(Originally posted on Sensorium, January 27 2014)
“Eating bitter”: in Chinese culture, the phrase refers to “necessary suffering to get to a better end”—a resigned, determined reaction to the vicissitudes of life.
John Thorne, in his essay “Reflections on a Tin of Vienna Sausages”, understands the phrase in a more head-on, assertive way, as meaning “to endure bitterness by wilfully eating it” (p. 187).
Although the two interpretations are different, both of them link the emotion of bitterness with the flavour.
Like “sweet” and “sour”, bitterness is considered a “basic” flavour, as described in my earlier post, “TWELVE THINGS I DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT TASTE”.
And, like bitterness, the words “sweet” and “sour” can be used to describe emotional states.
(Interestingly, the other two “basic tastes”—salty and umami—are not so easily applied to feelings.)
As an emotion, bitterness is poisonous and debilitating. It corrodes happiness and destroys emotional connections. Bitter feelings tightly bind people to events in the past, crippling their attempts to move forward.
There is simply nothing positive about emotional bitterness.
As a flavour, bitterness doesn’t seem inviting, at least at first. It is acrid, sharp. I imagine that, if it were a shape, it would be spiky and threatening.
In fact, many poisons are bitter. For safety’s sake, sometimes poisonous liquids (bright red liquid soap that smells like strawberries, for instance) are made unappealing to children by the addition of extra repellant bitter flavours, Barb Stuckey tells us in Taste: What You’re Missing (p. 199).
Bitterness receptors help to protect us from poisons. Because those receptors are concentrated at the back of our tongue, they can trigger a gag reaction.
Stuckey explains the complicated physiological apparatus:
Humans have only one or two [types of] taste receptors for sweet, but dozens of taste receptors for bitter because we need to be broadly and instantly aware of stuff that can kill us …
Many things in food taste bitter. Unlike the sour taste, which comes only from acids, bitter compounds include amino acids, peptides, esters, lactone, phenols, polyphenols, flavonoids, terpenes, methylxanthines (caffeine), sulfimides (saccharin), and salts. This is why we need so many different receptors. (p. 197)
But bitterness doesn’t always indicate poison, and bitter flavours are enjoyed by many cultures.
European palates, for instance, appreciate vegetables like kale, radicchio, chicory or dandelion greens. Across many European countries, diners drink bitter liqueurs as aperitifs before meals, or digestifs after eating.
Campari, made in Florence, is a liqueur enjoyed around the world. Its components include a range of bitter ingredients: orange peel, rhubarb, quinine, and herbs.
The second largest selling bitter liqueur is Cynar, also made in Italy. One of its essential flavourings is artichoke leaves—a vegetable in the spiky shape that matches my mental image of what “bitterness” would look like.
Typically, taste preferences of Americans (and probably Australians) tend to sweetness. A bitter soft-drink like the Italian Chinotto is unlikely to replace Coca-Cola anytime soon.
In fact, Stuckey reports that only 5-8 percent of calories consumed by people in highly developed countries are classified as “bitter”. She suggests that, over centuries, this preference might result in loss of bitter receptors (p. 198).
Tastes may be shifting a little. A new acceptance of bitter greens began in high-level nutrition, but those “super foods—such as kale—are now diffusing to readers of popular recipe magazines.
Simultaneously, a renewed interest in classic cocktails is reviving drinkers’ appreciation for the complex flavour experiences created by adding a few drops of bitters.
Stuckey notes the complexity that bitterness can add to a medley of flavours:
Our lazy palates easily accept sweet foods, but sweetness with a ‘just about right’ level of bitterness makes you stop and think, Hmmmmmm, there’s something interesting going on there. (p. 201)
But acculturation isn’t the only reason why some people like bitterness and others don’t. Individuals within the same culture demonstrate different levels of sensitivity to bitter tastes, based partly on their physiology.
Stuckey explains that Supertasters or HyperTasters—the 20-35 percent of the population with densely packed taste buds and high levels of sensitivity to any flavour—may find bitter foods to be almost intolerable (p. 19).
However, even though many people at first reject bitter tastes, they often later come to appreciate them.
One case in point is the bitter melon, a lumpy-skinned relative of cucumbers and zucchini, popular under various names in South East Asia, India, Japan (especially in Okinawa), and the West Indies.
A Google search will turn up many references to its being “an acquired taste”.
If you scan on-line comments about bitter melon—as I have—you will read things like:
• “I never appreciated it, and I probably never will”;
• “Made it this week to try to acquire a taste for it. No luck yet”; and
• “Bitter melon remains, in my 28 years of eating, the only food I’ve reflexively spat as far as possible. I didn’t know anything could taste that nasty.”
