The sweeter side of bitter food

Ever wondered why summer meals often feature bitter foods in solo play or as part of a culinary drama? Detox is just one of the many reasons, say experts.

Come May, and one of the rituals at the Dasguptas’ home is the making of shukto, the iconic Bengali palate cleanser famous not only for its taste, but the clever use of bitter gourd and milk as well. “It is like actor Kesto Mukherjee,” says Chef Anirban Dasgupta, “whose presence in any scene, though not essential, does add that little extra charm. In fact, such is the popularity of the slight bitterness that hits you right at the end that for most Bengalis – and a few non-Bengalis as well – it is one of the highlights of a shukto experience, whose debut in the Bengali traditional thali is often the announcement of summers.”

So ingrained is the inclusion of bitter food, especially during summers, that Chef Dasgupta has not one but several recipes of shukto that go from the classic to a contemporary one that even uses prawn. But when it comes to the tita (bitter)experience, nothing quite beats the palate play of a good shukto made with bitter gourd or karala as they say in Bengali.

Gima shaak bora
Bitter foods are quite popular in eastern Indian cuisines, and usually their appearance on traditional thalis mark the arrival of summer.

It is a sentiment that finds resonance with Chef Sumanta Chakrabarti (Corporate Chef, Sonar Tori), who, while researching for one of his restaurants, fell in love with the concept of bitter foods in Bengali cuisine — and has a repository of dishes dedicated to a selection of greens, flowers and leaves that are known for their bitterness; the famous neem being one of them. Neem begun (fried neem leaves and eggplant), says Chef Sumanta, “is one of the common bitter dishes found in Odia, Bengali and Assamese cuisine, and is usually prepared during the months of April and May both as a palate cleanser as well as a dish that helps remould the tastebuds into experiencing more subtle, light flavours.”

In fact, the Odia version has recently seen the use of potatoes to mitigate some of the bitterness of neem leaves, which though plucked tender could be gut wrenchingly challenging to eat at times — more so, says culinary custodian Manju Dash, “when you add the little flowers that are known to treat worms in the stomach.” Fascinatingly, when it comes to eating bitter food, continues Dash, “neem, karela and moringa leaves are but only the tip of the bitter food iceberg that is considered healthy traditionally in our food culture, especially in the East and Northeast. In these parts, going foraging for these bitter foods, except karela, was once a part of eating seasonal. And even today, some produce such as gime leaves, jukti phool also known as green milkweed flower and brahmi leaves, which are had purely for their purgative properties, is mostly found either in smaller town markets or need to be foraged as they grow at different times through the summer — which incidentally exactly coincides with the period to have it.”

Dishes such as the Bengali speciality shukto uses bitter flavours as a palate clenaser, aside from the health benefits associated with these veggies.

Case in point is the tita phool, also called baahok tita in Assam. Explains Dr Geeta Dutt, “These beautiful, bright orange flowers are very bitter in taste but are valued mostly for their medicinal properties, especially as an antidote to allergies, measles, asthma, worm infestations and blood impurities, among others. The nasty taste, however, has done little to diminish the value of tita phool in our summer meals; it is a must-have at least once or twice each week while the flowers are in bloom. And one is reminded of it because you would find branches of them glowing in the sun, ready to be consumed.”

Similar is the case with brahmi, says Chef Sumanta, “It’s a herb known to boost memory, regulate blood sugar levels and is especially good for those with diabetes. And yet, finding fresh, tender brahmi leaves means you would have to wait for the season where you can pluck it tender and cook it. In taste, brahmi is much like the gima shak — which is a close cousin of methi, only more bitter.”

Curiously, it isn’t just eastern India — though the region is famous for its wide collection of dishes — which has this love for bitter food; southern India too, is equally charmed by its share of bitter food. Bevu bella or ugaadi pachadi, made during Ugaadi in Karnataka, is one such dish. A celebratory drink that is offered to the deity as part of the New Year ritual is made with neem and mango slices.

