Here's a riddle: What makes a grape taste different from an olive? And what makes a grape grown in France's gentle southern coastal region of Provence taste different from a grape grown in the high altitude desert regions of New Mexico? Going further, what makes truth different from lies? What makes me different from you?
Indian philosophy offers a one-word answer to all of these questions, a quality that all things possess called rasa. Rasa is a concept with a multitude of meanings. On its most obvious level, rasa means "taste." More subtly, rasa is defined as the "juice" of any object, its "marrow" or "sap."
On an even more esoteric level, rasa is the essence of an object. With food, with all living beings, and even with philosophical concepts like truth and lies, rasa is the quality that defines and identifies something's ultimate nature. To foster your ability to perceive and understand rasa is to cultivate good taste. This means creating your own personal aesthetic, your likes and dislikes, based on an awakened ability to observe and discern.
But to come to know the more subtle levels of rasa, you must also learn to perceive the essential nature of all that you encounter in the world. Finding satisfaction and balance in your diet can be particularly frustrating as you try to juggle the slippery elements of what, when, and how much to eat.
You may find yourself on a wild goose chase that leads from fad diet to nutritional counselor, looking for the perfect combination of foods that will keep you healthy and happy and provide some lasting satisfaction. Learning how to awaken a deeper appreciation of the food you consume can completely transform the eating experience. You can start with understanding the rasa of food on the most outward level: taste. Both Westerners and Indians have systems that formally classify what it means to taste. Here in the West, taste is defined as a chemical process. Harold McGee, in his book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, describes taste as a means of survival, a "way of discriminating between useful and harmful molecules."
McGee points out that even single-cell organisms discriminate this way, and humans have developed a sense that causes reflex actions to foods that irritate or burn. For example, we may choke, sneeze, or weep in the presence of black pepper, onions, or garlic.
At the most basic level, Indians characterize rasa as possessing six principal tastes: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent. Sometimes these classifications are further broken down into 63 different mixtures of the principal six flavors. Both of these Western and Indian efforts to define taste are attempts to codify the common experience of eating. The Western understanding of taste also includes the metaphorical language of the "sensual gourmet": Westerners "lust after" or "die for" a food, and swoon at the thought of aphrodisiacs. There's even the specialized term of "connoisseur" for one who develops a heightened sense of taste of a particular food or spirit.
From the Indian perspective, the concept of rasa takes the qualities of passion and sensuality experienced when eating to yet a deeper level—to the source from which the "juice" originates. This means experiencing rasa within the context of the food's existence as a living, dynamic entity. Discovering this deeper level of taste, of rasa, requires you to remain open to how the food may present itself in any given moment.
In your everyday eating experience, it's easy to stop at the outermost layer of naming the familiar taste of a food—sweet is a chocolate cake, salty is a potato chip, pungent is garlic. Then the process of exploration comes to a halt because the food has been reduced to a concept that is so well known that it can be dismissed. But when you comprehend the rasa of a food, you experience the intricacies of sweetness, or the nature of astringent, the ultimate being of pungent. To reach this deeper understanding you must stay conscious and present while you eat; then you can intimately connect with the juice, the marrow, the prime reality of any particular food as it is in the present moment. You can do this with practice, by combining your own sensual experience of eating with an understanding of the science of taste.
When you practice yoga and explore the depths of an asana, you are practicing this same process of cultivating rasa. Discovering the essential quality that lies at the heart of your asana practice is very much the art of finding the juice of the pose, savoring its vital sap as you seek to unlock the riddles of balance and counterbalance.
As you move into a posture and bring to it the light of your awareness, you may experience a brief taste of the liberation offered by the form. Much in this same way, a structured food practice can teach you to open up to the experience of tasting the rasa. This means not only tasting the individual characteristics of the foods you eat, but remaining aware throughout the whole eating experience.
By practicing a state of awareness while you eat, you will eventually be able to remain clear and present within all of your senses. This practice of communing with the essence or rasa of food can carry through the entire eating experience, from the moment you become hungry, through the selection and preparation of the food, and into the act of eating the food itself.
The following simple food practice allows you to explore the depths of the essential nature of a food as experienced by all of your senses. It also introduces you to the idea of staying fully conscious as you eat.
Set aside about 20 minutes during which you won't be interrupted. Make sure to start the practice at a point in your day when you are hungry, but not famished. Select three of your favorite foods. If possible, choose foods that require no preparation and that may be eaten with your hands (a piece of fruit, some cheese, or a cookie, for example).
Place the foods on a table in front of you within easy reach. Close your eyes and take a moment to clear your mind. Open your eyes and look carefully at each item, examining it fully, noting whatever it is that appeals to you about its appearance. Allow all of the thoughts or feelings about the food to register, then decide which food you want to eat and reach for it. The instant your fingers touch the food, broaden your awareness to include your sense of touch. Pay attention to the physical sensation of the food against your hand: its texture, firmness, temperature, and so on.
Now bring the food close to your mouth and prepare to take a bite. As you do so, notice its smell; you may also detect a shift in temperature around your lips as you bring the food close to your mouth. Notice that the smells may be influenced by the temperature or moisture of the food, or they may be mixed with the smells of your environment. In order to hone in on this part of the eating experience, you may close your eyes momentarily.
Now open your mouth and take a bite of the food. Notice that you can hear the sounds of contact between you and the food as you bite into it before you even begin to taste it. Are the sounds soft, rhythmic, slurping, sucking, crunching, wet, dry, etc.? Finally, take another bite of the food and engage your sense of taste. Are the flavors sour, sweet, spicy, pungent, aromatic, etc.? Do you taste more than one flavor at once, or does one taste dominate, then another come forth?
This food practice demonstrates two important elements that will help you appreciate tasting as a complex art. First, it gives insight into how your physical senses work. Although you may ordinarily jump to the conclusion that you like or dislike something because of how it tastes, the practice shows that a food appeals (or does not appeal) to you based on how you perceive it through all five senses, and even before you taste it. The practice also trains you to become more conscious as you eat so you can be truly satisfied by food.
As you tune into the rasa of any given food, you may find that what you thought you were hungry for doesn't bring real satisfaction. If you stay conscious and start tuning in to the rasa of your favorite junk food or candy, you may discover that the refined sugars, hydrogenated oils, artificial colors and flavors, not to mention a host of preservatives with hard-to-pronounce names, may not actually be brimming with lively seductive deliciousness.
On the other hand, a beautiful juicy ripe apple that's in season, grown on a nearby organic farm, may provide all the joy and contentment of the most "sinful" food in your most wicked food fantasies. That's not to say that you should never indulge in eating a piece of candy, or any other food that tempts you.
An important part of exploring rasa is seeking balance, a path which leads to the true juice of life. When you start connecting with rasa, without making any special effort to change your eating, a process naturally starts to take place. You'll start to desire foods that are abundant and alive, foods that give you what you really need on the deepest level. This is truly "soul food"—food that satisfies deep within, all the way down to the very essence of your being.
Mary Taylor has been a student of yoga and meditation since 1981. She attended L'ecú le des Trois Gourmandes in Paris, and wrote three cookbooks. Lynn Ginsburg has studied yoga, Buddhist & Hindu philosophies, vipassana, and Sanskrit since 1983. Her work has appeared in "Travel & Leisure" and the "New York Daily News."