But you will also find other opinions along the lines of:
• “just viscerally crave it”;
• “but then one day it just clicked and I loved it”; and
• “Bitter melon did take some getting used to at first, but now I crave it.”
(All these comments come from responses to Chichi Wang’s bitter melon recipe in Seriously Asian, a section of the Serious Eats website.)
As with many bitter foods across many cultures, bitter melon has a reputation as a curative. Medical research certainly endorses its benefits for diabetics.
Another bitter plant extract with proven medicinal effectiveness is quinine; broccoli and other members of the Brassica family are also full of valuable nutrients that fight cancer and boost the immune system.
So—unfortunately for reluctant eaters—it turns out that mothers are right when they scold: “Eat your greens! They’re good for you!”
A fun project called The National Bitter Melon Council (NBMC), established in 2005 in the South End Neighbourhood of Boston, creatively explored links among bitterness-the-flavour, bitterness-the-emotion, and bitter melon’s health-giving powers.
The area has large numbers of Asian residents, many of whom grow bitter melons in community gardens. But, as the organisation’s 2005 media release explained, local restaurants—and other residents—were unfamiliar with the vegetable.
Bitter melon became a tool to heal social divisions created by different cultures and unfamiliarity:
Bitter Melon Week explored the idea of community and how community can be created through difference and foreignness. It was a performance art and community-building event that engaged South End residents and visitors in culinary contemplation … Unity through bitterness!
One of the activities developed in the following year was “Bitter Melon Homeopathy for Urban Renewal”, a seed-bombing campaign aimed at “neglected urban spaces”, in order to “‘cure’ the bitter sentiments” lurking there. Another was a tongue-in-cheek, on-line “Meyers-Bitter Survey”, based on the Meyers-Briggs questionnaire, with questions such as:
• Can good lighting make everyone look beautiful?
• Is failure always an opportunity to grow?
• Would you ever eat a green egg?
• Is it worth it to walk a half mile just to pet the baby pigs?
I stumbled over the National Bitter Melon Council’s website while researching this blog post, and—far from feeling bitter—I feel moved and optimistic that such a humble vegetable could be the focus of creative, sustained community building like this.
Clearly, “bitter” does have surprisingly strong healing powers.
• Discover what sort of a Taster you are by completing Barb Stuckey’s quiz. Are you a Tolerant Taster, Taster, or Hypertaster?
(Linked with kind permission of Barb Stuckey)
Stuckey’s book has many more activities designed to teach each of us more about our sense of taste. Her “bitterness” activities include:
• “Taste what You’re Missing: The Bitter Masking Power of Salt” (p. 194)
• “Taste what You’re Missing: Adjusting the Bitterness of Coffee” (p. 211)
• “Differentiating Bitter from Sour” (pp. 212-213)
• Cook Beef with Sauteed Mushrooms and Bitter Melon from the Phillipines, as demonstrated by chef Peter Kuravita on his SBS television show. Click here for the recipe and video.
Note how the bitter flavours are matched with “counterpoint tastes such as sweet, sour, and salt”, just as Barb Stuckey suggests (p. 204). The emulsified butter in the sauce also mellows the bitterness. This follows the same principle pointed out by Stuckey when she writes about the effect of cream in coffee: “Fat adds a desirable, creamy mouthfeel that coats the tongue and makes the coffee taste less bitter” (p. 200).
UPDATE: I cooked my bitter melons using a recipe in which they were stuffed with a highly flavoured chicken mince, then cooked in a red-curry and coconut cream sauce. Yes, the melon was bitter, but I am really pleased to say that I found the bitterness balanced by the other flavours and creaminess. I can understand why people crave the bitterness. It really is another dimension of flavour.
- Thea Dikeos, “Humble Vegie May End Diabetes Fight”, ABC News, March 26 2008, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2008-03-26/humble-vegie-may-end-diabetes-fight/1083716, accessed January 23 2014.
- Barb Stuckey, 2012, Taste: What You’re Missing: The Passionate Eater’s Guide to why Good Food Tastes Good, Free Press, New York.
- John Thorne, 2011, “Reflections on a Tin of Vienna Sausages”, in Best Food Writing 2011, ed. Holly Hughes, Lifelong Books, Philadelphia, pp. 184-187.
- Information on the National Bitter Melon Council was sourced from their website, which no longer exists. However, they have a great FaceBook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-National-Bitter-Melon-Council/193308832522