Bitter Greens

There's no accounting for taste. At a recent birthday dinner at a Chinese restaurant, the birthday host announced with great enthusiasm the arrival of his favorite course, Bitter Gourd ( also known as Bitter Melon). Really? I'm pretty easy going with food and can manage most things but this vegetable, I despise, its so bitter. I don't get it, how can anyone 'enjoy' this. It's good for you, it has plenty of Iron my Dad always says when it shows up for dinner and I crinkle my nose. He's right, nutritionally, there's high amounts of beta carotene, potassium and iron, and there's some evidence that it has medicinal and therapeutic properties. I had it at a South Indian restaurant, and cooked with coconut and spices, it's more tolerable.

I discovered this interesting green at the supermarket, pretty like a giant clover leaf , see pic on left. It's bitter, but in the range of Water Cress or Broccoli Rabe and I've been enjoying it in soups and as a raw vegetable side. I've subsequently tracked it down from its local name (Pucuk Pegaga) to discover that it is in fact Centella Asiatica or Gotu Kula. The latter name is one that I've often seen in NYC health shops sharing shelf space with the likes of Echinacea, and Gingko Biloba, its claimed property- mental clarity. It seems the triterpenoids it contains has properties that benefit things from wound healing to insomnia.

I noticed a jar of dried leaves (pic on the right) in the kitchen and asked the maid what they were. I take it for coughs, she said. She walked me outside to show me the plant and said it's better to take it fresh- three leaves rolled up together and swallowed whole. It is wickedly bitter and a relatively common weed, I see it growing all over. It's Andrographis Paniculata, an ancient herb that's used in both Traditional Chinese and Ayuredic systems, also known as Indian Echinacea. There's evidence that it may be effective in the treatment of uncomplicated upper respiratory tract infection.

The taste perception of bitterness, has an interesting paradox, we are genetically wired to reject bitter foods as the taste frequently represents danger or toxicity. However, the phenols, flavonoids, isoflavones, terpenes, and glucosinolates in plants that are bitter can also, in small doses be beneficial. This dilemna, interestingly has different responses and approaches - in the west through selective breeding and other methods, debittering is a process often found in the food industry in response to the consumer avoidance of these foods rich in phytonutrients and therapeutic properties. Here in the east - bitter foods are regularly served and this is not including the already high rotation of bitter-ish vegetables like mustard greens and chinese broccoli and any protest usually met with- but it's good for you.

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