I grew up in the middle of the United States where the sweet taste was highly featured in common foods and meals.
Sweet cereals and pop tarts for breakfast; pizzas and peanut butter sandwiches for lunch; and pasta, rice, or potatoes as a key part of dinner; followed by green Jell-O and carrots (yes, that’s a real thing) for dessert.
Growing up, I ate plenty of fresh green veggies from the garden, but I was never taught to relish the bitterness of salad greens (only iceberg in our house) or experience a side dish with a strong sour or bitter flavor.
That’s a big contrast to what is now my favorite cuisine: Indian food.
At one of my favorite Indian restaurants, the owners have a welcome page within their menu where they describe the 6 flavors (according to Ayurveda) and share why they include all flavors within a meal.
For me, a variety of flavors is simply more enticing. When we experience a wide range of tastes, our senses are heightened and meals are more scrumptious and satisfying.
The wider range of flavors a meal has means there’s a larger variety of phytonutrients, making our meals more nutrient dense (and often more colorful as well).
Taste isn’t just important for meals, it’s often the basis of herbal medicines found around the world. Traditional Chinese Medicine focuses on five tastes. Ayurveda classifies herbs within 6 tastes, and Western herbal medicine has its roots in flavors as well.
I love teaching about the taste of herbs because it’s practical and experiential.
When you learn about the tastes of herbal medicine, it’s not just about memorizing what someone says about a particular herb, but instead it’s learning how to really feel how that herb works. The end result is that you really get herbs on a visceral level.
For example, have you ever eaten a spicy pepper or even a meal and then felt your sinuses start to run? Or have you eaten something sour, like a lemon, and realized you were salivating more?
Those actions are herbal medicine at work! And it’s not something you have to memorize, it’s something you’ve been experiencing your whole life.
The following recipe for beet hummus shows you how you can incorporate the five flavors of herbal medicine into one delicious and colorful snack.
But before we get to the recipe, let’s take a closer look at the tastes and ingredients.
The Sweet Taste
The sweet taste easily evokes images of sugar, honey, or other overtly sweet flavors, but in herbal medicine it’s more nuanced than that.
Herbs within the sweet taste are often our nourishing and building herbs. We reach for these herbs when someone is feeling weak and could use an overall building tonic. These are our adaptogen and immunomodulating herbs like astragalus or codonopsis. They also include demulcent herbs like aloe gel and marshmallow root.
There are two sweet ingredients into today’s beet hummus recipe.
Beets are a nourishing food for the heart! They even look a bit like a heart with their dark red coloring and shape. Beets have become well known for helping endurance athletes stay strong.
They’ve also been shown to be dramatically helpful for heart disease patients. In a small study, the researchers found that beet juice may help boost muscle strength among heart patients. One of the researchers reported, “The magnitude of this improvement is comparable to that seen in heart failure patients who have done two to three months of resistance training.”1
Also called garbanzo beans, chickpeas are a fabulous source of plant-based protein and fiber. Chickpeas have been cultivated for thousands of years and there are over 70 varieties that come in a range of colors. With their sweet, slightly nutty flavor and creamy texture, there’s a lot to love about chickpeas.
There’s also lots to love about their health benefits. As one study reports, “emerging research suggests that chickpeas and hummus may play a beneficial role in weight management and glucose and insulin regulation, as well as have a positive impact on some markers of cardiovascular disease.”2
The Pungent Taste
The pungent taste is the flavor of spice and aromatics. Practically all of our culinary herbs, like cumin, rosemary, thyme, garlic, etc., are pungent herbs. These herbs wake up our senses and add delicious and nuanced flavors to our meals.
In herbal medicine the pungent taste is warming and active. It wakes up digestion and moves stagnant energies. The example I gave earlier of eating a spicy meal and then feeling your sinuses run is a classic example of the pungent taste.
There are several pungent spices in this beet hummus recipe.
Cumin (Cuminum cyminum)
Cumin is a warming aromatic spice (with a hint of bitterness) that originally came from the Middle East, India, and northern Africa. Colonists bought it to the Americas and it is now a prominent part of Mexican cuisine. Cumin is an excellent herb for digestion. It increases circulation, dispels gas, and can sooth nausea. It’s one of my husband’s favorite spices and hardly a day goes by without it being featured in one of our meals.
Garlic (Allium sativum)
Garlic is a famous pungent spice, both in flavor and smell! It’s a bit daunting to try and summarize garlic in a few sentences … what doesn’t this herb do! Whether it’s promoting digestion, supporting heart health, or helping to ward off infections, garlic is a medicinal herb that’s just as comfortable as a simple culinary spice in your homemade spaghetti sauce.
Black Pepper (Piper nigrum)
Possibly the world’s most popular spice, black pepper helps you digest food better and also to assimilate nutrients better. Piperine, a constituent within black pepper, has been studied extensively for its biotransformative effects.3 In other words, it’s the ultimate catalyst for getting the most nutrients from the meals you already eat. I add black pepper to most meals and keep it readily available to add as a finishing touch.
