According to ancient Traditional Chinese Medicine, there are five tastes: Sweet, sour, pungent/piquant, salty, and bitter. In Ayurvedic Medicine/Philosophy of India, they recognize six: Sweet, pungent, sour, bitter, salty, and astringent.The Japanese recognize sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (which is said to be the taste of natural glutamates and was all the foodista-rage a couple years ago).
The more modern “Eastern” approach to diet, called Macrobiotics, is based in part on Japanese tradition and, in all honesty, on some Japanese cultural bias, even prejudice. It places heavy emphasis on achieving health by achieving balance, especially in achieving balance by consuming the right combination of foods. There is great emphasis placed on two opposing energetic forces called yin and yang.
Taste is one determinant of whether a food tends to be more yin or more yang (there are no absolutes, and in fact, yin and yang are in constant interplay, opposite forces of a dynamic whole). In Macrobiotics other considerations such as how, when and where a food is grown, what the current weather is, and what time of day it is, among other factors, inform the cook’s decision making. Anytime you thought to make hot soup on a cold winter’s day or served watermelon slices at a sweltering July picnic, you’ve made a “macrobiotic” choice!
All these Eastern approaches suggest that the content of diet (based in large part on the basic 5 or 6 tastes) should be tailored to each individual’s needs at each point in time, and whenever possible, in order to preserve health, prolong life. They say that when choosing food, one should also take into consideration whether or not the food supports healthy emotions, especially extreme calmness, which is a quality especially prized in some of the major religions of the region. Like Macrobiotics, the traditional Eastern approaches take into consideration both the outer climate (the weather, the time of day, etc.) and the inner climate (the health of our bodily systems, our age, our mental state, even our predominant characteristics).
The West as we know, offers up several different approaches to diet and health based on a variety of political/philosophical ideas or, as is more prevalent, a mainstream approach based on science called nutrition or micronutrition. In micronutrition, each food is viewed at the molecular level and assessed and assigned qualities based on which molecular components it contains and in what quantities.
There are weaknesses with both types of approaches. Micronutrition can’t see the forest for the trees (to a clinical nutritionist, sugar is sugar is sugar, for example, whether it is present in a carrot or a cupcake). So even though a diabetic might very well be able to be insulin free even when including large-ish amounts of some inherently sweet, wholesome foods in his diet, his nutritionist might forbid them (yes, I’ve seen this on more than one occasion).
Often, the Eastern approaches can’t see the trees for the forest. For example, old-style Macrobiotic menus almost always had (and still have) too many grains and too much salt and often, way too much soy (see link for why this is a problem).
Both traditional Chinese and Macrobiotic cooks tend to eschew raw foods and insist on cooking virtually everything, even bean, grain, and seed sprouts, which of course destroys their enzymatic activity and often their water-soluble vitamin content, too.
Ayurveda assigns appropriate foods and cooking methods based on your predominant doshas, or character type or types. If you are lactose intolerant and overweight but your dosha is recommended to eat cream, milk, butter, and so on, you might run into a bit of a wall before the problem can be solved, usually be retesting you and assigning you a new predominant dosha.
The strengths of the both the Eastern and the Micronutrition approaches are found in in Judaism’s approach to eating. There is much we can learn about eating from our mystic traditions as well as from our simple Biblical (written Bible) and Talmudic (oral teachings) starting with the entire body of Jewish dietary law known as kashrus (aka “keeping kosher”). These laws, which are designed specifically to nurture the spiritual development of a Jewish soul* are observed not only for our own benefit but simply because Hashem (G-d), tells us we must.
However, most (not all) of the Biblical and Talmudic teachings including the kashrus laws seem so detailed as to be akin to micronutrition in character. My learning partner and I were recently immersed in studying the laws of making brachas (blessings) over various foods, in this particular case, bread. It occurred to me that the discussion we were having could equally be about making a blessing on authentic organic sourdough rye bread or over-bleached, sugar-stuffed, Wonder-type bread. In practice, the blessing was absolutely the same.
