THE GOCHISO GOURMET: What a bitter person …


Pork sandwich with broccoli rabe. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

OK, I don’t really consider myself a bitter person. I am a bit of a pessimist and perpetually carry the attitude and assumption that the glass is half empty, but that’s mainly so that when I do recognize when it is indeed half full, I appreciate it all the more. This is probably due to my religious or philosophical upbringing, but I’m not bitter. And I definitely don’t have a bitter palate. Of the five major taste sensations, I embrace those bitter taste buds the least. Or do I? After attaining the legal imbibing age, I did take to a nice frosty beer. And when I developed a taste for the higher octane fermented beverages, a cool gin tonic was one of the first libations I enjoyed. You know, beer does have the hoppy bitterness even if it’s not at the forefront with domestic varieties and tonic water does have that bitter edge with the quinine. Perhaps I am bitter …

Why Do We Have Bitter Buds?

As I mentioned in last month’s column, published in the June 26 through July 9, 2014 issue of the Nichi Bei Weekly, humans have five basic taste sensations: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. It’s obvious with the sweet receptors, as most humans probably wish their whole tongues were covered with these receptors. Since salt and umami are actually involved with the taste and savoriness of food, I can see why they exist. And lots of foods carry their fair share of acid, hence the sour receptors. But bitter? There aren’t a lot of foods that are inherently bitter. And a fair share of them are toxic. Detecting toxic food only after putting it in your mouth and chewing is cutting it a bit too close,  I think, so early mankind may not have had much use for those bitter buds.

But since modern cuisine is also about contrasts, contrasting textures, flavors, temperatures and colors, what better than flavor sensations that balance sweet and rich flavors? Bitter does this like no other.

Before the Revelation

Though I didn’t realize it way back when, just the fact that I enjoyed a frosty beer showed I had an inclination for those bitter buds. After all, the main flavoring component of beer are hops. And hops give beer that slightly bitter edge — more so in artisanal or Old World brews, and while not as evident in mainstream American beer, it’s probably the main reason why beer is so food friendly. From salty to sweet to sour to rich to fried foods, that slightly bitter edge balances those other flavor sensations in food.

Of course, after the fermented barley, I started sampling that distilled grain infused with herbs. And in a gin tonic I found that nice balance between sweet and bitter — so much so that I eventually looked for a better source of tonic water, since the supermarket variety was mostly sweet with very little quinine or bitter. This led me to Q-Tonic, which nicely balanced the sweet and bitter. Then, after my first perfect Negroni at the Buckeye Roadhouse in Mill Valley, Calif. at least a decade ago, I became a Campari devotee. To most, Campari is that nasty red liqueur that is purely about bitter. Bitter, bitter and more bitter. But it makes a great before meal aperitif or an after meal digestif.

More Than Just Campari

Since that first revelation of true bitter drinks with that perfect Negroni more than a decade ago, I’ve actively sought out other bitter aperitifs and digestifs at any wine or liquor store I visit. And there are quite a few out there.

For starters, there are the quinine-based liqueurs from the quinquina group of aperitifs that include Cocchi Americano, Byrrh, Dubonnet and Lillet with a blend of herbs that is supposed to stimulate your appetite before meals. Then there are the bitter orange-based liqueurs like Grand Marnier, Cointreau and Amaro Nonino that add a pronounced orange kick to cocktails. And then there are pure bitters that are added to cocktails and savory dishes to enhance the other flavors. Where bitters previously were limited to either Angostura or Peychaud, there now are literally bitters from any flavor component, including orange, grapefruit, celery, chocolate, pecan, tamarind and even passion fruit bitters. And for those who are contemplating the bitter red of Campari, but still can’t get used to the bitterness, there’s Campari’s sibling, Aperol, which has less alcohol and is less bitter, thus making it seem a little sweeter.

Veggies That Balance the Palate

Champuru. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto
Champuru. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

As you may recall from a previous column (March 25-31, 2010), bittermelon or nigauri, used to be my kryptonite, partly because it didn’t really look appetizing, almost like a pale cucumber with a social disease, and partly because it was so bitter. But eventually, I grew to not only embrace it, but actually crave it. Perhaps it was because it was the perfect culinary foil to sweet and rich shoyu braised pork belly, ala that traditional Okinawan specialty, champuru. Perhaps it was simply because I realized that balance just wasn’t a necessity of the martial arts, but also in the culinary arts as well. 

And though I’ve highlighted the noble bittermelon, there are many products available at your local supermarket that can accomplish that same culinary balance. For instance, the citizens of Lyon have known for ages that the perfect vegetable foil for crisp lardons, a sharp vinaigrette and succulent rich poached egg is frisee. It provides a crisp contrast and slightly bitter edge to balance that rich egg yolk, rich and salty lardons and sharp vinaigrette. It’s pretty much, perfection in a salad, if I must say so.

Then there’s those culinary cousins, radicchio and endive. With a pleasing crunch and slight bitterness to balance any vinaigrette or full flavored topping in any salad. And if the fresh crunch isn’t a sensation you need, try pan searing radicchio quartered lengthwise then drizzled with good Balsamic vinegar. The opposing sweet, bitter and sour flavors will hold up as a side dish for any cut of steak. In fact, I found a recipe for a salad that included not just radicchio and endive, but also fresh fennel. The slightly bitter edge of each green was balanced by a vinaigrette that included that sweet wine fortified Greek brandy, Metaxa and it was topped with the sweet flesh of poached lobster. Divine!

Pork sandwich with broccoli rabe. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto
Pork sandwich with broccoli rabe. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

And last but not least, one of my favorite bitter greens, rapini or broccoli rabe. When sautéed with a little garlic and olive oil, it provides the perfect palate cleanser to rich roasted meats and cheeses. In fact, Adam Richman of the Food Network awarded DiNic’s roast pork sandwich with hand carved sharp provolone and sautéed broccoli rabe as the best sandwich in America. It was in part because of the balance with rich pork, sharp cheese and contrasting bitter sautéed greens.

Balance Those Other Buds

So to answer my own question, “Yes, I am a bitter person”! But, if for nothing else, it’s simply to give me balance. Balance for the sweet, salty, sour, fatty, rich and savory flavor sensations encountered as I feed the body. Because life isn’t all sweet or all salty or all sour. Remember, we’re talking about food here, not your co-workers. With yin, you need yang. Or cold and hot. Or if you’re married, Venus and Mars. It makes food that much more interesting. And to conclude on a philosophical note, the bitter makes you appreciate the sweet so much more … Bon appetit!

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at


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