Recipes from the Herbalist's Kitchen: Delicious, Nourishing Food for Lifelong Health and Well-BeingHardcover (2024)

Read an Excerpt


awaken The Healing Power of Food

Most of us live disembodied lives — that is, we are out of touch with our body. We are not taught how to listen to our body or how to decipher and make meaning of how we feel when our body is trying to speak to us. Awakening to that communication — to how our body speaks to us — is an essential step in the journey to health.

Herbs, whether traditionally used in culinary or medicinal preparations, have tremendous power to influence the body and its systems. We can use herbs (and all food) to support our health and well-being, but before we can truly benefit from them, we have to learn how our body reacts to them. The interplay between herbs, the body, and healing has its own language. Learn to speak that language and you will be able to communicate, problem-solve, and create better harmony within your body. Just memorizing a list of herbs and their uses is like memorizing vocabulary words: it will give you tools to use while speaking, but it won't help you learn how to communicate. We learn to speak a language when it becomes embedded in us, natural, a part of our senses and our understandings, when we really feel comfortable in it and begin to live it. When it comes to learning the language of the body and how we can nourish and comfort it with food, medicine, experiences, relationships, and all the other factors that contribute to our well-being, personal experience is the most powerful teacher. This means that collecting ingredients, dreaming up what we want to eat, poring over recipe books, chopping, smelling, tasting, and enjoying are all experiences that help us learn to communicate and build a deep and intimate relationship with our own bodies. Personal connection to our body and our own experience is foundational for health and well-being.

Taste as Medicine

For thousands of years, medical systems from around the world — traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, Native American healing practices, and other folk and herbal traditions — have focused on the body's response to taste as a means of understanding and applying herbal therapeutics and the ways in which diet supports health. Modern science has come to support this time-tested wisdom, providing evidence of two important points: first, that the taste of an herb can serve as an indicator of its constituents, and second, that stimulation of the taste buds by the different flavors initiates specific physiological responses. In other words, the taste of an herb both indicates and initiates an effect on the body.

Our sense of taste, then, can allow us to build a more empowered relationship with food, plant medicine, and our own body. Once you understand the medicinal actions that the different tastes have on physiology, you can begin to build a new relationship with your palate and with the herbs, foods, and drinks that you ingest. Rather than memorizing the benefits of a food or herb, you can learn to let your taste buds reveal information about its applications. You can learn to trust yourself in determining whether a particular food or herb is helpful for your particular needs. You can also begin to understand more generally which situations and contexts call for which flavors and draw conclusions about foods and herbs that may be useful.

In general, tastes can be broken down into five categories: sweet, salty, sour, pungent, and bitter. Every meal you eat should include all five flavors. You don't need a lot; in some cases a condimentsize portion is fine. (And you'll find lots of condiment recipes in this book, because having them made up in advance makes it easier to balance your plate!) Another important thing to remember is that herbs and foods can have more than one taste. A carrot, for example, might be mostly sweet, but with a hint of bitterness. A green apple might taste both sour and sweet. And produce can vary depending on the variety, the time of year, the crop, or the part of the plant used.

As you gain experience with using taste as a guide, you will begin to trust your instincts; you will learn to better understand the language of your body. Your experience will help you learn to balance your diet in a very direct and personal manner, rather than simply trying to get on your plate everything that you have heard is "good for you." This awakening of your sense of taste can help guide you in the kitchen and at the table, allowing you to enjoy your meals and make food choices with a more empowered appreciation for the ways in which they nourish you.

Note: Every healing system that uses tastes and flavors as indicators of medicinal action on the body is unique, and in many cases there are large differences between how they are understood and their applications. The descriptions that follow are informed by my study of traditional healing systems and my own experience as a practicing herbalist. You will find that they do not stand in perfect alignment with any one traditional system of medicine. I am grateful to all of these systems for their knowledge and wisdom.


The sweet taste is the most nourishing. We think of sweet as being sugary, but as a category, sweet also includes bland foods. Most of the world's staple foods, including starches and animal-based proteins, fall into this category. Most of our common culinary herbs, however, are not categorized as sweet. In fact we most often use culinary herbs to counterbalance the sweet taste of our staple nourishing foods and bring balance to the flavors of a dish.

Sweet foods are staples of the human diet for a reason: the sweet (or bland) taste indicates a high nutrient content, with fat, protein, carbohydrates, and often good quantities of vitamins and minerals. In other words, sweet/bland foods are high-calorie foods — they provide short- and long-term energy for the body. They are nutritive and regenerative; they provide all the building blocks for growth and help the body build, repair, and sustain energy. They supply nutrients that strengthen muscles, bones, nerves, and connective tissues and build body fluids including blood, sem*n, and milk. They are mostly demulcent, emollient, moistening, softening, and soothing, having a gentle and nourishing effect on the system.

