It is nearly impossible to forget the first time you chewed a hot chili pepper. Raising red flags, flailing your hands, calling for ice water, sugar cubes—anything to relieve you from the burning sensation in your mouth and stomach. While your spice tolerance may be low, we are here to tell you that pungency to varying degrees—despite all the crying and drama—has an important purpose to serve for your health as it completes the spectrum of the six fundamental tastes in Ayurveda. In Ayurveda speak, it balances the heavily aggravated kapha. Remember, nothing wakes you up fully like a cup of spicy pumpkin latte, on a deep wintry morning. 

Is pungency a taste?

This might surprise you—pungency is not really a taste, according to many. This is for a technical reason. Our tongue has no taste receptor to detect pungency. But pungency or ‘spicy-ness’ activates VRI receptors in the tongue, which are the receptors meant for detecting pain and temperature. This is the reason why you feel hot and sweaty when you are chewing a chili pepper, because the brain detects it as ‘hot’ food, when it is really not. Though other foods may be warming and spicy, chili pepper is not. Science also says that it is merely an illusion and an erred perception that pungency destroys your taste buds; It merely numbs them temporarily. 

Whether pungency gets its pride of place among the other canonical tastes or not, it adds value as a sharp flavor. Once you have cultivated a taste for it, pungent food is warming and an important way of balancing doshas. 

Katu Rasa or Pungency in Ayurveda

Ayurveda delves far more deeply into the science of tastes—their benefits, effects on the body, and applications for healing.

Taste is called rasa in Ayurveda. Rasa also means interest or juice. No other taste in Ayurveda holds up to this definition as much as katu rasa, or pungency, because of its nature of increasing pitta and vata and reducing kapha. In other words, it is hot, drying, and light.  

Pungent and Doshas

Fire and air make up the pungent taste. Pungent food is the hottest of all the rasas, and therefore stimulates digestion, improves appetite, clears sinuses, stimulates blood circulation, and heightens the senses. Pungent food may help you think quickly and clearly, and understand complicated matters more easily. Pungent foods are penetrative and invigorating to the senses. They also increase circulation and help detoxify the body. Ayurveda mentions that pungent foods are good for treating diseases of skin (allergies and rashes), edema, throat issues, indigestion, and ulcers. 

Too much pungent food, however, can make you overly critical. Pungent foods will aggravate pitta quickly and balance kapha. While the heating quality supports vata in the near term, in the long run the drying effect of pungent foods aggravate it. It also increases appetite and improves taste in the mouth, but takes out the moisture, while helping break down the food. Excess intake of pungent foods over long term can affect sperm and ova count, according to Ayurveda. 

Vata handles pungent tastes best when they are combined with sour, sweet, or salty foods and ideally, pungent food should be had later in the meal after you have had something sweet, sour, and salty. Some examples of pungent foods are hot peppers, ginger, onions, garlic, mustard, and hot spices.

Pungent spices like chili peppers and wasabi titillate the taste buds while heating up the body and the mind. The pungent taste is found in the following:

  • Peppers (green and red, habaneros, jalapenos)
  • Wasabi
  • Pungent Spices (turmeric, cayenne, sage, thyme, cumin, cinnamon, peppercorn)
  • Horseradish
  • Mustard Seeds
  • Ginger
  • Garlic

Effects of Pungent

According to ancient Ayurvedic texts like the encyclopedic Ashtanga Hrudayam, pungent foods 

  • Stimulate the tongue
  • Aggravate pain
  • Cause Secretion of tears, and fluids from mouth and nose
  • Clear the oral cavity
  • Are digestive and carminative
  • Decrease sexual excitement
  • Increase weight loss
  • Inhibit growth of ulcers
  • Scrape muscle tissues
  • Induce oleation and sweating to support quicker elimination of waste from the body
  • Reduce itching
  • Have applications for treating specific skin problems.

Excess consumption of pungent foods can cause the following problems, according to the texts,

  • Impotency
  • Tiredness/Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Constipation
  • Depletion in sperm count, problems in ejaculation
  • Fainting
  • Excessive thirst
  • Tremors
  • Piercing and shooting pains
  • Vata disorders.

Pungent Recipe

Need to boost your metabolism? Feed your inner fire today with the pungent taste. Try this amazing pungent soup, ideal for an Ayurvedic detox.

SPICY MUNG DHAL SOUP
(Makes 5 generous portions)

Ingredients
400g (1 lb.)  mung beans (whole green or split green) *Sweet*
2 quarts water
½ tsp. turmeric powder   *Pungent*
2 pinch asafoetida   *Pungent*
lime or lemon juice   *Sour*
fresh root ginger   *Pungent*
2-3 cloves garlic   *Pungent*
an inch of fresh root ginger   *Pungent*
1 tsp. cumin seeds   *Pungent*
1 tsp. coriander seeds   *Pungent*
rock salt   *Salty*

Directions

  1. Wash the mung beans and soak for at least four hours or overnight.
  2. Heat ghee or olive oil in a pan and add a teaspoon of turmeric and 2 pinches asafoetida (to prevent gas).
  3. Sauté for a few seconds then add the beans, fresh water, and fresh root ginger.
    For one part soaked mung you need about four parts of water.
  4. Simmer for 30–40 minutes, adding more water if necessary, until beans are soft. In a pressure cooker this takes 8 minutes once the vessel has come to pressure. You can then turn off the heat and leave the pot to cool for a further 10 minutes before opening it.
  5. Once the beans are cooked, heat ghee or olive oil in another pan, add 2–3 cloves chopped garlic (if you wish) and sauté lightly for a minute until soft. 
    Add chopped fresh root ginger, then one teaspoon of cumin and coriander seeds plus any other herbs or spices (except chilis) eg: cardamom, black pepper, cumin seeds and briefly sauté.
  6. Add these sautéed spices plus some rock salt into the beans and simmer for a further few minutes.
  7. Serve soup warm with a squeeze of lime juice and some fresh coriander leaves, finely chopped.

An Ayurvedic Round-Up of Pungent Taste

BalancesKapha Dosha
AggravatesPitta and Vata dosha
Related elementsfire and air
Effect on temperaturewarming
Qualitiessharp, hot, dry and light
Emotions related to itexcitement, vitality, expansion, vigor but may cause aggression, anger, and rage when in excess.
AlsoAntispasmodic, carminative, causes perspiration, detoxifying Excess consumption of it can cause choking, hiccups, constipation, diarrhea, giddiness, blacking out, or heartburn. Should be avoided for people who suffer from acidity problems, or conditions caused by excessive pitta, or fertility issues.
Bonus Tip Next time you are feeling brave and you want to try eating chili peppers, have a glass of milk or some sugar handy instead of gulping down water to get over the debilitating spicy-ness. This is because the carciamin compound present in chili pepper that bonds with VRI receptors (like we discussed at the beginning) is insoluble in water. So drinking water only spreads it around, increasing the spicy quotient instead of reducing it.

Ayurveda Culinary Retreat

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