Bitter-Sweet is Better than Sweet Alone. (Especially in Autumn)

Ever wonder why we Northwesterners crave coffee more furiously than usual with the first few cold and rainy days of fall? I would argue that aside from the culture associated with drinking coffee, we begin to crave the combination of warmth with the delicious bitterness of a “damn fine cup of coffee”, “black as the sky on a moonless night.”

(I had to use Twin Peaks' Agent Cooper here, of course)

More specifically, the bitter taste of coffee helps to signal our bodies’ immune system to activate, while creating a “contractive” and “descending” energy that naturally occurs as the days get shorter, plants go dormant, animals hibernate, and humans create routines involving hot coffee, blankets, couches, and favorite warm companions (animal or human).  In Chinese Medicine theory, the Yin-within-Yang of Autumn transforms into the Yin-within-Yin of Winter, and bitterness brings the last bits of Yang back into the Yin. That was a mouthful, but you can imagine an over-tired but excited child in the evening, giggling herself to sleep. This reflects the idea of the last bit of Yang energy finally transforming into Yin.

Coffee is interesting in our culture; although it is bitter, it also has the stimulant property of caffeine (and potentially the rush of sugar and the inflammatory endorphin response of milk or cream, for you naturopaths out there) and should therefore be used in moderation during the winter. I prefer an espresso with a dollop of cream- in my opinion a couple mouthfuls of the perfect beverage. But that’s enough fangirl language for one blog post. I have to make some room in my diet for the fabulous health benefit of the bitter taste in many different forms.

Because of the paucity of the bitter flavor in the “Standard American Diet (SAD),” I try to encourage myself and others to throw in a small amount of bitter into a couple meals per day. I’m no chef and couldn’t accurately explain the alchemy that occurs when the five flavors combine in beautiful harmony, but I do know that bitter can be important to add depth or to offset the commonly-prominent flavors of sweet and salty. Now consider the following health benefits of including bitter along with the sweet in your life.

Drinking Chocolate can be extremely bitter as well. YUM! Via Andy Ciordia on flickr.

The bitter flavor helps lower cholesterol and reduces inflammation. It helps your liver recover from large amounts of rich (fatty, greasy, sugary… delicious) food. Chen writes: “Herbs distinguished by the bitter taste have been found to stimulate the nervous system and increase production of gastric acid. Therefore, a small quantity of bitter herbs taken before meals will increase appetite and improve digestion.(15)” He cautions to take bitter herbs in small quantities, because too much bitter flavor can have the the opposite effect, inducing nausea and vomiting (15).

Autumn is an especially important time to imbibe the bitter taste (at least in Portland and other rainy places), due to its beneficial effect on drying dampness which can accumulate in the body as sinus drainage, mucous, head colds, and the flu. Bitter can help relieve coughing and wheezing, and it “purges fire to treat various infections accompanied by elevated body temperature.(15)” One must be cautious of taking too much bitter taste during a cold or fever, because it can “dry out” the body, weakening the tissues’ ability to be nourished. So bitter is a powerful ally; treat it with care, say hello often but for short periods of time, add a splash of bitters to your cocktail or your tea with honey, and it will serve you well as a loyal protector during the traditional flu season.

Bitter Melons, looking extra green and prickly! Via Cameron Maddux at flickr.

Bitter melon in particular helps fight infections and it has the added benefit of aiding in blood sugar stabilization. It is especially effective in treating all kinds of cysts, abscesses, skin problems and swellings, parasites, candida yeast overgrowth, and mucous of various types including that of the lungs and sinuses. Bitter melon tea is excellent for preventing colds, losing weight and improving digestion! I believe everyone would be using it if it tasted better, but there is no shortcut here… only small amounts of honey and the wonderful power of the human body to become accustomed to new experiences. Ironically, humans in paleolithic times ate a diet of primarily bitter foods, which is why we love sweet and salty so much today – salt and sugar were scarce so we needed to detect and gain pleasure from even tiny quantities of these tastes.

If you feel inspired to use bitter melon in the kitchen, here is one recipe that I can vouch for as a beginner in the realm of both cooking and in tolerating the bitter flavor. This salad is easy to make, and it really tones down the bitterness while balancing it with other flavors. This Thai dish is also rich with fruits and veggies that provide their own slew of health benefits for the flu season!

