Dear Umami, Love Me, For I Am Bitter!
Long time no see, baby brother! It’s me, Bitter. Do you still remember little ol’ sis and the rest of the family? I suspect life has been busy for you, the hotshot of the culinary world. You have taken Western foodies by storm; from your contemporary umami vodka martini infused with garlic and finished with a few dashes of truffle oil, to your mouth-watering “umami burger” garnished with oven-roasted tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms, caramelized onions, parmesan crisp and umami ketchup (made with mushrooms, fish sauce, and star anise to boot … clever!) undeniably makes the ordinary double bacon cheeseburger seem bland and blah!
I gotta say, Umami, you are so sexy that people love every mouthful of you. How did the new kid on the block become the biggest comestible buzz of the 21st century? Is it your exotic name: Umami? I hate to admit it, but even I have fun saying it … oo-mah-mee!
I still remember when Salt, Sweet, Sour and I were the original four basic tastes. Then Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda discovered you. He named you after the most beautiful thing on the palette, “the essence of deliciousness.” You have been a common name in Japan for centuries, but on this side of the Pacific, your name is now synonymous with all that’s soothing, mysterious and evocative.
When you officially became part of the family, the fifth basic taste, I had mixed emotions. You were so hard to read. Unlike the rest us, you were vague and hard to describe. It was difficult to pinpoint your specific essence. Admittedly, I found you much more complex than Sweet or Salt. In fact, you came across as perhaps bipolar, or even schizophrenic, with your three-dimensional taste mosaic. Perhaps it’s your complex nature that makes taste buds so desire you.
I didn’t get to know you as much as our toothsome brother, Salt. There was always this strong bond that you shared with him. But I never gave you a fair chance. I get that now. I assumed you to be like Madam Spicy, coming and going as she pleased when she saw Mr. Dairy. Little did I know that your meaty, savoury and rich flavours were so long-lasting. You work your magic to coat the tongue and the palate, leaving a mark in the mouth and on the senses.
Which is probably why you have a long list of delectable food friends: savoury parmesan cheese, earthy truffles, juicy and ripe tomatoes. It’s no wonder the human tongue falls in love with you at first bite. If only Sour and I had your charisma. I’m not jealous, or anything (maybe just a little bitter … hey, that’s my nature), but people don’t fall head over heels for radicchio or rapini. In fact, many respond negatively to both Sour and me. Evolutionarily speaking, humans were programmed to avoid us as they were warned that something tasting bitter or sour might be poisonous or toxic; unripe or spoiled. Through time, we were both perceived as something bad on the tongue and to be avoided.
Looking back, I’m not sure if I was so hideous, but I certainly felt like an ugly duckling. One thing I do know for sure is that I was never associated with the word “delicious.” Instead, people would describe me in unappetizing terms like sharp, acrid, astringent, medicinal and even pungent.
Agreed, I don’t sit well with everyone, and kids really seem to have a hate-on for me. My name alone makes them wince. But I can forgive them. They are programmed from birth to prefer Sister Sweet and dislike Bad-ass Bitter. Yes, I wanted to be just as popular as Sweet among the children, but however I tried, no kids developed a “bitter tooth.”
I wreaked a lot of havoc among children in the guise of the dreaded “overcooked to death” brussels sprouts. It’s easy to understand how being the ugly stepsister of the cabbage put this variation on the top list of detested vegetables for kids (and quite a few adults). My pungent, barnyard-y bitter flavour, the odd texture, and faint aroma of smelly feet were enough to cause a nightmare at the dinner table.
But one bad apple (or cabbage) should never spoil the bunch, considering not all my bitter incantations are created equally. Once people learn that some of my variations (dark chocolate, IPA beer, coffee, etc.) not only won’t kill them but will actually stimulate their nervous systems, they develop a palate for what they once disliked. This is a good thing, as many of the compounds that cause bitter flavours also have positive health benefits.
With time and maturity, bitter gets better. An appreciation for bitterness develops with age, culture and experience. People have to learn to appreciate me. With repeated exposure, they soon can’t resist me!
Most people aren’t born in love with me. So be it. Everyone experiences my charms differently. The combination of bitter receptor genes varies for every individual, explaining why some people can’t get enough of me in the form of black coffee, dark chocolate, and arugula.
