The simple apple, which most of us take for granted, suddenly becomes a surprising and powerful herbal ally when you apply a basic understanding of constitution and taste to your daily cooking. In designing your meals with the idea that your food can be your medicine, you can make use of a simple and inexpensive food like apple to create optimal health for yourself, your family, and your friends.

In Ayurveda, Traditional Western Herbalism, and to some extent Traditional Chinese Medicine, taste is a key element to understanding how an herb works in the body to aid or hinder healing processes. Most often, we talk about herbs having a specific taste profile. Yarrow, for instance, is considered bitter, pungent, and acrid by most traditions. Those tastes describe how the herb works in the body to shift health more than how it tastes on the tongue, although often the flavor of the herb matches the taste description pretty closely. Yarrow, for instance, tastes pretty bitter with a pungent (spicy) note and an acrid aftertaste.

For most of the medicinal herbs we use, that taste doesn’t really change a lot as we make them into medicine, although certain menstrums will emphasize specific aspects of the herb’s medicinal actions more or less depending on which constituents that menstrum better extracts. Nettle leaf, for example, becomes more diuretic when it’s extracted with alcohol and more tonic or nourishing when it’s extracted with vinegar. Still, the basic tastes for Nettle leaf remain the same regardless of the menstrum, sweet, bitter, and earthy. While the actions for each type of medicine are slightly different, you can use them interchangeably if need be.

Where taste starts to become a powerful tool is in the kitchen. Think of your food as medicine for a moment. For some people certain foods, like fresh apples, don’t digest well. They become gassy or bloated after eating just one raw apple. For others, that same apple is essential to a day’s good bowl movement. Apple’s taste, sour and sweet, and its corresponding actions can be matched to the constitution of each individual to explain why they had different reactions to eating it. Clearly, that apple has a medicinal affect…one that we can draw on in times of illness as well as health. Understanding how taste works and how the tastes of foods can be altered to better suit your own needs opens the door to a whole new world of culinary prowess. But, that’s just the beginning.

Just as the type of menstrum you use to extract the medicinal qualities of an herb will strengthen specific aspects or offer subtle change to the actions of the herb, the process you use to prepare your foods can change the taste and resultant actions of those foods. Cooking that apple, for instance, may be all that’s needed to help someone who doesn’t digest apples well. Cooking reduces the sour component of the apple’s taste, emphasizing the sweetness that builds kapha while converting the sour pitta-building elements into more digestible forms. The greatest difference between making good medicine and making medicinal meals is in recognizing the techniques you use to prepare your foods can potentially create a huge shift in how the foods you eat will act in the body.

For an herb like Apple, that shift can seem almost monumental when you add a little fermentation to the process. Apple starts off sweet and sour with the emphasis on sweet. In Ayurvedic tradition, apple is used to balance kapha while potentially increasing pitta – the more sour the apple the more it’ll increase pitta – and greatly increasing vata when raw while less so when cooked. When you extract apple juice by pressing the apples, the resulting cider is less likely to aggravate vata but more likely to aggravate pitta because the sour aspect of apple is emphasized in the raw cider. Note that more of that sour aspect is removed in commercially produced apple juice, which has been filtered to remove pulp and sediment and with it some of the subtle bitter and sour flavors you’ll find in a good, organic cider.

When you ferment that cider, you convert much of the sweetness to alcohol, thus emphasizing the sour even more and making it a food to avoid if you want to soothe or calm pitta as well as vata. Apple Cider Vinegar, which has moved through the fermentation process and acidified fully, is the most sour expression of apple and the form that best stokes pitta-fire. That’s part of why most herbalists recommend apple cider vinegar as the basis for their Fire Cider tonics; Fire Cider is designed to detoxify the body while building or re-building the tissues. Apple Cider vinegar retains many of the nutrients that contribute to the sweet action even though the sugary-flavor of apple has been fully converted into vinegar. At the same time, the sour taste of apple cider vinegar stokes the digestive system’s fires (pitta-increasing action), helping to move the system into action.

You can take your kitchen practice a step further with preparations like Fire Cider even if your constitution doesn’t normally need the added fire or pitta such a sour food offers, too. Fire Cider boosts pitta, which means it stokes your digestive fires. Most often, it’s made with other pungent herbs like garlic, horseradish, and ginger, all of which increase circulation and bile production and thus contribute to a whole lot of pitta-boosting. If you’re already someone who has strong pitta, you don’t need to take Fire Cider daily…but during and after a nasty flu it can be a true friend for getting your system humming once again. Folks with strong vata or kapha may find that a daily tablespoon or two of Fire Cider through the cold, damp months improves their digestion and immune function considerably while through the warmer seasons it may become more aggravating than desired.

For the home or Family Herbalist, cooking with a focus on taste from an herbalist’s perspective can be a powerful tool. It’s a beautiful and healthful way to take your cooking to the next level, but recognizing that all food is medicine with the potential to shift your own health and well being subtly and naturally.

Resources for Apple