting our body against seasonal colds/flus, relieving cold symptoms, stimulating defense qi, boosting immunity. With the abundance of good foods being harvested eating a healthy diet builds essential foundation for our health during the fall season.
Ginger is well known for its warming nature. In Traditional Chinese Medicine ginger is known for moving heat to the exterior. Dispersing cold, warming the Dan Tian (our three main energy centers). It is one of the medicines for alleviating digestive ailments of all kinds from nausea, vomiting, and food poisoning. Relieving toxicity and moving energy thought the stomach, spleen and lung meridians. Also working to relieve sore throats, coughs, chills, fever, headaches, pain in joints, arthritis, cold limbs, frozen shoulders, constipation, edema, and menstrual cramps. Essential boosting immunity, cleansing the lymphatic and inducing sweating. Offering nutrients and protection to our system.
Helping to restore balance and vitality to the body. Helping to transform and transport foods and fluids. When the middle Dan Tian is cold symptoms that can arise are bloating, constipation, indigestion and abdominal pain. Ginger offers our body protection strengthening our immunity and resilience.
Learn more about eating seasonally for the fall with the metal element food guide.
Aromatic – Pungent: Chives
Chives are part of the onion family which are the definition of pungent meaning they have influence over the lungs. They promote warmth by moving circulation, relieving stagnation, creating energy, and expelling cold conditions. Onions are rich in sulfur which is a warming element that purifies the body removing heavy metals and parasites. While also helping to metabolize amino acids and proteins. Also cleaning the arteries and fighting against viruses, yeasts, and other pathogens.
Chives specifically increases qi, moving energy and drying dampness, in the kidneys, liver, and stomach. Helping in treatment with blood coagulation, bruises, swelling associated with pain and arthritis. Chives also relieve weak digestion and strengthening kidney yang. Which helps treat urinary cold conditions such as incotinence and spermatorrhea.
Both chives and ginger are considered in the aromatic category but I wanted to show you how complex this flavor can be.
Sour is associated with the wood element, spring, the liver and gallbladder. This flavor is perfectly explained through the imagery of a puckered face after bitting into a lemon wedge. The astringency of sour foods help tone and preserve fluids. Nourishing yin, guiding qi inward, alleviating sweating and cooling heat near the surface of the body and the liver. Hydrating us. Helping to center our spirits. But keep in mind to much sour can hurt the stomach and cause acid reflux, stomatitis, enamel damage, and joint inflammation. Adding a splash of rice vinegar or a squeeze of lemon to our food is often all you need.
Add tomatoes to the sweet potato bowl, because they are cooling, sweet, and sour in nature. Helping to build yin fluids, relieves dryness and thirst, tonifies the stomach, encouraging proper digestion, cleanses the liver, purifies blood, and detoxes the body. Helping most in cases with diminished appetite, indigestion, food retention and constipation. By reducing liver heat tomatoes can also have an effect on lowering blood pressure, red eyes, and headache. It is important to note that excessive amounts of tomatoes can be weakening and many have a undiagnosed intolerance due to toxic constituents. Eat tomatoes sparingly and preferably cooked.
Learn more about eating seasonally for spring with the food guide for the wood element.
The flavor salty is associated with the water element, winter, and the kidney and bladder systems. Salty flavor softens nodules, relaxes tension, and guides qi (energy) downward. The average American diet can easily achieve excessive amounts of salt in the diet due to the process food epidemic. Which can cause various problems with the kidneys and heart especially. Too much salt damages body fluids, blood, bones, and spirit. Causing hypertension, dehydration and decreased mental capacity. It is important to be hyper conscious of our daily salt intake by buying unsalted or low salt products. Investing in high quality salt like Celtic sea salt can also help. As well as foods that are naturally salty like spinach, miso, nettles, and seaweeds.
Miso is fermented soybean paste that first originated in China over 2,500 years ago. Soybeans, goji, salt and grains are fermented together for starting from six months up to two years. There are several ways you can make miso outside of the traditional way. Offering unique flavor that we can add to foods. Miso is packed full of healing properties that are especially beneficial for a vegan diet. Containing 13-20% protein with amino acid patterns similar to meats. As well as vitamin B12 and lactobacillus that aids digestion and assimilation of nutrients. Promoting alkalinity and resilience against disease and negative effects caused by environmental pollutants and toxins.
Learn more about eating seasonally for the winter with the water element food guide.
Bitter is associated with the Fire element, summer, the heart and the small intestine. The flavor is cooling, drying, and detoxing. The best medicine is always bitter, packed with nutrients, working to cool internal heat and inflammation. Supporting our digestion especially during the fire element. Helping to dry damp accumulation. But to much bitter such as coffee can cause dehydration and diarrhea.
Celery is cooling sweet and bitter. Benefiting the spleen, pancreas, stomach and an aggravated liver. Improving digestion, drys dampness, purifies blood, promotes sweating, reduces wind conditions such as vertigo and nervousness. Use celery to cool excessive heat in the liver, stomach and eyes which can also contribute to headaches and excessive appetite. Eating celery alongside fruit can also help prevent dampness caused by excessive sweeteners. Celery is also high in silicon which helps renew joints, bones, arteries, and connective tissues.
Learn more about eating seasonally for early summer with the fire element food guide.
Build your sweet potato bowl with all 5 flavors and more seasonal vegetables using the recipe below.
5 Flavors Sweet Potato Bowls with Miso Tahini
- 1 cup of rice
- 2 medium size sweet potatoes
- 3 stalks of celery
- 1 bunch of bok choy
- 5-6 cherry tomatoes
- 1/2 cucumber
- 1 avocado
- 1 bunch of chives
- 1 bloc of tempeh
Ginger Miso Tempeh Sauce Recipe
- 1/2 in piece of ginger
- 1/4 cup of coconut amino’s
- 2 tbsps of hot water
- 1 tbsp of miso
- 2 tbsp of sriracha
- 1 tsp of honey
Miso Tahini Sauce
- 1 tbsp of miso
- 1/4 cup of tahini
- 1/4 cup of hot water
- Cook rice with 1 tbsp of coconut oil
- Steam chopped celery and bok choy with steamer over rice pot
- Chop sweet potato into cubes and tempeh into slices and cook in separate pans
- Chop the other vegetables and set aside
- Once the tempeh is browned on each side add the ginger miso sauce
- Make tahini sauce
- Add all to 1 bowl and cover with tahini sauce. Enjoy!
Gong, Zoey Xinyi, and Cassie Zhang. The Five Elements Cookbook: A Guide to Traditional Chinese Medicine with Recipes for Everyday Healing. Harvest, an Imprint of William Morrow Publishers, 2023.
Pitchford, Paul. Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition. North Atlantic Books, 2009.