February 10, 2010

The Bitter Truth

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Here in the good old U S of A, we have a flavor problem. As every fourth-grader knows, humans have four basic taste bud regions on our tongue: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. OK, that’s not right — in addition to there being a fifth flavor, the savory protein taste known as umami, the old idea of regions is pretty much bogus. But still, Americans do a pretty bang-up job of using their sweet and salty receptors (chocolate-covered pretzels, anyone?), and we even give sour and savory a good run.

Bitterness, on the other hand, seems mostly relegated to the realm of the literary. Even the world’s most popular edible commodity, coffee, has a tendency in the U.S. to be drowned in cream and sugar (OK, fine, skim milk and Splenda), flavored with syrups, and mixed into caloric concoctions with polysyllabic names. The result? As a nation, Americans follow the sweet + salty = good equation as if it were holy writ and make faces at the mention of Brussels sprouts, kale, and dandelion greens.

Yes, things that are good for you often don’t taste particularly good. But there may have been some survival advantage to this — after all, many poisonous plants contain bitter alkaloids, so for a human foraging in the bushes for something edible, bitterness could mean “no, I don’t want to eat that.”

Of course, not all bitter foods are poisonous. Case in point: Quinine, the bitter aftertaste in tonic water, was effectively used by British imperialists to prevent malaria in Africa and South Asia. Bitter greens like endive are great sources of vitamins and minerals, and even high-cacao chocolate is full of (Magic! Fantastic! Amazing!) antioxidants in addition to the feel-good chemical theobromine. Of course, all but the most hardcore chocoholics go for chocolate with at least some sugar, which greatly masks the cacao’s natural bitterness.

In other parts of the world, bitter foods are considered extremely important, either for their medicinal properties or simply for their taste. Aperitifs in Italy are a notable example — vermouth and herbal bitters are frequently served before a meal. In Sardinia, there is even a bitter honey made from nectar collected from the Corbezzolo shrub.

Since this time of year, between the excesses of Valen­tine’s day and Mardi Gras, is full of rich, sweet foods, I propose that like-minded gastronomes storm local grocery stores and load up on bitter foods. I took a drop-of-the-ID trip to Tops and came out with four excellent examples.

First, of course, is tonic water. Now, as far as I know, there weren’t any traditional unsweetened tonic waters in Tops, but I was able to get a liter bottle for 79 cents that contained corn syrup as a sweetener but enough quinine to give a catch and a tang in the back of my throat. It’s totally possible, and in fact quite tasty, to drink tonic water straight, but there are of course other options, including the obvious (gin) and the sneaky (lime or lemon juice).

Another ‘duh’ is chocolate. Now, you could go for the 82 percent cacao fair trade organic rainforest-saving variety, but I headed for the baking aisle and picked up a half-pound of unsweetened baker’s chocolate (that’s 100 percent) for about three bucks. Pluses and minuses include unadulterated bitterness and the tendency to eat only a teeny little bit at a time.

Next up is a third no-brainer, coffee. I bought some dark-roasted beans and munched on them with a chocolate chaser in the name of Red Letter Daze, but you could go the more obvious route and just brew some coffee. Drip coffee works for the faint of heart, but those who feel more up for a gustatory kick in the teeth can either try making cowboy coffee by boiling up some beans or chicken out and get some espresso.

Maybe the most easily accessible bitter food at this time of year is grapefruit. Yes, it’s sweet and sour as well, but there’s definitely a bitter side, especially if you eat the membrane and white parts. You can also just eat the skin of any citrus fruit (well-washed, of course), either plain or in the form of marmalade.

Unsurprisingly, Tops did not stock Corbezzolo honey, so I will have to try getting it somewhere else, though it looks expensive — on the order of $40-50 a pound. Yikes.

There are, of course, a lot more bitter foods out there, including many of the leafy green variety, and I encourage you to try them out too: This close to Valentine’s day, most everybody could use a little bitter to balance out all the sweet.

Original Author: Kevin Boyd