Bitter foods have been given a bad rap in Western society. But they have many health benefits, and can actually taste great.
Befriend the bitters and reap the rewards
In my neighbourhood, edible weeds are popping up everywhere including in my own my backyard. Under the kids’ trampoline out of the lawnmower’s reach, I find dandelion greens, sow thistle, billy goat weed, sheep sorrel, and wild carrot, among other largely unknown yet freely available sources of nutrition*. At the farmer’s market I uncover a similar array: mustard greens, endive, chicory, kale, parsley, rocket.
What do all of these plants have in common?
They’re all bitter, sour and/or pungent. Most Westerners severely neglect these flavour elements in favour of more sweet and salty tasting foods.
Bitter foods are particularly neglected. It’s no coincidence that processes supported by the bitter flavour like liver detoxification and digestion, are some of the most problematic areas of health for Westerners!
Ask any acupuncturist which imbalance they see most in their practice and they will probably answer liver qi stagnation, which is treated with bitter herbs and foods, among other things.
So why eat bitter herbs?
Unfortunately, many of us were taught from a young age that bitter, sour, and pungent foods are yucky. Take notoriously bitter Brussels sprouts. For many of us these were boiled, steamed, or microwaved, instead of roasted in butter to a divinely caramelised, crunchy softness!
Bitter foods stimulate the production of gastric acid in the stomach, helping you to digest and absorb more of the nutrients in your food. They contain sulfur-based compounds which support the natural detoxification pathways in your liver. They stimulate metabolism, fight free radicals, and stimulate immune function. What’s not to love!
Similarly, sour foods stimulate digestion, but they also support circulation and elimination, and increase absorption of minerals such as iron. The vitamin C in sour lemon juice increases your absorption of iron from both plant and animal sources of this mineral. This is a great reason to add lemon juice to your green salads.
The pungent taste can be very hot like that found in chilli, warm like that in garlic, cinnamon or ginger, or cool like that in peppermint. All are wonderful digestives as well as ways to make a meal more delicious, aromatic, and interesting.
Scared you can’t hack the bitter truth? Start with a little parsley sprinkled on your meal, or try a few rocket leaves in a salad with some olive oil and salt. You might find that the more you eat bitter, sour, and pungent foods, the more you’ll want to eat them.
The therapeutic use of flavours
In traditions like Chinese medicine and Ayurveda it has long been known that the flavour of a food provides valuable insights into the actions and medicinal properties of that food. For example the bitter flavour of dandelion leaves reduces both heat and damp conditions – think infections and inflammation. Keep in mind that the flavour describes the therapeutic property of the food rather than the taste you experience on your tongue.
The five basic tastes in Traditional Chinese Medicine are sweet, salty, sour, pungent, and bitter. Ayurveda adds a sixth taste to this list: astringent.
The Western diet provides an abundance of the first two tastes. Currently, bitter tastes are usually only encountered in beer, coffee, tea, and chocolate. But we can introduce the other flavours to our meals – in fact, doing so can elevate the entire experience of eating. As a child my mum (who is Chinese) served us vegetables like bitter melon (which is nothing but bitter!) sautéed in garlic, salt, and sesame oil; it’s a dish I still love to this day. This was an accompaniment to the sweetness of jasmine rice and the sweet saltiness of steamed chicken. Sliced chilli, pungent spring onions, cabbage, and other side dishes rounded out the flavour profile of the meal.
In both Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, the hallmark of a balanced meal is the inclusion of all of the flavours, whereas Western nutrition tends to refer to the balance of macronutrients (carbohydrates, fat, and protein). From a nutritional science perspective, sweet and salty foods provide carbohydrate, fat, protein, and water, whereas the bitter, sour, pungent, and astringent foods are high in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. We need all of the flavours for optimal health and enjoyment of food.
Overview of the five flavours
Sweet fruits (e.g. mango), grains, milk, cooked root vegetables (e.g. carrots, sweet potato)
Builds and strengthens all body tissues, calms the nervous system.
Natural salts, sea vegetables, foods with added salt
Mild laxative, in small amounts stimulates digestion, maintains mineral balance.
Sour fruits (e.g. raspberries), yoghurt, fermented foods (e.g. sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi)
Stimulates digestion, supports circulation and elimination, increases absorption of minerals such as iron.
Dark leafy greens, zucchini, eggplant, bitter melon, turmeric, dandelion root, and leaves
Supports liver detoxification and has antibiotic and anti-parasitic properties. Decreases water retention. Helps to calm the mind.
Chilli, garlic, onions, and spices such as black pepper, ginger, cloves.
Stimulates digestion and metabolism, promotes sweating and detoxification and aids circulation.
Flavours have the power to attune us to the seasons and bring our bodies into balance. As an experiment, become mindful of the selection of flavours in your food, allowing your body and intuition to direct your choices.
By including all of the flavours in a meal, you’re going to feel very satisfied. It’s an art and a form of self-love to cook ourselves food that involves all the five flavours, and to eat with awareness, allowing ourselves to enjoy and have fun with our food. Now excuse me while I duck out to pick some greens from under the trampoline.
* Please note: If foraging for wild edible plants, always be sure you have correctly identified them before eating them.
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