Bitters – Part II

17 May

When Abe opened his bitters at Christmas (see Bitters – Part I), my brother in law Peter, who doesn’t drink much alcohol at all, was super excited about them.  (By way of background, Peter has an acupuncture practice in Portland, Oregon and has a doctorate in Chinese medicine.  He has written extensively on matters of health and wellness, too.  At Christmas, I figured he must have been thinking about non-alcoholic uses for the bitters.)  Recently, I sent Peter an email asking about uses for bitters (aside from incorporating them into a Gin Gin Pony, of course).  In response, Peter prepared an article describing the healthful properties of bitters and various suggested non-alcoholic and other uses.

The full article is below (and published here).  I have highlighted some of my favorite take-away information, in particular the ways we can incorporate bitters into our daily diets.  Thanks, Peter!

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Bitterness is a taste most of us try to avoid. Expressions such as “bitter enemies” and “a bitter pill to swallow ” show how averse we are to this flavor. We greatly prefer the other three primary flavors – nearly everything Americans eat is a combination of sweet, salty, and sour. These are often accented with spiciness or “piquance” and umami. (Umami is a harder taste experience to describe, but it’s often translated as a “savory” or mushroomy quality, and it is the specific enhancement imparted by MSG.) But, bitterness? No, thanks.

Perhaps we dislike bitterness in part because it is the flavor our taste buds are most sensitive to. Compared to our perception of saltiness, sweetness, and sourness, we can pick up an infinitesimal degree of bitterness in food or drink. This is probably a useful adaptation, since many poisons are bitter. But, many medicines are also bitter, and there are certain medicinal qualities that many bitter substances have in common. I believe that consuming bitter foods in moderation can be healthful. It also provides a vital balance to our relative overconsumption of the other flavors.

I’ll start by explaining bitterness from the perspective of Chinese medicine, because I feel it has the most interesting explanation of tastes. But the Chinese are certainly not the only culture to value bitter herbs. They have been treasured for centuries by cultures worldwide. In Chinese Medicine, the properties of foods and herbs are thought to derive largely from the flavors they possess. The flavors themselves are considered to be energetic characteristics that affect the body far beyond our perception of them at the tongue. Textbooks of Chinese Herbal Medicine will often state that a certain herb has a certain therapeutic action because it has a certain flavor and an affinity for a certain part of the body.

Sweetness, for instance, is seen as having a nourishing and consolidating effect on our energy, especially at the midsection. This is why so many comfort foods are sweet, and most naturally sweet foods (like rice and bananas) tend to be easy on the stomach. But, by the same token, too much consolidation can have a cloying effect. This makes us pack on the pounds around our bellies when we eat too much sugar, and it also makes us feel ill the day after Halloween. Spiciness or pungency, by comparison, has an opening or expansive energy. It promotes movement, gets our circulation going, and may even open our sinuses and pores. Sourness has a moistening and astringent effect. This is why sour drinks often seem even more thirst quenching than water alone.

Bitterness has a descending or draining energy. Bitter herbs help drain and clear excesses from our system. Many bitter herbs are detoxifying, and they often promote urination or bowel movement. Bitter herbs frequently act on the liver and gallbladder as choleretics (promoting bile production) and/or cholagogues (promoting bile secretion). Bile is essential for the digestion of fats, including the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Bile also stimulates the bowels and kills some bacteria that may be present in our food. These effects are especially useful after overconsumption of rich foods.

The stomach is understood in Chinese medicine as having a downward dynamic. It receives food from the esophagus above, and, after working on it with its gastric juices, should send it down to the intestines. When the stomach isn’t functioning properly, because of illness, overeating, stress, food sensitivity, or eating too fast, the stomach’s contents may fail to descend, or may even go upward instead. Examples are acid reflux (heartburn), belching, nausea and vomiting, bloating, hiccups, dizziness, and just plain feeling yucky in the middle and upper body. Because of their descending and draining qualities and their action on bile production/secretion, bitter agents are often very helpful for these conditions.

There are just a small handful of bitter things an American is likely to encounter. Two of the most common are beer (in which the bitterness comes from hops flowers, which are used to offset the otherwise overly sweet taste of grain malt) and coffee (which we usually de-bitter by adding milk and/or sugar). Unfortunately, these are not the healthiest of bitter medicines, though I do believe they can have some benefits. Nearly all leafy greens have some degree of bitterness, especially endive (escarole), chicory, and young dandelion greens. These are excellent, though fairly mild, bitter medicines. Coffee (usually as espresso) and salad are often consumed after meals in Europe to stimulate digestion.

Stronger bitter herbs are usually encountered only in preparations made specifically to highlight their bitterness. These are used in alcoholic beverages and as after-meal digestifs. Gentian root is the classic bitter herb. It is used to produce Angostura bitters, originally prescribed for sea sickness and stomach problems, and now an ingredient in several mixed drinks. Herbalists of the European and American naturopathic traditions consider gentian and other bitter herbs to have the ability not just to stimulate gastric activity, but to improve the tone and function of the digestive system.

Rudolf Weiss, a famous German doctor and pioneer in herbal medicine, said of gentian, “A pure bitter (the bitter taste is detectable even at a dilution of 1 part in 20,000) stimulates gastric secretions and motility and improves tone. It is active as soon as it is absorbed through the mouth’s mucus membranes.” The old school American herbalist, John Christopher, said gentian is “one of the most valuable bitter tonics and best strengtheners of the human system.” He called its effect “invigorating.” When used to invigorate the digestive system (as opposed to promoting digestion after a big meal), a squirt of gentian tincture is typically taken in water 20 to 60 minutes before eating.

Quinine, which comes from cinchona bark (a South American tree), is famous as the first effective treatment for malaria. It’s intensely bitter and shares some medicinal properties with gentian and other bitters. The bitterness of quinine is the standard to which all other bitter substances are compared.  Quinine is most often encountered in tonic water, which goes very well with a wedge of lime and some good gin.

Citrus peel is a wonderful bitter agent. It can be used fresh, extracted in alcohol, or dried and aged and taken as a powder or tea. Fruity and floral tones make it more interesting and less of a pure bitter than gentian or quinine. Any citrus peel can be used. Common fruits used for bitters include lemon, lime, orange, tangerine, bitter orange, and grapefruit. A delicious example is the famous Italian limoncello, a liqueur made from Sorrento lemon peel (or whole lemons), although, depending on the preparation, it’s sometimes made to taste more like Mad Dog 20/20 and less like a bitter digestif.

Other common bitters include goldenseal root, rhubarb root, artichoke leaf, cascarilla bark, wormwood leaf, yarrow flowers, and more. A wide range of aromatic herbs may be combined with bitters to enhance their effect when used to soothe the digestive tract. Mint, anise, caraway, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, fennel, ginger, and thyme are some common ones. These bitters and aromatics are available in a vast array of commercial preparations, most of which originate in Europe. However, there has been something of a resurgence of interest in bitters in the United States, with boutique manufacturers popping up alongside the thriving foodie cultures.

Consider broadening your taste horizons, or at least offsetting your sweet, sour, and salty consumption with a bit of bitter. See if you feel lighter than usual after dinner if you have something bitter. Even if your taste buds don’t love it, your body might.

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