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Doctrine of Five Flavors, The
Food in History
Winter Volume: 2008 Issue: 15(4) page(s): 12 and 13
The doctrine of the five flavors has a long and distinguished history in Chinese food culture. The four of the five flavors are: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. These elements of taste are recognized by the science of taste in the West. To the Chinese there is an additional flavor, one most often called 'spicy.' This is 'hot' as in 'heat' meaning as the Spanish would say, picante. It is not temperature-hot matching their word caliente.
Tradition has it that the sage I Yin who lived during the time of the Xia Dynasty, circa 21st – 16th centuries BCE, spoke of the importance of these five flavors. By the 4th century BCE, this five flavor concept appears firmly entrenched in Chinese cuisine. No doubt it continued during the Zhou Dynasty (12th century BCE to 221 BCE).
By the 3rd century BCE, the five flavor concept was already subject to philosophical debate. Taoists said that the five flavors jade the palate or cause one not to taste. What they probably had in mind were elitist or Confucian elaborate feasts, because at them, the five flavors were exemplified by rare and expensive foods. Taoists only wanted simple natural foods. They wanted plain bland flavors, such as steamed rice, chicken congee, or other congees.
What these early dishes and their recipes used in the five flavors seem lost in the annals of history. The oldest recipe I did find seems to come from the Tang Dynasty, around 800 CE and it is for a pork roast. It, and all recipes presented in this article, are rewritten in the recipe style of this magazine.
In that Five Flavors Pork Roast recipe below, the five flavors are represented in the ingredients. This recipe is unusual and is an exception, as would be one for Peking Duck. One does not find many recipes for large pieces of meat because it is primarily used, in the Chinese culinary, as a flavor enhancer rather than as a main dish item. Except for the first recipes, those after it are all contemporary. Famous celebrity chef, Martin Yan, has two recipes that utilize five flavors. The first is an appetizer using chicken wings; the second is for pork chops. They, too, are below and rewritten and adjusted in the style of other recipes in this magazine.
These recipes and others for five flavor dishes are among many things in the Chinese landscape that come in groups of five. There is the five-spice powder made up of cinnamon, star anise, fennel, clove, ginger, licorice, Sichuan pepper, and white pepper. Actually there are often eight spices or any combination of those associated with the five flavors. And all, but the last recipe use five-spice powder. Indeed, five-spice powder does encompass the five flavors, but they are not the same. The five flavors are much broader in the taste range and to equate the two is too restrictive because such an equation limits the flavors to substances. In actual fact, Chinese five-spice powder is closer to five fragrances rather than flavors.
Chinese cuisine, as it is known today, derives from classical combinations of the five flavors, but its vocabulary is grossly inadequate to describe the full range of the Chinese culinary. However, when one examines Chinese cookbooks, one finds very few references to the doctrine of five flavors.
The recipes for specific dishes using the five flavors are all we found in Chinese gastronomy. This strongly suggests that the five flavors are not the focus of one dish, but rather are spread over several dishes or an entire meal. The fan-cai principle that governs meals can be seen as divisions contributing to the five flavors, some flavors are in the fan or grains and other starches, and others are in the cai or vegetable and meat category. Assuming this the case, the five flavors can easily be achieved in an endless variety of ways. The chart provided shows how various fruits, vegetables, spices, and food products such as sauces exemplify a given flavor.
In some cases, the five flavors can not balance themselves; they need something else to harmonize with them, like tea. The use of the five colors with five flavor dishes testifies to this point. An issue raised here could be sufficiency versus insufficiency. In other words, most of the discussion of the five flavors seems to take them as sufficient in themselves for harmonizing or balancing a dish or a meal. To assist the five flavors are the five colors—they parallel each other. They are: spicy-white, sweet-yellow, sour-green, bitter-red, and salty-black. If a particular flavor is subtle, then its corresponding color can be used in the presentation to help suggest that flavor to the diner. Of course, Taoists object to the five colors too, so this parallel is not an option for them.
As the Taoists have done, the five flavors can be viewed as irrelevant or unnecessary vis-a-vis cooking and eating. Wang's commentary, in the 3rd century CE about the Tao Te Ching is instructive here: The mouth or the palate should comply [shun] with its own character [xing]. When one does not use it in compliance with its character and individual capacity [ming], he or she thus perversely harms what it is by nature [ziran]. This is why Taoists characterize it as the five flavors harm the mouth's (or the palate's) nature. Why? Because, it is following convention rather than nature.
Is theirs a good argument; I do not think so. The five flavors are natural, that is found in nature and commonplace. They should be compatible with the mouth's character [xing]. It is what is done with the five flavors that determines whether they are natural or conventional.
It is worth mentioning here the metaphoric connection with the usage of 'five.' That is, the adjective 'five' may refer to not only the five flavors, but also 'many' flavors, or an excessive number (hence confusion) of flavors. The repeated use of 'five,' or another number (like 'three' or 'seven'), is often a literary device in Chinese prose, as well. For the Taoists, there is a confusion that results from an excessive number of flavors. The Tao has no flavor, because it contains all flavors, thus differentiation is inferior. The source of Tao is 'wu,' nothingness or void, thus even any individuation or manifestation is inferior.
Thus, the Taoists are the antithesis of gastronomy. The gastronome is to practice a craft to be able to make fine discriminations on the palate and reach a high degree of refinement. The Taoists find taste in the tasteless, a paradoxical idea at best. In other words, Taoists find taste in what others find tasteless. Interesting.
The above listing is incomplete, so do feel free to extend it. Peaches, for instance, would go under 'sweet' while tomatoes can be sweet and also go there. However, because of their acidity they should also be placed under 'bitter.' In looking over the chart, there are certain 'classic' combinations including: ginger, sherry, lemon or rice vinegar, star anise, and regular soy sauce. Many of these are combined intuitively. Some combinations including those that involve hoisin sauce, regular soy sauce, Sichuan pepper, rice vinegar, and star anise are uniquely associated with Chinese cuisine. Do sense that the doctrine of 'five flavors' is a cornerstone of Chinese gastronomy.
When using the chart above, or the recipes below, note that there is some overlap among the flavors or tastes.
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