The Five Flavors of your Chinese formula

Have you ever chewed up a Tylenol or Ibuprofen pill? Probably not. We swallow pharmaceuticals whole without tasting them because it doesn’t really matter what they taste like–the flavor isn’t part of the experience or the benefit to taking that type of medicine. Chinese herbs are a different story. If you’ve ever taken a Chinese formula you’ll know that there is a wide range of flavors you may experience, from the most bitter to almost sickly sweet, and anything in between. If you haven’t tried a formula before, I’d like to share with you the backstory on the flavors you may one day encounter so that you can go into the experience with a little excitement and a bit more understanding.

We talk about five basic flavors in our herbal medicine: Bitter, Acrid, Sweet, Sour, and Salty. Each herb can claim at least one flavor, possibly several. Knowing the herb’s flavor is a shortcut to understanding its function in a formula. (I will add that each herb also is said to have a “temperature” ranging from very hot to very cold, which also describe how the herb works, but flavors are enough to discuss in this post.)

The bitter flavor is probably the most noticeable one in a formula. We have some herbs that are among the most bitter things you can safely put in your mouth! You know how drinking your morning coffee usually helps you spend your morning time in the bathroom? Have you heard of drinking a bitter “digestif” after a large meal? Then you already understand the bitter flavor: bitter helps things descend in the body. Taking a formula with this flavor can apply whether you need help in the bathroom, to having a hard time with phlegm in your chest, to having anxiety with panic attacks. Any time something isn’t going down in the body that should–energetically or otherwise–I think of the bitter flavor.

The acrid flavor is called “pungent” in some books. For this discussion I think it’s easiest to describe it as spicy. Ginger has this property. So do clove, nutmeg, fennel, and cardamom, any of which could show up in a formula. You already know what the acrid flavor does, having experienced it when you ate something very spicy: your face turned red, you might have broken out in a sweat, and perhaps if you had any sinus congestion it cleared up. Acrid makes things go up and out.

The sweet flavor can often get drowned out by the bitter in a formula, but it is very important and can work even in the background. One of the sweetest of our herbs is honey-fried licorice, which shows up in practically every formula. Sweet nourishes the body, restores fluids, and moderates strong actions of other herbs. There is another flavor called Bland that fits in alongside sweet. It helps to get fluids to go where they are needed, whether that be from a wet place in the body to a dry place, or just out of the body altogether.

If you have ever bitten into a lemon wedge you understand what the sour flavor does. The word is “astringe,” but sour generally holds things in, just like you purse and scrunch your mouth up when you encounter straight lemon juice. Things that need to be held in can range from abnormal sweating to urinary leakage to excess bleeding. The sour flavor also performs an energetic action when the body is irritable or energy isn’t flowing in the directions it should, softening the impulse to lash out at everyone around you and helping you to return to your calm and rational self.

Just as salt on the roads softens ice, the salty flavor can soften areas in the body where things have congealed or formed lumps, or places where things have become brittle and dried out. It might seem counter-intuitive, but water follows solvents, and when things are rich and salty water and nourishment will flow in and plump things up.

One of the cooler things about Chinese herbs is that the flavors DO matter. I hope I’ve given you the beginnings of a deeper understanding and appreciation of these flavors. When you try your first formula, chances are you’ll think it’s gross. Once you have taken several different formulas your palate will change and expand.

Have you tried Chinese herbs? What was your experience? Or have you eaten something that had a remarkable flavor that you’ve never forgotten? Leave a comment with your story!