There are five good tastes (and maybe six).
So you like coffee? Then you won’t be surprised to hear that like all bitter foods, it’s a fire energy – that’s exactly what bitter foods do – fire us up. If you don’t like the bitterness of coffee you may not need the fire energy, or you might dilute it’s effect with milk (sweet) or sugar (sweeter).
Chances are you might like another bitter food though: watercress, bok choy, nori seaweed, dandelion leaves, fenugreek seeds, lemon rind, or black beans. Or the summer grain sweet corn. Sweet corn? – yes, it combines bitter with sweet quite nicely. Look for the aftertaste of your corn on the cob and you’ll become aware of it. (If you like butter with your corn on the cob, you’re adding in a third taste: salty.) Dried corn, such as popcorn, or polenta, or cornmeal, has the corn sugar removed and what’s left is unmistakably slightly bitter. And nutritious.
You might have noticed that these are all summer vegetables, which makes sense for fire vegetables, doesn’t it? They’re deemed to be light on digestion as they have a rapid, expanding energy, and – no surprises here – cooking techniques are quick, like a brief sauté or stir fry or quick tempura (deep fry).
The relevant seaweed is nori, best known for its use to make sushi rolls. Like land vegetables, sea veges are packed with goodies. Nori is high in iodine and and also contains Vitamins A, B12, Bs, and C, and calcium and iron; finding sources of B12, iron and calcium as we know are crucial for vegans. In Scotland, Ireland and Wales, its harvested and prepared as laver bread.
Try slicing a strip of toasted nori into small pieces and scattering it over your veges or grains. Or you can wrap a thin strip of nori around a slice of firm-ish tofu before shallow sauté, or use a slice to wrap around and bind a sandwich of two slices of tofu filled with a nut butter, or miso and tahini perhaps with a smidgeon of finely chopped spring onion, then sauté…
The bitter taste is fascinating and modern research proves the point that each of these taste preferences is innate – that we are biologically programmed in our preferences. It also makes the point that taste is linked to specific nutrient components.
In a recent NZ Listener article, nutritionist Jennifer Bowden described her experience as a student when she gagged after being tested with a concentrated bitter tasting compound similar to those found in many foods. She is not alone but is one of the 25% who have a similar reaction. About 25% of us don’t notice the bitter taste at all and the rest of us do so moderately.
Having this sensitivity is a handy protection against many toxic plants, as well as rancid fats, smoking and many alcoholic drinks. It’s a mixed blessing though. This highly sensitive group also tends to avoid eating chilli, black pepper, and a range of foods and vegetables containing small amounts of bitter compounds known as phytonutrients that can reduce cancer and cardiovascular risk.
So if you’re not part of the highly sensitive 25%, it’s useful to know that bitter foods containing these disease-preventing nutrients include green tea, broccoli, brussel sprouts and dark chocolate.
This recipe is for a simple, deliciously flavoured Watercress Soup. It uses only watercress (bitter), onions (sweet & pungent), potatoes (pungent) and salt – four good tastes in one pot.
In a large saucepan place 1 lb (500g) roughly chopped white onions; 1 lb (500g) peeled and roughly chopped potatoes; 3 cups cold water; 1 dessertspoon salt. Bring to the boil and simmer partially covered until the veges are cooked, about 40 minutes. Add ¼ lb (125g) watercress leaves and tender stalks, roughly chopped, and simmer for 5 minutes. Blend. Serve, garnished with a few watercress leaves. Add a swirl of cream if you wish.
Positive emotions associated with fire energy – no surprises here either – are joy, warmth, openness, outward and sociable behaviour. Negative behaviour is erratic and ‘hyper’ and can promote a sense of disillusionment. The moral – everything in moderation.
Next: the sweet-natured good taste