Yet, it is also a law to “guard our health” as well as avoid gluttony.
I remembered that many of our long-lived tzaddikim (saints) were somewhat above the need for normative, earthly nutrition. The Kabbalist Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son studied Kabbalah while hiding in a cave for twelve years living on water and carobs. They survived and went on to write the Zohar, a major Kabbalistic text.
Many of our sages fasted regularly. Others de-emphasized the importance of eating, eating whatever came to hand—often no more than bread and water (except for Shabbos). Their thoughts were too lofty to wonder if they were having pasta or poached salmon for dinner. There are other approaches our sages taught, equally valid (and perhaps more appropriate for most of us).
The famous Rav Avigdor Miller (1908-2001), for example, was known for joyfully appreciating every aspect of life and encouraging others to do the same. He spoke about the wonderful world Hashem created for the sake of man. His talks were deceptively simple, even childlike. He wasn’t above speaking about the color of the sky or a piece of fruit. His homespun, even folksy style belied his intense awareness and focus—he out-Zenned the Zen (l’havdil).
He spoke about appreciating an orange and how Hashem had designed it specifically for our enjoyment. Rav Miller told us that every detail in this gorgeous fruit, from the delightful color to the tiny little sacs inside which contained the juice and burst refreshingly in our mouths, was created for our pleasure. He exhorted us to keep in mind when we make our blessing (and during the act of eating), that Hashem created everything for each of our own personal good and even happiness.
Another approach: There is a story about the great Hasidic tsaddik, Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk (1717-1787). A visiting rabbi watched him eat an apple. The visiting rabbi then also ate an apple. He asked Rebbe Elimelech, “With all due respect, Rebbe, what’s the difference between us? I make a blessing and eat an apple, the Rebbe makes a blessing and eats an apple.
Rebbe Elimelech says, “Ah, but you make a blessing in order to eat the apple; I eat the apple in order to make the blessing.”
We’re reminded of a deeper, universal (not only Jewish), reason to eat—to give ourselves health and energy in order to do good deeds (which universally includes thanking G-d for the food we are about to eat), thereby strengthening our connection to Him.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov went in another, Torah-based direction. The Rebbe tells us, quite simply, that the desire to receive pleasure from food is an impediment to spiritual development. He himself worked hard to eradicate any such desire. The Rebbe, however, decried many types of asceticism—he often said he would not have been so extremely ascetic in his youth if he had known the effect it would have on his health. But he felt that desire for food was no different from the lust for money or sex. It was a desire that once indulged in to excess (and how do we measure excess?), could take over the imagination and bruise the soul. It could lead to insatiability, obsession. Certainly, we get a glimpse of this when we examine the phenomena of foodies, foodistas, gourmets, and gourmands.
Popular culture has it that Jews (among others), have traditionally been foodies supreme. Perhaps we have been, but it’s helpful to note that that Breslov teachings are also openly based in pshat (plain meaning) Torah, not only hidden away in esoteric hints.
In Parshas Beshalach and Beha’aloscha (Exodus and Numbers), shortly after Hashem miraculously delivered the Jewish people from Egypt (the commentator Rashi says around 30 days later, the moment they ran out of food) we are told they cried for meat. So, G-d rained quail down upon them until they were sick of it. And if you have ever tasted game bird, a little goes a long, long way.
In Parsha Beha’aloscha (Numbers 11:5) in an another example of confused priorities, the Jewish people lamented that they missed the food they ate in Egypt, in slavery: “the fish, which we ate in Egypt, free of charge!; the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” Today, many Hasidim (as did Rebbe Nachman) have the tradition that pregnant women shouldn’t eat onions and garlic because of our ancestors’ complaint.
The Baal Shem Tov, Rebbe Nachman’s great grandfather, and the founder of the new wave of joyous, mystic, pious, Judaism known as the Hasidic movement, said one shouldn’t eat raw onions, the implication being that they were spiritually damaging.
