Evolving Our Palates


Bitter flavors have crept into the contemporary palate. Above, from left, Swiss chard, hops, bitter melon, aloe and wasabi root (all rendered in white chocolate) rest on a turmeric-dusted cube. Credit Photograph by Mari Maeda and Yuji Oboshi. Styled by Suzy Kim. White chocolate 3D food by Peter Zaharatos/SugarCube

Our palates are evolutionarily oriented away from these flavors, but we appreciate the opportunity to decide for ourselves when we might want some alternative sensations:

The Sweet Rewards of Bitter Food

MANY YEARS AGO, I had dinner at a restaurant in Chinatown in Boston — the sort of city where most non-Chinese people seeking Chinese food are in fact seeking what might better be described as American Chinese food: General Tso’s chicken, fried pork dumplings, “house special” lo mein; mild, comforting Cantonese dishes slick with sauce and loud with sugar, salt and the intense umami buzz of MSG. In an attempt to be adventurous, I ordered instead the most unusual thing I could find on the menu: beef with bitter melon. The waitress looked at me, her brow furrowed. “You don’t want that,” she declared. “You won’t like it.”

“I do!” I insisted. “I’ve had it before.” A little while later, she returned with a dish of beef strewn with crescents of a jade-hued, scallop-ridged, firm-textured fruit that looked not unlike oversize celery. The truth was, I’d never had it before. As advertised, it was bitter, in a distinctly vegetal way, with none of the fruity sweetness that the word “melon” would imply. I took a bite, then another, and another — in a different context I might have stopped, but my reputation was on the line. By the time I was finished, the melon hadn’t become more palatable, exactly, but my palate had changed. What had tasted like bitterness now tasted like pride.

WHY DO HUMANS eat bitter foods? Our bodies crave sugar, salt, fat, protein — all forms of replenishment or efficient providers of caloric energy. When something tastes bad, we’re meant to take it as a warning sign: danger, don’t eat this, it could kill you. And yet two of the five sensations we’ve universally categorized as tastes are, arguably, bad ones: sour and bitter. Then there’s spicy food, whose flavor can be so extreme that it actually qualifies as a form of pain instead of a taste. But the discomfort of eating a superhot chili pepper can also be physiologically compared — for some people, at least — to riding a roller coaster or watching a horror movie. It’s a pain we perversely crave, a feeling that’s as pleasurable as it is uncomfortable. Super-sour foods, too, can offer a kind of exhilarating rush. There’s something addictive about the tangy, mouth-puckering effect: Watch a baby suck on a lemon for the first time, burst into tears and then go back for more; try to resist a bag of Warheads or sour gummies.

Flavor, then, needn’t be pleasant for it to be attractive. But the appeal of bitterness is less obvious — unlike spicy and sour foods, the sensation has never been much of a selling point, at least not in America. If the physical impulse when eating sour foods is to suck in your cheeks, bitterness hits hard on the back of your tongue and, in excess, makes you gag. And yet this taste has long been an integral element in the cuisines of many other countries and cultures, which are starting to gain real traction here. The current trend for Middle Eastern food, for example, means more eggplant, even when roasted until caramelized; tahini, made from naturally bitter sesame seeds; and za’atar, an herb and spice mixture heavy on wild thyme and oregano. The movement toward more authentic Mexican food introduced mole, a Oaxacan sauce whose primary ingredients are tomatoes and alliums, charred until earthy and blended, and has made cilantro as common as basil.

As difficult as it is to trace the origin stories of the use of bitter ingredients, it seems safe to assume that it was often the result of necessity: In times of scarcity, you learn to make do with anything edible. Over time, however, eating bitter foods became not only traditional but in some cases even philosophical, revealing of a culture’s resilience: In China, there is a colloquialism that translates literally to “eat bitter,” a metaphor for the ability to endure hardship. Jews eat bitter herbs, usually horseradish, at Passover seders, to remind themselves of the suffering endured by their ancestors. On the Japanese island of Okinawa, a ubiquitous stir-fry of egg, tofu, pork and bitter melon called goya chanpuru is thought to ensure longevity — suffering in service of a long life.

It’s hard not to see the current worldwide health-food craze as being a convoluted translation of this: If beauty is pain, health, you might say, is bitter. Conscientious eaters choose salads overflowing with raw kale or collard greens; frothy, chalky matcha and “golden lattes” tinged with pungent turmeric. These things are nutritious, yes, but there’s also a psychological element: Bitterness equals raw, which in turn equals purity. Adding sweetness to your coffee or chocolate is a corruption of this purity. And, as with my bitter melon experience, eating bitterness can be a brag: How better to prove your connoisseurship than ordering something whose pleasures are either obscure or nonexistent? To order a drink with no trace of sweetness — say, a hoppy India pale ale or a straight shot of the Italian amaro known as Fernet-Branca, dark, viscous, herbal — is to announce one’s fortitude and disdain for instant gratification. Nothing worth doing is easy, and nothing worth consuming goes down easy. In an age of ready pleasures, choosing something difficult and unlikable is an announcement of sophistication. The craze is born, you might say, from having too much enjoyment…

Read the whole article here.

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