The Salty Taste
Just as the sweet taste doesn’t always mean sugary sweet, the salty taste doesn’t always taste like table salt. These herbs are commonly nutrient dense and have a mineral or bland taste. These herbs are often used to help people build stronger bones and more luxurious hair. Classic examples include stinging nettle and oatstraw.
While there are a lot of salty herbs out there, this recipe brings out the salty flavor with salt. For those who are more adventurous, you could substitute or add kelp flakes to the recipe.
The Sour Taste
Sour herbs can be overtly sour like lemon, or the more subtle sour of a ripe fruit. These herbs are often used to enhance digestion and can be either warming or cooling in nature.
The predominantly sour taste within this recipe is the classic lemon.
Lemons are both food and medicine. They are overtly sour and pleasantly cooling, which is why lemonade stands with entrepreneurial kids dot neighborhoods. Lemons also enhance digestion and can modulate inflammation. Much of lemon’s benefits are found within the peel and zest, which is why I rarely just use the juice, and almost always include the zest as well.
The Bitter Taste
Of all the tastes, bitter is often the hardest for people to love. But, for those willing to adapt their tastes, bitter herbs can easily become our most favorite. Stimulating bitter herbs like cacao and coffee are easily some of the most popular herbs worldwide. In the past decade, digestive bitter preparations are popping up everywhere from people’s kitchens to fancy cocktail bars.
The Five-Flavored Beet Hummus doesn’t have a strong bitter flavor, but it has two slightly bitter ingredients.
Tahini is a paste made from hulled sesame seeds. You can buy tahini at the store or look for recipes to make your own. Tahini has a slightly bitter flavor, but store-bought tahini can also be rancid, so it’s important to know the difference between bitter and rancidity. (Another great reason to develop your sense of taste!) Sesame seeds are one of the oldest cultivated plants and have been used extensively as food and medicine.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa)
I’m sort of pushing it to put turmeric in the bitter section rather than the pungent section, but it does contain both tastes. It’s a reminder that herbs aren’t only one thing, but instead contain a multitude of flavors.
Turmeric is well known for its ability to modulate inflammation, which has been shown to have numerous benefits for the heart and liver especially. You can read more about turmeric in my book Alchemy of Herbs: How to Transform Everyday Ingredients into Foods and Remedies that Heal.
Five-Flavored Beet Hummus
Five flavors blend together to create a beautiful and delicious snack that is an instant crowd pleaser. With the plethora of phytonutrients in this dip, you could ask, “Is this food? Is it medicine?” Don’t consider this for too long; otherwise, your friends and family will have already eaten it up.
Serve this beet hummus with bread, crackers, or veggies, or use it as a spread on sandwiches.
What you’ll need…
- 2 medium beets
- 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil. divided
- 3/4 teaspoon salt, divided
- 1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas
- 1/2 cup tahini
- 3 garlic cloves, mashed and minced
- 1 teaspoon cumin powder
- 2 teaspoons turmeric powder
- 2 teaspoons fresh lemon zest
- 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Begin by cooking the beets. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Wash the beets and then cut them into 1/2-inch cubes. Peel only if desired. Place them on a single layer in a baking pan, drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1/4 teaspoon salt, and stir to mix.
- Bake the beets for 30 to 40 minutes or until they are tender. Stir once during cooking. The beets can be cooked up to three days in advance if desired.
- Now for the hummus. Drain the chickpeas and reserve the liquid.
- Place all the remaining ingredients, including the beets but excluding the reserved chickpea liquid, in a food processor.
- With the food processor running, slowly add the reserved chickpea liquid until the mixture is smooth. You may or may not use all of the reserved liquid.
- Taste the hummus and add additional salt, pepper, and lemon juice to taste.
- Serve this beet hummus with crackers or a variety of vegetables for dipping (carrot sticks, watermelon radish slices, cucumber slices, etc.).
Now I’d love to hear from you!
Do you get all five tastes of herbal medicine in your meals?
Have you found that you tastes have changed over the years? Perhaps you used to hate bitter but now you crave it?
I’d love to hear your herbal medicine taste stories in the comments below.
- WebMD. “Beet Juice Boosts Muscle Power in Heart Patients.” Accessed September 3, 2020. ↩
- Wallace, Taylor C., Robert Murray, and Kathleen M. Zelman. “The Nutritional Value and Health Benefits of Chickpeas and Hummus.” Nutrients 8, no. 12 (November 29, 2016). https://doi.org/10.3390/nu8120766. ↩
- Meghwal, Murlidhar, and T. K. Goswami. “Piper Nigrum and Piperine: An Update.” Phytotherapy Research: PTR 27, no. 8 (August 2013): 1121–30. https://doi.org/10.1002/ptr.4972. ↩