Moreover, as humans age, their olfactory sensitivity (sense of smell) diminishes, they lose some taste buds, and become more tolerant of my unique nature.
There is an inherent appreciation for my character in Italy, France, and China. Italians sip on Amaro, an after-dinner digestif that they believe is the cure for overeating. While at cute bistros across Paris, locals eat frisée salads with lardons (bacon) and a poached egg. The Chinese adore me. They have included gai-lan, ginseng and bitter gourd in their regular diet, and have relied on bitter herbs for their healing properties in traditional Chinese medicine.
Unfortunately, here in North America, people are more likely to yearn for Sweet or Salt. Up until now, I haven’t garnered much praise. However, things are changing. The latest book by Jennifer McLagan (a multi-award winning author and chef), Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, explores my underappreciated and misunderstood flavour profile through science, history, and culture. McLagan shows that bitter and delicious can be in the same sentence with her long list of tantalizing recipes: prunes soaked in Earl Grey tea and lemon peel; Campari glazed veal chops; lamb with dark chocolate pepper sauce. McLagan suggests that my typical flavours offer a welcoming level of sophistication to the mature palate (the age thing again). Thanks to people like her — and, I’m sure, adventurous souls like you — I’m finally emerging from the culinary shadow and getting my rightful place in the spotlight.
Canadians are now starting to see all the beautiful qualities I bring to the dining experience. I perk up taste buds and bring a new dimension to a dish, ultimately aiding in the overall harmony of what’s being served. Furthermore, chefs see me as an indispensable “cleansing taste,” one that makes you want to take the next bite, and the next.
Keep on chomping because I’m making inroads in the liquid and solid gastronomic world. From hoppy craft beers, to bitters in cocktails, to greens with a sharp tasting edge such as arugula, dandelion and radicchio. Even brussels sprouts are showing up on menus across the country.
Umami, it might be a bitter pill for you to swallow (tee-hee), but I’m after your throne … even if it means playing the Evil Queen to your Snow White. In fact, McLagan did characterize me as the “world’s most dangerous flavour.” Sure I can be abrasive and even hard to swallow. Indeed, I am a flavour to be reckoned with. But given the chance, I am just as alluring and captivating as you. I come in a myriad of textures; from the tannins in wine to the faint bitter taste in burnt toast, to the astringent and tart sensation on the tongue and mouth delivered via an unripe granny smith apple.
My rising popularity is bittersweet. Not everyone is happy with my success. Salt has been acting very strange around me lately. It’s like he is jealous of my rising stardom. He often comes over uninvited to suppress my assertiveness. I have seen him shaking it around on the dance floor with Miss Grapefruit. Just last week, he was all over Ms. Eggplant making her all sweaty and uncomfortable. I have even seen him hanging around the coffee machine before the beans get brewed.
I know I shouldn’t be upset with Salt. He means well and is just trying to mellow out the forceful taste I leave in people’s mouth in the absence of his company. Unlike you, Umami, I am not good at solo performances. I truly am a team player. I can rein in Salt, Spice, and even Ms. Sweetie-pants. I can take the most savage flavours. Take mustard greens, for example. On their own, they have an overpowering acrid and pungent bite. But when prepared Southern-style (salted and stewed with pork to impart sweetness, and then served with a squeeze of lemon or lime), the mustard greens transform from bitter to balanced. The result? A delicious savoury dish that harmoniously unites the four basic tastes.
Life hasn’t been easy for a character like me. But I’ve learned to fit in with the more popular flavours very well. Umami, people will always like you. You are the life of the party; the one that makes everyone laugh. In contrast, I’m the wallflower. Or at least I used to be. You know, the one that had nobody to dance with and who felt shy and awkward at the dinner table. Yeah, I’ve come to terms with that. I tried to fight it at first, denying the harsh truth and attempting to fit in so that all would love me. Now I realize it’s okay to be bitter all the time. It’s okay to be different. Diversity makes life interesting. I finally feel comfortable in my own skin. The ugly duckling has transformed into a beautiful swan. I have extended my wings, ready for my next culinary journey (escarole, anyone?).
Here’s to us, Umami, with the clink of a glass. I love you, bro!
Peace, love, and deliciousness always,