A Taste for Danger – Beyond the Pleasure Principle


Biting into the pip of a clementine.

The thick skins on granddad's homegrown grapes.

These were some of my first encounters with bitterness, whose presence interfered with the otherwise pleasant business of being a child. 

That children find bitter things repulsive is unsurprising. It stems from our desire to survive: in nature, it is the poisonous compounds that taste acrid and the energy giving compounds that taste sweet.  In our infancy the tongue repulses bitterness and acts as a gatekeeper to our wellbeing.

Yet bitterness is everywhere in our diets. Oolong tea and melon seeds, raw olives, bitter gourd stir fries and kumquats… the wicked taste had certainly insinuated itself into my mother's kitchen.

How to explain this affection for what is essentially a bad taste?

Firstly, bitterness is associated with health.

While many poisonous substances taste bitter, so too do those with health-promoting qualities. This knowledge has been with us since the early days, where the herbal tea shops of the Orient and the apothecaries of Europe peddled bitter brews to address a whole host of ailments.

Certainly we now have the science to back up some of these practices - the bitterness of green tea is caused by catechins, thought to have potent antioxidant and positive metabolic properties. The anti-diabetic properties of bitter gourd are well documented across leading food science journals. The bitter compounds in broccoli and brussels sprouts are thought to play a part in cancer prevention.

But most of all, the proliferation of bitterness in our daily lives is perhaps down to the fact that we have actually acquired a taste for danger. Researchers have termed this as "benign masochism". The theory describes how people legitimately gain pleasure from aversive activities, such as sad movies, eating chilies and consuming bitter foods. In these cases, the brain at first interprets the stimulus as threatening and then, realising that there is no real danger, experiences a flush of pleasure. Over prolonged exposure a feedback loop is created in our brains and we learn to hanker after light punishment.

In an essay titled, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”, Freud goes further to say that this craving for self-destruction is one of the two governing forces of humankind. Our entire existence is a struggle between reproduction, creativity and harmony on the one hand, and compulsion, aggression and destruction on the other. Eros and Thanatos, sex drive and death drive, these are the forces that rule us. So when we luxuriate in the poisonous tastes of kale, endive and rocket leaf salads, chased down with turmeric lattes and espresso martinis, it is perhaps the sign of something darker.

In fact, bitterness has long played a fundamental role in mixology.  The classical definition of a cocktail is "a mixed drink that contains a base spirit, water, sugar, and bitters". Not only do bartenders rely on it as a counterweight to sweetness, they deploy it to create complexity.

"Bitter is a multi-layered taste,"  explains Georgia Billing PhD., Head Bartender at Sexy Fish Restaurant and Co-Founder of Reina Labs.

"Quassia bark and gentian root can be longer and more delicate than cinchona bark and wormwood. Within wormwood, there are different types of bitter with contrasting intensities." Meanwhile in Beijing, a new bar has just opened its doors, offering medicinal cocktails and a Traditional Chinese Medicine Doctor in residence to prescribe customised tonics. The drinks offering reads like an apothecarial garden: basil, lime and bee pollen, henbane, coca leaf and prunella.

And every cook worth their salt knows the value of bitter. "Bitterness is a useful tool in balancing a dish," says Ed Szymanski, variously head, sous and de partie chef at much acclaimed (and sometimes starred) restaurants both sides of the pond.

"With careful application - a confit orange rind in a glaze for roast ham, a crunchy leaf of treviso in a salad tempered by the saltiness of ricotta salata and the sweetness of candied hazelnuts - it can add a level of excitement to a plate that would otherwise stray into monotone."

In literature on the other hand, bitterness gets a bad rap.

Bitterly, she smiled - this bittersweet revelation was too bitter a pill to swallow.

When we deploy "bitter" for literary purposes, we are conveying wistfulness mingled with a feeling of betrayal, with perhaps a dash of self-loathing at our own naivety.

Nevertheless, we look favorably upon the ability to tolerate bitterness, linking it with human virtue, self-restraint and sophistication. In Chinese, there is a colloquialism which literally translates to "eating bitterness (吃苦,chi ku)", referring to perseverance. As with the consumption of bitter foods, perseverance requires the endurance of hardship.

After years of practice, the pips and grape skins of childhood no longer make my toes curl. If bitter tolerance is a virtue, I would comfortably make the ranks of the lesser saints. At least, that is what I thought until last November, when I found myself having my pulse measured by the best Chinese medicine doctor in all of Shanxi province. Proclaiming that I was full of "cold" energy, ("a common ailment among young females"), I was handed a personal prescription of herbal ingredients from the ancient Chinese war-chest of remedies.

Full of curiosity and thrill, I traipsed over to a traditional pharmacy in Beijing. The first thing I noticed was the smell. The air was filled with sweet, grassy, herbal notes. A tinge of liquorice, a touch of cinnamon, a snuff of peppermint.

Inside, it looked just how I imagined, perhaps more so – white coated shop assistants working behind a counter, efficiently reaching into the wooden shelves behind them, extracting the required ingredient, weighing it and parceling it in brown paper.

I handed over my prescription, and eventually from behind the orderly cabinets of dried orange peel, angelica and seahorses emerged fifteen individual pouches of a hazy amber liquid. Once per meal, for five consecutive days, I was to imbibe this mysterious elixir.

Suffice to say, I couldn’t stay the course. Different tactics were employed, to little avail: pinching my nose, doubling with water…nothing could temper the taste. The worst thing was the length of the finish, an acrid, pungent, soapiness that haunted my gullet for hours.

Having rebounded from this traumatic experience, I’m firmly back on the bitter bandwagon. There is something wonderful about settling down to a good tear inducing read with my green tea in hand, Hans Zimmer on replay. Something glorious about the sensation of bitterness, without the immediate relief of sugar – because what is sweet, without its counterpart?


- Ophelia Cai


Do you want to 吃苦?

Here are my top three bitter things:

Japanese cherry garden tea by Yumchaa

Wild Ophelia Coffee Chocolate

Karma Kombucha