The Five Flavors and Taoism: Lao Tzu's Verse Twelve
In verse twelve of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu makes a curious claim about the five flavors; namely that they cause people not to taste or that they jade the palate. The five flavors are: sweet, sour, salt, bitter (these four are the elements of taste in the West, recognized by the science of taste) and spicy or hot as in 'heat' (or picante, not caliente). To the Western mind, the claim, 'The five flavors cause them [persons] to not taste,' is counterintuitive; on the contrary, the presence of the five flavors in a dish or in a meal would expand or enhance the senses and the palate, i.e., taste would be augmented by the five flavors. So what is the plausible meaning of the Taoistic claim? To answer this question, I look very briefly at the history of the doctrine of the five flavors and the history of Chinese cuisine. Lao Tzu probably has Confucian feasts in mind in making such a claim, but other interpretations are discussed.