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)
- Pungent Spices (turmeric, cayenne, sage, thyme, cumin, cinnamon, peppercorn)
- Mustard Seeds
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,