The Flavors of China
The Flavors of China

Table of Contents

The Five Flavors

The Five Flavors

The majority of authentic Chinese food is organized into five separate flavors. These five flavors are a major part of "he" harmony, an idea in Chinese culture that represents things that can be helpful in achieving balance in the body. This is because the flavor of foods is often indicative of what it will do to your body. For example, a lemon makes our mouths pucker and tingle. When lemon juice hits the liver to be filtered, your gallbladder and liver will react similarly to the sourness, kick starting bile production.

There is a strong belief that eating a balanced diet with all of these flavors will lead to a long, healthy life while ignoring one or more of the flavors in your diet will promote disease and illness. The five flavors need not be present in one dish, rather they can be spread out over a few dishes or sides. This idea came about between 21 and 16th century BCE and had become a firm part of Chinese cuisine by the 4th century. It is so entrenched in the food culture in fact, that there are barely any references to it at all in Chinese cookbooks or food blogs. It is just common knowledge.

This practice of eating from the five flavors is detailed in the oldest known Chinese medicinal text, The Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic. Four of the five flavors have regions where they dominate the food climate, though every flavor is supposed to be part of the group. Here we examine the flavors and give some examples of what foods you will find within each flavor group.




Spicy is popular in regions of southern China, as well as in some central areas. This flavor is called the "pungent flavor" of the five, and it is supposed to help warm the body. Coldness is pushed out of the body by spiciness.

Some examples of spicy food include ginger, cinnamon, chiles, black pepper, and mace.




Salty flavors are especially popular in coastal regions and in northern China. Sea salt is the most popular choice for a salty food since it is locally produced and slightly cheaper. Salty, brine pickled vegetables are also very popular here.

Some examples of salty food include salt and soy sauce, with soy sauce being the most popular of the two.




Sweet flavors come from the Eastern regions of China. This is the most important of the five flavors, not because you should eat a dozen sweets a day, but because almost everything we eat has a little sweetness to it. Sweets are also thought to help improve the mood.

Some examples of sweet food include bell peppers, coconut, hoisin sauce, cherries, and grapes.




These foods are popular in poorer regions where people like to preserve food in vinegar to prevent waste. Sour foods are said to counteract fishiness or greasiness. People in the Shanxi province are famous for eating everything with vinegar.

Some examples of sour food include lemon, rice vinegar, dry wine, and cranberries.




Bitter foods are popular in Chinese medicinal practices and are found all over China. Bitter flavors balance out spicy flavors and promote salivation while strengthening the stomach. Bitterness is the only flavor that you won't find alone. Bitterness is almost always paired with another flavor because it is thought to be best when it is not standalone.

Some examples of bitter food include garlic, mustard powder, star anise, and arugula.

There is one food that is said to have all of the five flavors in it, making it the perfect food for promoting overall health in Chinese cuisine. This food is called the Schizandra Berry, or the "Five Flavor Berry." In Chinese, it is called we wei zi.

It is important to note that not many foods have a singular flavor about them. Bananas may be entirely sweet, but plums are both sweet and sour. There is nothing stating in this way of eating that a single food must be representative of a single flavor. Chinese Five Spice is a seasoning blend that helps achieve the five flavor balance without much effort. It is excellent on a wide variety of foods.

The five flavors work much more loosely than calorie counting or food obsession in the west. It is all about listening to your body's cravings and indulging in them. Your body knows what you need, so determining the proper combination of foods to get you back on track is as easy as listening to what your body wants.


Other Flavors of China


Not everyone in China is a believer of the Five Flavors. Some Chinese people are of the belief that there is nothing significant about the five flavors, since these are just naturally occurring, and it makes sense that we need to balance our diet.

Some of the most popular cuisines to come out of China are the Cantonese cuisine and the Sichuan cuisine. These cuisines are popular and utilize common resources and traditional cooking techniques. Staple foods in Chinese cuisine are rice, noodles, and breads. These are common cross-culturally, so they are familiar foods even outside of Chinese cuisine. They also provide a bland base to build the other flavors off of.


Soybean Products of China


Soybean products like tofu are extremely popular in China. It is a practiced art form to be able to make delicious tofu. It is often of very little flavor, so it can easily absorb other flavors and scents. Tofu is low in fat but high in protein, calcium, and iron, making it a perfect addition to meals that might otherwise have little nutritional value.

Tofu is also a popular pop culture point. To "eat a woman's tofu" is to play around with her but never commit to a real relationship. A woman called "tofu xishi" or "bean curd beauty" is said to be a very beautiful woman who is born into a poor family.

Much of the traditional Chinese cuisine focuses on these elements. With so much to explore, it is easy to find balance and "he" in your diet daily with this cuisine. Next time you eat, see how your meal fits into this idea of the five flavors.


Read More

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All About Sichuan Cuisine
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