When the bitter is so very sweet…..

by Ed Halmagyi



If the first, second and third rules of food are balance, then how is it that our sense of taste has become so contrived towards only three sensations: fatty, sweet and salty?

The answer lies partly in biology, partly in evolution and partly in opportunity. Contrary to the content you’ll find in so many school texts, there are not really ‘zones’ of taste sensation in the mouth. The idea that we have ‘sweet’, ‘sour’, ‘bitter’ and ‘salt’ sensitive geography in our tongue was a theoretical construct developed in the 1940’s but one that has since been thoroughly disproved, even if educational authors are slow to catch up.

In fact each of our tastebuds are identical, comprising nine unique sensors. Salty, sweet, butter and sour are certainly four of them, but there are also receptors for fat, piquancy (the way in which vinegar is different to lemon juice) and ‘umami’. Umami is sometimes called the fifth flavour, deriving from a Japanese term identifying the savouriness of food. Some food scientists contend that that is our evolutionary ability to detect protein in food.

But there are two more fine filament receptors in each tastebud that have not yet been categorised, although scientists at a range of universities are working on this exact problem.

Bitterness is the quality that most polarises consumers, although there are also clear cultural differences. Diners in Shanghai, Korea, Italy and the Middle East are far more likely to regularly consume bitter flavours, in the form of leaves, gourds, melons and preserves. Meanwhile, Wester diners have developed preferences for fattier, saltier and sweeter foods.

Mostly this represents the opportunity to consume higher calorie foods. Biologically we are programmed to accumulate and store energy, and fats and sugars are the best way to do this. Yet bitter foods are often more suited to promoting good digestion and better general health.

The best plan is to start incorporating pleasantly bitter flavours such as radicchio and witlof into your weekly menus in place of other vegetables, for a more rounded diet, and improved digestive health.

For a delicious barbecued chicken salad with season bitter leaves, click here.