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Chapter Seven The Six Flavors
The five colors blind one's eyes. The five tones deafen one's ears. The five tastes ruin one's palate.
--Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
When we consider the world's major spiritual traditions and their teachings about food, two distinct principles begin to emerge. The first of these is based on exclusion--the idea that certain substances should be prohibited from the diet, as an expression of piety and adherence to religious precepts. Both Islam and Judaism, for example, strictly forbid pork and other swine derivatives. There are also complete or partial fasts associated with various holidays throughout the year.
In contrast to this theme of prohibition and exclusion, other doctrines emphasize inclusion and the importance of a wide-ranging diet. Traditional Indian cooking identifies six distinct flavors, and stipulates that ideally each meal should include them all. The source of a particular taste--whether sweetness comes from butter or from bread, for example--is less important in an Indian meal than the simple fact of its presence.
For the Mindful Cook, the tradition of including a broad range of tastes is extremely satisfying because it provides us with access to a concrete way of approaching the essence of eating. Nothing is more basic to the experience of food than these building blocks.
Although it differs slightly from the Indian version, a consensus list of the tastes includes sweet, sour, bitter, salty, spicy, and plain. These tastes are all associated with specific foods, although a given food can evoke more than one. Each taste has unique benefits for cooking when present in proper proportion.
The Mindful Cook uses the concept of six flavors as a foundation for building balance and variety in a meal. And because they are on the tip of the tongue, so to speak, the experience of the six tastes can provide a way for recalling specific foods without need for written descriptions or detailed recipes.
Building balance is one of the key concepts in a sister art form, the art of wine making. My own experience with the fundamentals of wine production was centered on Champagne. I had the enviable task of writing a pocket guide to Champagne drinking. I spent a week in the Champagne region of France visiting producers and tasting their products. At a dinner given by Moët & Chandon in honor of visiting wine writers, I was presented with a gift from one of the founding families of this venerated house, the Pozzo di Borgos. In order to help wine lovers discover the original components of Champagne and other French wines, Moët had produced a tasting kit called Le Nez du Vin ("the nose of wine"). It consists of a series of fragrances distilled from the natural sources of various flavors found in wine, among them apricot, coffee, lemon, apple, vanilla, hazelnut, and honey. The essences are accompanied by cards that picture the source of the perfume and enunciate which wines and which regions embody these flavors. With the kit in hand one can learn to break down the components of Champagne, for example, which is made from twenty to thirty different batches of red and white grapes, each with a different flavor, by smelling a perfume and then sipping the wine. The fusion of flavors that creates the marvelous quality of the successful blend is then all the more appreciated. We will use this technique to discover the unity of the six flavors, by tasting each of them separately and then fully assembled in a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts.
Certain culinary experiences are so deeply satisfying because nothing seems left out. But a really successful meal requires more than the simple presence of all six flavors. When the flavors exist in proper proportion, both in an individual dish and in the meal as a whole, they balance one another. The various elements of a meal maintain their identities and at the same time become a harmonious creation. To put it in other terms, the flavors tell a whole story.
Many of us have strong personal attachments to one or more of the flavors that give us an entrée into the complex relationships between food and past occurrences. Proust's madeleine passage in Swann's Way, where a tea cake evokes an entire universe, is different only, perhaps, in the elegance of expression from what some of us have experienced. These attachments may or may not be related to the specific social/emotional connotations of the flavors that are generally thought of as the following:
A Lexicon of Flavors
Sweet = happy, wet, rich Sour = unhappy, complaining, sharp Bitter = resentful, lingering, melancholy Spicy = energetic, lively, unexpected Salty = difficult, harsh, dry Plain = ordinary, usual, frequent