Ingredients for Green Mango Bitter Melon Salad Flavor Attack:

4 Baby Bok Choy, briefly wilted, drained, and shredded

1 Tbsp Safflower oil (or other high-heat cooking oil)

1/2 to 1 whole bitter melon (Chinese variety), halved, deseeded, and sliced thinly

1 Large or 2 Small Leeks, Sliced thinly

1 Hefty Cucumber, Julienned

1 Fresh Green Mango, Julienned (except for seed of course)

1/4 C Fresh Cilantro Leaves

Roasted Cashews for Garnish

Delicious green mangos! Via hozinja at flickr.


1 Tbsp Roasted Sesame Oil

2 Tbsp Fish Sauce

1/2 C Sweet Chili Sauce (Mae Ploy brand if possible)

1 Tbsp Fresh Lime Juice

Maybe a touch of rice vinegar or ponzu sauce to taste.

Prepare all ingredients.

1. Wash bok choy; throw into heated iron skillet (no oil) to steam in its own washing water for 1-2 min. Remove to colander; press out some of the remaining water, and shred or chop into large pieces.

2. In same iron skillet, pour the Tbsp Safflower Oil, let it heat to medium temp.  Add bitter melon slices and leek slices; saute until tender (3-5 min).

3. Whisk together the dressing ingredients in a small bowl.

4. In a large bowl, combine all of the vegetables except cilantro.  Toss with dressing.

***This can be refrigerated overnight to reduce the bitterness of the melon.  Giving the flavors time to meld increases its deliciousness!!!***

5. When ready to serve, chop cilantro and fold into salad.  Sprinkle cashews over top, and serve!  Enjoy with rice for a healthy meal.

Original recipe taken from Asian Kitchen Recipes. I have modified it slightly.

I’m always looking for more ways to cook with this and other bitter ingredients- please tell me below if you have had success with other recipes!


7 responses to “Bitter-Sweet is Better than Sweet Alone. (Especially in Autumn)

  1. Thanks for the reminder about the good of bitters! People (including myself) are usually in some form of “quitting” coffee, but a little can go a long way. I will try the recipe with joy here soon! Big hearts to Cooper pic!

  2. Beth, your blog is most enjoyable! Thanks for the inspiration (and wonderful reminders of our beloved herbal medicinal theory!) cheers!

  3. I’m not really a food expert and have to say I’m in the dark about what other “bitter” flavors there are besides coffee? Is there a list of them somewhere that you refer to?

    • Hi Beth,
      Yes there are lists of bitter foods in the following books:
      Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition- Paul Pitchford
      The Tao of Healthy Eating: Dietary Wisdom According to Traditional Chinese Medicine- Bob Flaws
      Food for the Seasons- Professor Lun Wong and Kath Knapsey
      I will post a list from Paul Pitchford’s book when I get home today. Thanks for your interest!

    • Thanks for your question- I probably should have included these to begin with! According to Paul Pitchford’s book Healing with Whole Foods, the following foods exhibit the bitter flavor:
      Alfalfa, Bitter Melon, Romaine Lettuce, Rye.
      Bitter and Pungent flavors: citrus peel (also sweet), radish leaf, scallion, turnip (also sweet), white pepper.
      Bitter and Sweet: amaranth, asparagus, celery, lettuce, papaya, quinoa.
      Bitter and Sour: vinegar
      Herbs with bitter properties (consult an herbalist before usage): dandelion leaf or root, burdock leaf or root, yarrow, chamomile, hops, valerian, chaparral, echinacea, pau d’arco.

      Vinegar water has become a more popular drink in some parts of the U.S. It is commonly used in Thailand during the hot season to help counteract the heat and damp. It can be useful to people in any climate with “damp” or “overheated” constitutions. In Portland, the Thai restaurant Pok Pok offers a variety of infused vinegar waters. You can use their list as inspiration- experiment with your own combinations as a drink on their own or as an adjunct to a mixed drink! See this article at Serious Eats for more detail regarding Pok Pok’s delicious beverages and the trend for drinking vinegars (which is actually an ancient idea and practice).

      Pitchford, Paul. 2002. Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

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