As promised, some notes on my research on bitter plants and their healing properties.
I wonder if the bitter flavour is under-represented in most folks’ diets simply because it’s harder to identify than sweet, salty, spicy and sour? Or if it’s more of an evolutionary accident because too much bitterness often indicates something is dangerous or poisonous? Whatever the reason, I, like many, haven’t been getting enough of the important active ingredients in bitter plants, and this might be at the heart of some of my inner and outer problems.
Signs of toxicity in the skin, under-active digestion, gathering weight and joint pains – these are all indications of a system not operating at peak function – and it’s been fascinating for me to understand the relationship between my body’s complex functions and the active ingredients of some of the humblest plants in the garden!
We need bitterness in life! This shouldn’t surprise the balance-minded gardener at all. To everything there is a season…
(Before we go any further, I feel obliged to shock you by revealing that I’m not a doctor. I have a very sad digestive tract which is finally getting some TLC, so my foray into bitters is just a journey of discovery – and not in the least bit backed by qualifications! If you’re not sure what a plant is, don’t taste-test it. Lots of things that are bitter are in fact really quite bad for you! I’m not going to mention the dangerous ones, because I don’t need to enter into real apothecary territory, I just want to boost my daily diet! So if you want to get more bitters, do your research!)
What are bitter plants?
Even the shortest glance at the list will start to form a familiar picture – these are standard apothecary plants, whether you’re visiting a health shop, or looking at the ingredients in an over-the-counter digestive aid in any pharmacy: aniseed, fennel, licorice, peppermint…
If the medicinal ones are more familiar to you as medicine rather than every day food, it might be a sign you’re not getting enough either.
fennel (seed and plant),
rocket (Arugula across the pond),
dandelion leaves, (that’s why I grow them deliberately, all over my lawn, obviously. Ahem),
bitter melon and gourd,
aloe vera, etc, etc
Some bitter herbs and spices: ginger, pepper, cardamom, thyme, marjoram, lovage, rosemary, tarragon, bay leaves, sorrel, sage.
Really, we should be getting bitters into our meals every single day for a happy, healthy gut and a functioning digestive system, and up until relatively recently, the only bitter I was getting every single day was coffee. And I’ll stand by that. Life is nice with coffee.
So, how have I been experiencing the joys of bitterness?
Some things, like camomile tea and salads, are easy no-brainers. But home-cooking is the best way. I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from the East, where digestion is frequently the main focus of a meal.
Sanbaizu Tsukemono (Japanese Pickle)
Image from: The Spruce.
From memories of my time in Japan – when I felt so good eating pickles and rice for breakfast – I’ve taken the idea of eating pre-meal ginger, and accompanying teas. The meals in a traditional Japanese onsen reflect the practice of separating the elements of a meal and letting the eyes feast first. An appreciation of food before scoffing it is more than an ascetic concern, it is a practical aspect of healthy digestion!
(Horribly blurry photos from my 2012 Japan trip – but especially worth sharing for vegans because Japan is a delicious place to visit!)
From India and Ayurvedic medicine I’ve gathered some gentle and wholesome recipes that help a struggling gut to get back on its feet, and in my own garden I’m starting to plot out a dedicated bitters larder!
I know there are some wonderful cooks out there, so if you have any recipes to share using bitter plants, do let me know!
Below are just a couple of quick recipes I’ve either tried, or will be trying soon (Including a rather pleasant unisex anti-bacterial face mask!)
I hope this has been interesting to you- and if you do have any tips, please share them!
If you’re interested in especially gentle-but-satisfying recipes for sad digestion, do let me know. I have found some in my searches which I quite like and I’m supremely lazy about cooking, so they’re nice and easy too!
An Ayurvedic Appetizer
Eating this 20 mins before meals increases the digestive process – also bitter and astringent tastes battle bad bacteria so it’s a good way of preparing the guts for efficiently digesting food rather than dealing with internal weeding!
- 2 inches of fresh ginger
- 1 whole Lime
- 2 Pinches of salt
- Slice ginger into long, thin strips & place in a jar
- Cover with lime juice & salt to marinate
- Eat 1 strip 20 mins before meal
Main Course 1
You can use nettles in place of any green veggies like spinach and kale, so there are hundreds of recipes to utilise these free and abundant greens!
I like nettle pesto because I’m quite a lazy cook, basically. I also used to drink nettles in hot water instead of green tea, because nettles have a much subtler flavour and I found it a lot less astringent and drying.
I go to my nettle lardar (ahem) and pick the freshest, broadest, brightest leaves – wearing gloves of course – and cut them from the plant into a bag or a colander. Wash them with gloves on too. The sting is neutralised by either cooking them, or by crushing of them. For the pesto, either blitz them in a blender or a good old fashioned pestle and mortar if you’re feeling like it.
Add your favourite oil, lightly toasted pine nuts, maybe some garlic and/or almonds, or a cheese like parmesan (there are vegan parmesan alternatives that are actually more pungent than the real thing!) and hey-pesto!
It’s nice and simple and takes virtually no effort at all. Like all the weeding you didn’t do which allowed you to be nettle rich the whole summer through…
Main Course 2
Slow-cooked Fennel with Lemon
I’d love to eat seasonally all the time, but lemons really do brighten life up! If it’s still cold where you are, this warm, roasted wholesomeness and bright, fresh lemon plate of loveliness is just what you need to blow the cobwebs!
Preparation time: 10 minutes, plus cooling
Cooking time: 1 hour
Total time: 1 hour 10 minutes, plus cooling
3 large fennel bulbs (about 300g each), trimmed, fronds reserved
75ml olive oil
3 garlic cloves, finely sliced
3 bay leaves
4 tbsp roughly chopped flat leaf parsley
3 mint sprigs, leaves picked
1. Preheat the oven to 180˚C, gas mark 4. Halve the fennel bulbs lengthways through the core, then cut each half into 3 wedges, keeping the core intact. Put in a roasting tray in a single layer. Pare large strips of lemon zest over the fennel, then squeeze over the lemon juice. Pour over the olive oil and 50ml water, then add the sliced garlic and bay leaves; season.
2. Give the tray a shake to coat the fennel in the juice, then cover tightly with foil. Roast for about 1 hour, until the fennel is soft, removing the foil 10 minutes before the end of cooking time. Set aside to cool.
3. Spread the cooled fennel on a serving plate with its juices (discard the bay leaves). Sprinkle over the chopped parsley, mint leaves and fennel fronds.
Don’t forget your face!
If you’re not getting enough bitters, you’re likely showing it in your face, with break-outs due to toxic build ups, age spots, and all sorts of crummy stuff.
This topaz daydream is what I’m putting on my face once a week (after I’ve given it a shake obviously).
- 1/2 Cup of Extra virgin Olive Oil
- 1/4 Cup of Apple Cider Vinegar
- 1/4 Cup of water
The water dilutes the grease of the oil and the acid of the vinegar,
the oil hydrates and balances the skin
and the vinegar kills bacteria and sorts out discoloration.
Don’t leave this on as a moisturiser! You’ll be tempted by the lush feeling, but you’ll smell like a pungent salad dressing… (which this is also excellent as by the way!), but wash it off after about 10-15mins with tepid water, and pat yourself dry very delicately.
Don’t you feel much better about putting things on your skin when you know you can safely eat them as well? Who needs chemicals and preservatives when you can use your lunch to make you gorgeous?