Too much sweet food in the diet can cause dampness in the system, leading to sluggish digestion, poor absorption of nutrients, reduced appetite, bloating, stagnant circulation and elimination, increased mucus production, low energy, and difficulty focusing. Refined carbohydrates and foods sweetened with refined sugars are most likely to aggravate the body and cause such symptoms.

When you find yourself craving sugar, turn to high-quality unrefined carbohydrates and naturally sweet foods like fruit, and balance them with protein-rich foods. The combination will satiate the craving, provide the body with sustained energy, and help reduce sugar cravings overall.

In addition to being the most nourishing, sweet foods are the heaviest. You may be able to sense that fact by the list of symptoms that occur when you eat too much; slow and sluggish seems to be the theme. That heaviness also means that sweet foods are grounding and comforting; they help the body relax and are great for people who often feel cold, dry, nervous, and restless. After all, what could be more comforting than feeling nourished?

Since these foods are the most nourishing, they should comprise a significant portion of most people's diet — but make sure you're getting good-quality, unprocessed sweet/bland foods. Because sweet foods are heavier and can be more difficult to digest, it is important to dress them up with herbs, spices, and other flavorful accompaniments that are more stimulating and help improve their digestibility. In other words, sweet foods alone or in excess can have negative consequences, but when combined with all the other wonderful flavors that are more stimulating to the system, they become more nutritious and easier for the body to process.


• Animal fats

• Eggs

• Fruit juices

• Fruits (pears, figs, dates, apricots, mangoes, bananas, prunes, peaches)

• Grains (wheat, oats, barley, rice, corn, quinoa, millet)

• Meat and fish

• Milk and cream

• Milk substitutes (except soy)

• Nuts and seeds

• Root crops (sweet potatoes, beets, parsnips, carrots)

• Sweeteners (cane sugar, honey, maple syrup)

• Winter squashes


• Astragalus

• Cinnamon

• Codonopsis

• Fennel

• Goji berry

• Licorice

• Marshmallow

• Shatavari


The salty taste is heavy, grounding, moistening, soothing, and warming. In moderation the salty taste promotes digestion and appetite and improves our absorption of nutrients. But too much can overstimulate digestion and irritate acid reflux, heartburn, and indigestion. It can also irritate other symptoms of heat in the body, including inflammation, tissue irritation, nerve irritation, and skin rashes. Too much salty food can even make some people feel irritable and agitated.

Salt causes the body to retain fluids. Healthy fluid levels are necesary to hydrate the cells, dilute phlegm, and soften hard and dense materials that can clog the body's channels and cause stagnation. It helps move fluids, cleanse, moisten, and detoxify; it can help dissolve fatty or fluid-filled cysts and can be useful for cleansing the blood, lymph, liver, and kidneys. Too much salt, however, can lead to excessive water retention, edema, swelling, stagnant blood, and increased blood pressure.

Salt increases and enhances our taste buds' experiences of other flavors, which makes it a valuable asset in cooking — and also explains its overuse in fast food and processed, packaged foods. Because the salty taste is grounding, salty foods in moderation can be beneficial for people who have a lightness of being that leads to ungroundedness, anxiety, or feeling flustered. It is good for nervous people or people who are prone to dryness, including dry skin, hair, or nails. It may also be good for those with weak digestion or low appetite. It is important for detoxification protocols, hydration, and general good health.

There are different kinds of salt, and the quality is important. Unrefined, unprocessed salt is the best, most nourishing salt for the body. Rather than just sodium chloride, unrefined salt contains minerals and trace minerals that are nutritionally important. The minerals tend to give unrefined salts a bit of color, ranging from gray to pink, green, or any shade in between. The body metabolizes and utilizes this salt better than refined, simplified sodium chloride. Unrefined salt can be sourced from either land or sea. Both forms are wonderful — it's the unrefined quality that's important.

While the saltiest flavor comes from true salt, whether refined or unrefined, many foods and herbs have a naturally salty flavor to them. Foods that taste naturally salty generally have high levels of minerals. Sea vegetables are a great example because they have both true salt and mineral salt flavors. The first taste will be salty from ocean water, but once that subsides you will taste the salty taste of minerals. Celery, Swiss chard, and spinach are other examples of naturally salty, high-mineral vegetables.

Foods that display the mineral salt flavor are deeply nourishing to the musculoskeletal system, including the bones, muscles, and ligaments, as well as the blood and nervous system tissues. These tissues need sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium for proper functioning — minerals that these herbs and foods often contain in high amounts.