Interestingly, the drink also marks the debut of neem and neem flowers in seasonal food habits. According to Roopa Rajan (Founder, Nutrisupa), “We also prepare a gojju that is made with bitter gourd, a dish in which sweet and sour flavours are used to balance the bitter taste — and is always served as the first dish in a meal even before the rasam is served.” Another fascinating bitter food is, of course, the taal or palm, says Chef Dasgupta, “once ripened, the fruit takes on a grapefruit kind of bitterness, which appeals to quite a few people. In fact, it is this lasting unpleasant taste that kicks in right at the end of the taler bora or taal bara that makes it such a fascinating indulgence. Fortunately, the bitterness in the bara isn’t the karela kind but one that hits you right at the end and vanishes, as if to prepare you for a second bite.”

The beauty of bitter food is in the way it can clear and lighten your palate, which, say culinary experts, “relies significantly on how it is cooked as well”.

Bitter gourd gojju
The bitter gourd gojju uses sweet and sour flavours to balance the bitterness, and is usually served as the first dish in a meal, even before rasam is served.

In the state of Odisha, Bengal, and Assam, says Dr Dutta, “most bitter foods are either made into thin chips or turned into a flash-fried bora. The preferred mode is having it as a saag or shaak, which has leaves and flowers thinly chopped and added to a mixture of potato and eggplant with some mashed garlic giving it that sharpness. The other option is pairing it with other, more complementary ingredients such as dal, which plays well with moringa leaves; or tita phool that goes well with certain pork dish as well.”

The reason why the making is crucial, says Dash, “is because the technique used will determine how much of the bitter taste has been preserved. Nutrients are often partially lost when they are overcooked or salted beforehand to remove the bitter taste, as in the case of bitter gourds and melons.” That, says Rajan, “hasn’t stopped people from experimenting with spices and ingredients that can help make these bitter foods much more palatable. The karela bharwan is one such attempt in the direction, even the stir fry in northern India with aamchur and tamarind and the most popular, methi with palak or bathua saag to pare down the bitter taste.”

Which brings us to the ultimate question: Why are bitter foods so important? After all, psychologically, our brain is trained to take the bitter taste as either poisonous or that of being spoilt — not to be eaten in either case. The brilliance of bitter foods (which. according to Ayurveda, is an inherent flavour present in almost every food but more prominently in leafy greens, eggplant, all types of gourds, grapefruit, chards, even olives and chocolate), says nutritional therapist Shaveta Bhassin, “is that each of them are these amazing purges that help cleanse the system, beginning with the tongue. A longer-lasting flavour on the palate than sour and umami, bitter food starts the purging process by dehydrating the tongue, which in effect cleanses it. As a common response, either one reaches for water or water-based produce such as cucumber or something sweet, which we relish given that the flavour segments on our tongue have been rejuvenated to sense subtle flavours too. Interestingly, this cleansing process works to trigger certain biochemicals’ pathway in the body which helps stimulate liver function. This creates bile and revs up the digestion system (also referred to as Agni in Vedas) that slows down during summers, especially in regions with high humidity.”

Sriracha som tam
The case for bitter foods is strengthened when you consider dishes such as the Som Tam salad which uses grapefruit which is known for its slightly bitter taste, but paired with sweet-sour flavours, elevates the taste to a different level.

But the big ace for bitter food, continues Bhassin, “is in its healing abilities which range from helping digest fat to regulating motions and even balancing the hormonal setback one might experience during a change of weather – it does it all. And alongside, it helps the liver regenerate. In fact, it is the only organ in the body that can regenerate with a balanced diet that has a small but significant amount of bitter food in it.”

While that perhaps explains the use of bitter food across the board of the Indian culinary ledger, which includes use of fenugreek seeds in some foods, it also, says Chef Vikas Seth (Culinary Director, Sriracha) presents itself as this versatile flavour note to play with, given that anything when complemented rightly with a bitter note can enhance it manifold. A case in point is the Som Tam salad that often uses grapefruit known for its slightly bitter taste — and yet, when paired rightly, it elevates the sweet-sour spiciness of this refreshing salad. It is similar to the role of fenugreek seeds and curry leaves (that have a bitter edge to it) in the beloved dish of kadi. It enhances the umami flavour profile and the sour-sweet hint of curd to give the dish an interesting, almost addictive palate play.”

So, how does one have bitter food for maximum effect? As part of the meal, says Bhassin, who advocates eating karela or any bitter food along with dal, chawal or roti, as it is only then that the “bitter food will play to its maximum capability”.

Madhulika dash
Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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