Part of traditional East Asian medical food cure theory is eating so that all six tastes--sweet, sour, salty, bitter, spicy and astringent--are present in each meal. These tastes answer different needs in the body and mind. Therefore, the presence of all six in your bowl gives a sense of satisfaction when eating.
Most of us find sweet and salty tastes readily in our diets. Spicy, bitter and astringent are only needed in very small quantities. But, what about sour?
Recently in the clinic, I have had many requests for pickle recipes. In the Ayurvedic tradition, the sour taste is a combination of Earth and Fire elements. It generally lowers vata dosha while increasing digestion, absorption and assimilation of nutrients.
The Chinese tradition recommends for us to have a small bite or two of something pickled or fermented a little while before a main meal as a digestive aid. Fermented foods include yogurt, kefir, miso, citrus fruits, and live vinegar. In moderation, this digestive fire enhances our digestive capacity--or, agni--but, in excess can interrupt other functions in the body and disturb the mind. The sour taste stimulates salivation, promotes appetite and sharpens the mind. Sour foods are generally carminative and diaphoretic, rajasic in nature.
Pickles are quite easy to make at home. There are slow-cured pickles and fast ones, vinegar-based pickles and brine-based ones. A handy tool for pickle preparation is a Japanese pickle press, which are easy to find online. However, no fancy equipment is necessary to get some delicious pickles going in your own kitchen. Any deep bowl with a plate that fits inside the opening on top will do (to push the food contents below the liquid).
The recipe below is very adaptable. Use your favorite vinegar and play with the vegetable combinations. Some Chinese herbs lend themselves well to pickling, such as Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum multiflorum).
Ume Vinegar Pickles
1 part ume plum vinegar
2-3 parts water (depending on personal preference)
fresh, young ginger
Let napa cabbage and carrot (or your favorite veggies) sit out on the counter 1-2 days, or until slightly limp. Peel and thinly slice cabbage, carrot and ginger. Place vegetables in a non-reactive (not metal!) pickle press or ceramic bowl. Cover completely with solution of ume plum vinegar and water. Place a plate or cover of some sort over vegetables to press them below the surface of the liquid. Use a weight of some kind to hold them down. Refrigerate.
Pickles will be ready for use in about a day and will keep for 2 weeks or more. If you are careful to keep veggies completely submerged, the life of your pickles will be greatly extended. If a white scum develops, that indicates that not enough vinegar was used or they have been contaminated.
Note: Once submerged in the ume/water solution, the veggies will lose mass dramatically. If you had leftover cabbage or carrot during preparation that would not fit into the container, reserve it. In a day or two, it may easily fit into the jar!
One more thing! Tweak your brine ratio to suit your taste. If you happen to find your result too strong, simply rinse pickles before serving.