• Anchovies

• Celery

• Hard cheeses

• Nettles

• Olives

• Sea vegetables (kelp, alaria, dulse, wakame)

• Smoked meats and fish

• Spinach

• Swiss chard


• Celery seed

• Cilantro

• Coriander seed

• Cumin seed

• Dill seed

• Lovage

• Parsley


The sour flavor is toning, contracting, cooling, and moistening. It causes contraction of tissues and strengthens and tones mucous membranes. This has an astringing effect that prevents leakage of fluids and energy and helps firm up tissue integrity. It can tonify and build up the tissues of the GI tract, urinary tract, lungs, and liver. It has a refreshing effect, stimulating the mind, enhancing metabolism, and stimulating the liver and gallbladder. It increases the flow of saliva and other digestive juices, which stimulates the appetite, improves digestion and absorption, and regulates peristalsis. It is particularly helpful in the digestion of fats, oils, and protein-rich foods. It also works to break up and improve assimilation of minerals; this may be the reason, in part, that traditional preparations of mineral-rich dark, leafy greens — think of kale and collards — so often include citrus or vinegar.

The sour flavor comes from a variety of acids, including citric acid, tannic acid, and ascorbic acid. Fermented foods, with their acetic and lactic acids, are also sour, as are many kinds of fruits, from grapes to citrus. Of course, sour foods can have other flavors as well, as is the case with many fermented foods, which are also salty, or many fruits, which are also sweet.

While the sour flavor is cooling in small amounts, large amounts, whether consumed all at once or over time, can cause heat, aggravating excessive acidity in the upper GI tract (acid reflux, heartburn, indigestion). In folks with an already fast metabolism, it can spur hunger and symptoms of low blood sugar, possibly leading to irritation and agitation. Too much sour can also lead to skin issues, including acne, boils, eczema, and psoriasis, and it can aggravate arthritic conditions and cause oversensitivity of the teeth.

According to Chinese medicine, the sour flavor is said to promote balance between the heart and the mind, steadying a scattered mind and emotions. In Ayurveda the sour flavor is said to lead to the desire for more — more food, more thoughts, and more inquisitiveness, for example. In people who lack motivation or have undirected energy, the sour taste may provide some inspiration and focus. Too much can lead to overanalysis of thoughts and emotions, jealousy, competitiveness, and envy.

Sour foods are great in spring because they stimulate the release of bile from the liver and gallbladder, which has a detoxifying and stimulating effect on overall liver metabolism. They're also helpful in fall; because they have a contracting nature that pulls energy inward, sour foods encourage the body's natural turn inward and help the body preserve heat in preparation for the colder months.

With their digestion-enhancing effects, sour foods are great complements to fatty foods, proteins, and mineral-rich vegetables. I like to include a sour condiment, often a fermented one, at each meal. Condiment-size portions are enough to introduce the health benefits of the flavor — and to introduce the probiotic bacteria in the case of the fermented foods — without overdoing it, which could cause irritation or aggravation.


• Berries (raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries)

• Citrus (oranges, grapefruits, lemons, limes, pomelos)

• Fermented dairy (yogurt, sour cream, kefir, aged cheese)

• Fermented sausages (salami, linguiça, chorizo, prosciutto)

• Some fruits (green apples, green grapes, plums)

• Kombucha

• Miso

• Pickled and fermented vegetables

• Pomegranates

• Tomatoes

• Vinegar

• Wine


• Hawthorn berry

• Hibiscus

• Rose hips

• Rose petals

• Schizandra berry

• Sorrel


The pungent category includes spicy, acrid, and aromatic flavors. Pungent herbs and foods are warming, drying, light, and dispersive. They are stimulating, and like sour and bitter herbs and foods, they are used in cooking for balancing heavier flavors like sweet and salty. Consider, as examples, Indian curries with meats and cheeses, cinnamon added to applesauce, ginger in cake, sage or rosemary with roasted meats, or hot peppers in chili and other bean dishes.

The warming nature of pungent herbs and foods stimulates digestion and assimilation. Those pungent herbs that are also aromatic, like most culinary herbs (think of black pepper, ginger, and sage), help relax the GI tract and relieve gas and bloating. This makes them especially helpful in digesting more astringent-tasting foods that are often gas forming, like beans and brassicas.


Excerpted from "Recipes from the Herbalist's Kitchen"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Brittany Wood Nickerson.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Recipes from the Herbalist's Kitchen: Delicious, Nourishing Food for Lifelong Health and Well-BeingHardcover (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Saturnina Altenwerth DVM

Last Updated:

Views: 5622

Rating: 4.3 / 5 (44 voted)

Reviews: 91% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Saturnina Altenwerth DVM

Birthday: 1992-08-21

Address: Apt. 237 662 Haag Mills, East Verenaport, MO 57071-5493

Phone: +331850833384

Job: District Real-Estate Architect

Hobby: Skateboarding, Taxidermy, Air sports, Painting, Knife making, Letterboxing, Inline skating

Introduction: My name is Saturnina Altenwerth DVM, I am a witty, perfect, combative, beautiful, determined, fancy, determined person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.