Marco Werman: Sort of continuing the theme, I suppose. We end today’s edition of The World with a bitter taste in the mouth - but in a good way, serious. Sweet and sour gets lots of attention in the food world, but bitter? Not so much. Food writer Jennifer McLagan is out to change that in her new book. It’s called “Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor.” McLagan’s interest started early.
Jennifer McLagan: When I was young, my mother used to always make me breakfast before I went to school and she would always make me something that was fruit, like a half a grapefruit, that was prepared and sprinkled with a lot of sugar. I grew up in Melbourne, Australia, so maybe that’s a little different because we didn’t have, when I was a child and until a few years ago, we didn’t have these pink and red and sweet grapefruit. Grapefruit, for us, always had a touch of bitterness.
Well, here we are in New York in a pretty typical Chinese grocery store. It’s got every kind of vegetable, fish and fruit, but mainly when you think of bitter, it’s the vegetable kingdom that you go to first. It’s interesting with the Chinese, as well as eating a lot of bitter vegetables, they have a very long tradition of using bitter foods as medicines and there’s a lot of evidence to tell us that foods that are bitter are actually very, very good for us. They’re full of phytochemicals and antioxidants and that’s really what we should be eating.
We’re right next to one of my favorite bitter vegetables, and that’s a bitter gourd. It kind of looks like this wrinkly old cucumber, you know? It’s not the world’s most attractive. And the Indians also eat this too. They have one that’s even less attractive that’s got kind of these growths coming out of it. But I just love its taste, I love that bitterness. But to balance that bitterness, I mix it with something like fatty pork and chillies and a little lemon juice and together it makes a great dish.
Bitter is really the most interesting of tastes because there will be some things that one person will think is extremely bitter and I won’t find bitter at all. It’s a range of flavors. It ranges - there’s another right behind me here - is a celery. Now, people don’t think of celery as bitter but the leaves of celery are mildly bitter. Nothing like the bitter gourd, but they’re absolutely a delightful edition to a salad. So, instead of chopping those leaves and throwing them away, take them, wash them, and put them in a salad and you’ll get a nuance of bitterness.
In the Anglo-Saxon world, especially in North America, we’re very much geared towards sweetness. But the Italians, they love amaros, they love radicchio and those bitter green lettuces, they use them all the time. But we seem to have stayed away from them. There is that cultural difference between the appreciation of bitterness, I would say. And in Africa too, there’s a lot of African cultures that have a - it’s like a spinach, a bitter leaf herb, and they cook it like spinach and it’s really quite bitter and it’s very, very good for you.
Werman: And that was Jennifer McLagan, author of “Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor.” She told her story to producer Alex Gallafent. If you fancy a taste of bitter, we’ve got some great recipes at PRI.ORG.