Food Friday: The Elusive Astringent Taste

Bite into any unripe banana or persimmon and notice the pucker in your mouth, constriction in your throat, and a need to drink something to wash it down. Enter the astringent taste. The astringent taste is hard to understand because it isn’t directly recognized as one of the five flavors in western cuisine (sweet, salty, sour, pungent, bitter). It conveys both an effect (something you can feel) and a flavor (something you can taste), equally. The fact that it is two-fold in flavor and action is one of the things I find most fascinating about the astringent taste.

Chemically, what causes the pucker and dryness is the high presence of tannins in astringent foods. I reckon that tannins play an important role in the plant kingdom - perhaps to warn foragers that a seed isn’t ready to seed yet until the fruit is sweet.

I’m incorporating a lot of the astringent taste into my and my clients’ meals right now. Springtime is in full bloom in Northern California. The snow is melting literally in the mountains, and figuratively in our bodies. The subsequent “wetness” is also present in the form of mucus - did I mention that seasonal allergies are also in full bloom? It can feel like a deadly combination at times. All this mucus and winter snowmelt could really use some sopping up with the astringent taste.

Before I dive into my list of favorite astringent foods, here is a mind blowing (to me, at least) kitchen hack I learned while doing research. Tannins exist in the form of tannic acid in foods. When you cook astringent foods like legumes and beans, do not cook them with acid (vinegar, tomatoes, wine) early on. Adding an acid to an acid will slow down the cooking process - instead, you may want to add a bit of baking soda to alkalize the tannic acid to help speed up the cooking process. If you need to add vinegar, tomatoes, or wine to a dish (like a braise), then do so at the end, and boil off to make a reduction over the stove.

Here is a list of my favorite astringent foods with helpful hacks that I like to make in the springtime:

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Lentils and Beans

ALWAYS soak lentils and beans overnight before cooking! Soaking helps break down digestion-inhibiting enzymes. Soaking also helps to hydrate the dried beans and reduce cooking time by half. After an overnight soak, beans double in size and have already absorbed most of the water they would absorb while cooking - it’s crazy how sponge-like they are.

Cooked in vegetable broth and warming spices like: cinnamon, smoked paprika, cumin, clove, allspice helps to increase nutrition and digestibility.

Red beans have the most tannins and white beans have the least tannins.

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Dark Leafy Greens and Cruciferous Veggies

Dark leafy greens are mostly bitter, and bitter is also a “drying” taste. Cruciferous veggies like Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and broccoli are easy and accessible astringent veggies.

Barley and Sorghum

Mushrooms are a great pairing with barley. Mushrooms don’t really have tannins but they are alkaline and their soft texture does well to balance the course-edged barley groats.

Black and Green Tea

Okay, not a food, but makes for the perfect morning beverage. Especially when I wake up with a runny nose and watery eyes.

Explore Astringency

Next time you eat something astringent, notice the reaction it causes - both physiologically and emotionally. You might want to drink something, or slather a bunch of butter onto whatever you just ate. Notice what happens, emotionally, when you’ve been eating a lot of astringent foods. Maybe you feel indifferent towards events and triggers. Your awareness is one of your greatest assets to eating according to your constitution - a tool you have readily available at all times.