Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
Human beings are able to detect five basic flavor sensations: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami.
Sweet requires no description. Everyone starts life with an affinity for sweetness, whether it’s sweetened beverages, baked goods, candies or fruits. In the 50th, we tend to also have an affinity for the salty. Friends from the Mainland often tell me that our local dishes tend to be on the salty side, whether it’s flavored with shoyu, fish sauce or plain old table salt. Maybe it’s because our temperate climate causes us to perspire more compared to those in the upper 49 and we’re trying to replace those lost minerals. Or maybe it’s just that we have saltier palates.
We also like our sour, which has kept the crack seed stores in business selling li hing mui, lemon peel and sour gummy candies.
Umami is the fifth sensation. It describes the savory qualities of certain foods and has only been used to describe a flavor in the past decade or so.
But bitter as a flavor? I don’t know of anyone who naturally gravitates toward a bitter flavor sensation. The fact that bitterness is the most sensitive taste sensation may have something to do with a natural warning system to prehistoric man that what you have in your mouth is poisonous, so spit it out! If that is the case, why do I enjoy bitter flavors?
When the British Crown governed India in the mid-1850s, the long journey there resulted in scurvy, a disease caused by a deficiency in vitamin C, due in part to the lack of fresh fruits on those ships. Those Brits who were fortunate enough to have made the journey unscathed found themselves in the land of malaria, however.
Thankfully, the indigenous people knew about the cinchona plant, also known as the fever tree. A substance in the tree’s bark called quinine prevented the dreaded fever and chills of malaria. It was later discovered that quinine could both prevent and treat malaria. But quinine was a naturally bitter compound that most Brits found hard to tolerate, so the government created a concoction of gin, sugar, lime juice and quinine to help, in the words of Mary Poppins, “make the medicine go down.”
Fast forward to the late ’70s and early ’80s when a certain college student with the initials RT started imbibing a mixture of gin and tonic water with a squeeze of lime instead of Heineken like his co-ed buddies. RT (that’s me) eventually sought out tonic water fortified with more than the minimum amount of quinine and is only lightly sweetened so as not to mask that piquant bitterness of both the gin and tonic water.
I didn’t stop at gin and tonic, however. Eventually, I found another libation that logarithmically stimulated those bitter taste buds: the Negroni.
Originally created from equal parts of gin, sweet red vermouth and that palate-bracing aperitif, Campari — which takes bitterness into the stratosphere — I’ve created my own version using primarily dry white vermouth. The original recipe balanced the bitter Campari against the sweet and herbal red vermouth.
Occasionally, I enjoy an aperitif, a before-dinner libation to stimulate the appetite, and a digestif, an after-dinner libation to stimulate digestion. What they have in common are the varying degrees of bitterness balanced with herbal infusions and just a hint of sweetness. These amaro (Italian, meaning “bitter”) can be enjoyed simply chilled, on the rocks or mixed as cocktails.
My current favorites include Maurin Quina, created from a maceration of cherries, quinine and bitter almonds. Served on the rocks, it’s the perfect drink to start a summertime barbecue. Another of my favorites, Cynar, is created from artichokes and 13 secret herbs that I use as a base for cocktails. Finally, there’s Tempus Fugit Gran Classico, which is made from 25 herbs and roots that I use to make a White Negroni in place of the Campari.
The Main Course
The following obsession is more nurture than nature. I used to detest even the sight of nigagori (or nigauri), or bitter melon, because it looked like a pale cucumber with a social affliction. Back in my undergraduate days, I used to tell my parents that when nature wants you to eat a certain food, it creates something that looks delicious and that the first bite you take is a burst of sweetness. You know, like a strawberry, which is brilliant red and very sweet . . . all to help nature disperse those seeds.
But when nature doesn’t want you to eat something, it creates an ugly, pale green bumpy melon. Now, if that isn’t enough to convince you not to take a bite, nature made it bitter as all heck. And, to make matters worse, if you pick it too late, those reddish seeds take on the appearance of some alien life form ready to conquer Earth.
But life goes on and our palates change. I used to really dislike cilantro, but now I flavor my food with cilantro — in fact, it’s one of the primary ingredients in dishes I prepare. And I can’t get enough of bitter melon: I like it stir-fried, stuffed, deep fried, even dried as chips. And if it didn’t go on “sale” for $3.99 a pound, I would probably eat it every week.
I also like bitter greens like sautéed broccoli rabe (rapini) with garlic, endive and radicchio in salads and fennel bulbs either thinly sliced in salads or coarsely chopped and oven-roasted. My favorite standby salad to order in any French restaurant is Salade Lyonnaise with bitter frisee to balance the rich lardons (crispy cubed pork belly) and runny egg yolk. And one of the best greens for pesto is mature arugula, not the baby arugula sold prepackaged in the supermarket, but the larger, mature leaves that have a pronounced, peppery and bitter bite that are perfect in pasta, risotto or simply as a sandwich spread.
Ryan’s “Pseudo” Champuru
I call it “pseudo” because I have no known Uchinanchu blood, although the 23 and Me DNA website lists Hiroshima and Okinawa as two of my strongest ancestry links. True champuru (mixed stir-fry) also uses luscious rafute (shoyu pork belly), but since I eat bitter melon regularly, I opt for the leaner pork sirloin.
1 lb. pork loin or sirloin
1/2 cup Okinawan awamori or sake
1/2 cup shoyu
1/2 cup sugar
1 thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger
5 medium to large bitter melon, halved lengthwise, seeds removed and sliced diagonally
2 large carrots, peeled and then medium grated
1 block tofu
4 eggs scrambled
1 tbsp. Memmi (or 2 tbsp. of the pork cooking liquid)
2 tsp. Hondashi
Cut pork into thin strips and simmer in the awamori/shoyu/sugar/ginger mixture for about one hour, until very tender. In a larger wok or Dutch oven, quickly sauté the pork with the drained tofu. Add the bitter melon and seasoning. When the bitter melon has softened, add the carrots and scrambled eggs and toss until everything is evenly coated.
Bitter in Place of Sweet or Bittersweet
Even with desserts, I’ve always gravitated toward sweets that balance bitterness. For instance, my favorite desserts usually contain cocoa powder instead of just chocolate. If strong espresso is thrown into the mix, that’s a dish I have to order. That’s why one of my favorites at the end of a meal is tiramisu with espresso-soaked ladyfingers, cocoa powder
and shavings of bittersweet chocolate covering the top . . . perhaps with a glass of amaro.
So, does that make me a bitter person? No, I’m just someone with a bitter palate.
Ryan Tatsumoto is a clinical pharmacist by day. In his off-hours, however, he and his wife enjoy seeking out perfect marriages of food and wine. Ryan is a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine. The Windward O‘ahu resident also writes a column for San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Weekly called “The Gochiso Gourmet.”