6 Essential Tastes that Make You Wonder
Wellness in Japanese cuisine
Bitter is sweet, and sweet is not the grand finale.
The way I’ve been talking about flavors, you’d think it’s all about pleasure. Or is it? Why do self-disciplined Buddhist monks brand the 6 tastes essential for wellness? Supreme cooks for these monks live it inside out. This wellness concept is worth some thoughts for common mortals too, not just those in monasteries.
So here, in the middle of an elegant dinner, an ensemble of 12 mysterious, assorted tiny bites, 6 flavors each for two diners, present themselves in one course like a mini festive parade. These represent the “3 virtues, 6 tastes, and 8 inches”(三德六味~八寸)¹ in a version of the elaborate 10-course Japanese kaiseki² menu (懷石料理) that finds its humble origins in Buddhist beliefs.
What? Self-deprecating monks are supposed to eat mouthwatering mouthfuls too? Yes. The cooks are responsible for the monks’ mental and physical well-being and longevity. That involves making every bite not only palatable but enjoyable so the monks don’t get bored. I know, strange to relate a monk’s spartan life to a sumptuous dinner. Hear me out.
I haven’t dragged you here to tell you salt is salty. Each of the 6 tastes comes with a philosophy and/or a correlation with Chinese nutritional practices³. This concept, derived from traditional Chinese culinary health practices centuries ago, traveled to Japan eventually with Buddhism.
The flavor alone is not all. No self-respecting cooks do without these 3 virtues of cooking: Cleanliness, Tenderness & Mildness, and Seasonality. That means the cooks are always mindful of what’s going on and what they’re doing, that there be no tough tissues in the food, and that they work in step with nature and reality. For some Buddhist monks, there’s the additional need of avoiding aggressive flavors from garlic, leeks, scallions, shallots, and asafetida, the “5 pungent spices” (五葷)⁴.
Think that’s it? Then there’s the “8 inches” theory (1 Japanese inch = 3.03 cm), which originally referred to the length of chopsticks (Chinese chopsticks are slightly longer). It’s about discipline, elegance, and efficacy. How we consume these bites is crucial too.
All right, let’s see what Chef has chosen to awaken our taste buds.
Plain/Original taste — bamboo shoots, with bonito flakes
Some might think plain, unseasoned food is “tasteless”. Well, it turns out these are welcome in the culinary world for their accommodating nature. These willingly accept all flavors. Zen. Saint. Meek and mild. There’s not much flavor in bamboo shoots on their own but for the slight crunch in texture, perfect bedfellows for bonito flakes with natural umami/kokumi.
Sour taste — yuzu, with shirako (codfish milt)
Shirako is a codfish sperm sac. The female fish roes are delicacies (recall caviar?), so why not the male genitalia? Nothing’s wrong with that. Grilled, it’s delicately firm outside and creamy inside. Russians, Sicilians, Koreans, Chinese, British, Romanians, Indonesians, Japanese — all these cultures have it in their cuisines⁵. Shirako is pretty bland without company. Here’s where the magic of citric yuzu works.
Citrus sourness is cooling¹. Guides qi to the liver³. Good for detox¹.
Spicy taste — fermented yuzu skin & Japanese green pepper skin, with monkfish liver
The grand goodness of fish liver is well-known. Some moms make kids have that cod liver oil with a scoop of ice cream. Turns out this “fish foie gras” is gourmet when cooked right. Now for grown-ups, how about having it with the pleasantly spicy fermented yuzu skin and Japanese green pepper skin? Piquant and fruity.
Spicy food (in moderation, as with everything) is warming¹ and good for blood circulation³ (ginger). It clears sinuses³ (wasabi), lessens muscle pain³, and wards off cold hands and feet.
Salty taste — karasumi (salted mullet fish roes), with white fish
Here enters the sperm sac’s female counterpart karasumi, salted mullet fish roes . These balance well with white fish. Saltiness nourishes the skin¹ and softens accumulations³. It directs qi to the kidneys, anchors and settles the mind, and supports mental health³. Some schools of thought believe saltiness crowns all tastes. But don’t underestimate the next two.
Bitter taste — fukinoto and tofu purée
Bitterness can be very cooling. It balances heaty foods¹. When done right it supports the circulatory and nervous systems³. Preparation of fukinoto includes treatment with ash or baking soda to remove astringency. Like in life. Dress that wound, address that grief. Make it palatable. There are more bitter foods than most may know. Green tea, for example, is considered bitter and cooling. This property is not universal though. Coffee is bitter but heaty.
While bitterness is an acquired taste, the next one turns out essential in childhood³.
Sweet taste — sweet potato tempura
Most foodies know about our brains releasing endorphins that make us happier. But in this context sweetness refers to grains and roots rather than refined sugars. This protects children from foods harmful to their developing physiques³. Sweetness makes the digestive system happy. It tonifies and moistens³. It’s warming and beneficial for the spleen, pancreas, and stomach¹. It’s gentle and calms the mind³.
Chef chooses to cook the sweet potato as tempura. It’s worth noting tempura requires frying to 80% doneness and allowing the residual heat to finish the cooking. This seals the moisture in the food and retains its freshness. I normally don’t eat fried foods. Yet this tiny 1-inch mouthful is so light even I can deal with it.
When the body is in harmony with itself, the mind functions best.
The finest monks come from the kitchen.
(Disclaimer: Any mention of health properties in this article is not professional medical advice but traditional beliefs of generations, recorded in writing, for reference only.)
The kaiseki dinner starts here:
Amazing Tastes from the Stunning Waters of Hokkaido and Kyoto
Japanese culinary secrets in a kaiseki dinner
If you’re wondering where’s the beef, dinner continues here:
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