Humans share the ability to discern several types of taste. We used to think there were 4 basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Then the Japanese came along and introduced us to umame or savory. There has been recent research showing there may be a 6th and more tastes out there, as well as talk of classifying ‘spicy’ and ‘fat’ as tastes in their own right.
We are very familiar with our two favorites: sweet and salty. Pickle lovers, lemonade drinkers and green apple crunchers love the sour flavors that make salivary glands tingle. But the flavor that gets overlooked, especially in American cuisine, is bitter. We associate some medicines as being bitter, and the taste as being unpleasant. But each of the flavors we can detect is there for a reason. We have evolved to detect the presence of carbohydrates with sweet, of minerals with salt, and of vitamins with sour. Savory indicates the presence of protein. Bitter is the most sensitive of the tastes. It alerts us to the presence of toxins in very small amounts, giving us an early warning system. Leaf-eating primates tend to favor the less bitter young leaves that have more protein and higher fiber.
But bitter is also there to stimulate our digestive juices. It is the flavor of fresh greens in the Springtime, and bitter tonics meant to help digestion. “Bitters“, an alcohol-based tincture flavored with herbs and aromatics is an addition to many cocktails such as the Bloody Mary, Long Island Iced Tea, and Old Fashioned. (Mix a splash in with some cream cheese for a delicious spread for crackers.) Speaking of cocktails, Quinine is the standard against which bitterness is measured. You may enjoy a touch of quinine in your drinks if you like a nice Gin and Tonic, as quinine is the flavoring for tonic.
Bitter foods include unsweetened coffee, chocolate, and tea; beer and stout, parsley and some other vegetables. (Parsley is used as the ‘bitter herb’ in Passover dinners.) Spring greens such as arugula, dandelion and chicory can add a nice bitter bite to your springtime salads.
I was just having a conversation about dark chocolate with one of my students today. She was saying she didn’t really like it that dark, and I was explaining that it was an acquired taste. “The thing you have to understand,” I explained, “is that the darker it is, the more pure the dose of CHOCOLATE you are getting. There isn’t any milk or other stuff to get in the way!” I could tell she didn’t get it, but she will.
Learn to embrace all of your senses and all of the flavors you can perceive. Enjoy a green salad with plenty of fresh bitter leaves, have a beer, eat some dark chocolate, or enjoy some tonic with lime. Who knows, you might just learn to love the bitter taste of life!