Torah observant Jews, in fact, even those who eat onions and garlic, don’t store them unpeeled overnight as they are said to attract impurities. In all the ancient Eastern approaches mentioned , all meat as well as onions and garlic (plus spices and chilies) were shunned by the religious devotees as being coarsening or overstimulating or both. And throughout Jewish history, there are many who avoided meat, especially during the regular weekdays (as opposed to Shabbos).
Other Hasidim don’t have this custom, most notably Chabad Lubavitch and Satmar. They eat raw onions and have the custom of eating them specifically on Shabbos, and in the case of Chabad, on Pesach (Passover).
So, what are we to make of the existence of delicious, appealing food and the fact that we desire it? According to the commercial culture of America and Europe, we should stoke and feed and indulge our cravings. Magazines, web sites, and even entire television channels are devoted to convincing us that the ultimate point of life (and the indication of one well spent) is to indulge our senses. Especially a desire for new eating experiences, expensive delicacies, and food and wine that indicate to others that we are “in the know.”
It’s a bit creepy, but there is a school of self-congratulations for having difficult-to-satisfy appetites.
The other obvious options appear equally dismal: Generally healthy people obsessively obsessing over which food is healthiest. Or, people eating whatever’s put in front of them, like animals, with no concern about the food’s suitability, nutritional content (or for some, even flavor or freshness).
Meanwhile, striking a balance between enjoying our food without being a slave to cravings (or epicureanism), and eating with health in mind, cannot be achieved without ultimately thinking about why we eat in the first place. Thinking about why Hashem gave us a planet filled with an incredible variety of appealing, satisfying foods and what we’re supposed to do about this state of affairs is a great place to start.
One of the foods recommended (by both East and West) for satisfying extreme food cravings, is the eggplant. This recipe is sweet, pungent, sour, salty, and a bit bitter. It is based on recipes from North Africa and China. It’s very rich, so a little goes a long way. 6-8 servings.
1 large eggplant, cut into 1 inch cubes (peeled, if not organic) (you can use 4 Japanese eggplants, if you prefer)
1 heaping teaspoon coarse, unrefined sea salt
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into strips
1 long, green Italian pepper, seeded and cut into strips (optional)
2-4 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
2 tablespoons virgin coconut oil or unrefined peanut oil (or more, as needed)
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1/2 cup unsalted peanuts
1/2 teaspoon red chili flakes or 1 serrano chili, minced
1/2 teaspoon each ground coriander, cumin
1/2 cup fresh parsley, including stems, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, including stems, coarsely chopped (optional)
1 tablespoon mirin or 2 teaspoons raw agave
1-2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
3 raw scallions, chopped (optional)
Preheat oven until 475 degrees. In a large colander, place eggplant cubes and sprinkle with salt. Place bowl on top and place a heavy can or two in the bowl in order to press the eggplant and drain out the juices. Drain at room temperature for one hour, rinse, and dry well with a clean dish towel. This step is optional, but the eggplant will usually absorb less oil if prepared this way. No need to do this if using Japanese eggplants.
Place eggplant in large pan or cookie sheet and using your hands, coat with the coconut oil. Roast until tender and well done, about 30 minutes. Place in serving bowl.
While the eggplant is cooking, in a large frying pan or wok, sauté the onion and peppers in the sesame oil until tender, add garlic and cook for another two minutes. Turn off heat. Stir in chili, peanuts, coriander, cumin, parsley, cilantro, mirin or agave, and vinegar. Mix well.
Pour mixture over eggplant and stir until well mixed. Add scallion if using. Taste and correct seasoning. Serve warm with baguettes or over rice or serve chilled over romaine lettuce or mesclun as a main course salad. It keeps for up to two days in the refrigerator.
*Please note: Judaism teaches that non-Jewish souls also benefit from adhering to some of these dietary laws, most specifically the law of not eating meat from an animal that had a limb torn from it’s body before death (this includes tortured or mutilated animals). Sadly, this is not uncommon in much beef, pork, and poultry production today. Aside from the effects on the physical body (a tortured animal produces more adrenalin which many believe influences the health of the person who eats it) there is a spiritual effect or a coarsening of the personality.