‘Bitter’ Spring Tonics – for Optimal Digestion

And spring soup that doesn’t taste at all bitter.

One of the practices that routinely helps us to continue in or return to health is to eat with the seasons. In the springtime, that means more super-green tasting and often slightly bitter greens. Traditionally, all cultures enjoyed bitter foods during their mealtime rituals, especially in the spring. In both Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, particular attention is brought to the liver and gallbladder in spring. These are digestive organs that are important for storing bile to emulsify and breakdown fats, and to process metabolic wastes, environmental and food toxins, and to store and secrete vitamins and minerals.

In early spring, the new plant growth – if you’ve ever plucked greens from the wild or even from your backyard – is often bitter. But farming, and to a certain extent climate change, has actually changed the taste of many of our bitter greens so they’re milder, more sweet, and pleasing to modern eaters. 

The Bitter Taste is Critical for Healthy Digestion

Ideally, we include all six of the flavors in our meals in a balanced way, so no one flavor stands out.

The bitter taste is so important because it activates the liver and stimulates the release of digestive secretions which promote the digestion of food and help the body to absorb and use the nutrients in the foods you eat. 

The bitter flavor also promotes gentle movement in the gastrointestinal tract (GI), which reduces cramping, bloating, and sluggish or stagnant digestion. Ever feel particularly heavy and lethargic after a rich and decadent meal? That’s the feeling that the bitter flavor prevents or alleviates. 

The bitter flavor is especially helpful when digesting foods is problematic. 

While you may not particularly enjoy the bitter flavor, it works best when you taste it directly on your tongue. If you put a few drops of a bitter herbal tincture on your tongue, you just might have a brief whole body, chill-like, reaction. That’s a good thing. That’s the stimulating effect that bitters have on the digestive system. 

Just like other flavors, bitter foods and herbs range from mild to intensely bitter. Often, we don’t need to overdo a good thing. For this flavor, a small amount is helpful. And depending on you, starting with incorporating more mild bitters is plenty effective.

Fresh Burdock Root – a nice mild bitter to cook with

Burdock Root

Burdock is a tried and true liver and skin tonic. Often used in it’s dried form, in herbal teas, it’s also wonderful to use fresh. If you can get your hands on some (found in the produce section of a grocery store that carries local items) or from a local farmer, I highly encourage you to incorporate it into your spring meals. Chopping and cooking into soups, stews, stir-fries, and sautéed in a little oil and spices is where it really shines.

I consider burdock root to a be a mild but highly effective bitter that’s a little different than all the other bitter spring (green) foods. One, because it’s a root instead of a leaf, but also because it contains a high percentage of inulin. Inulin is a pre-biotic fiber that is food for the beneficial bacteria in our lower GI.

Looks can be deceiving. This is what burdock root that’s been stored for a while –but is still nice on the inside–looks like

Common bitter foods and spices to incorporate into meals

Bitter Spring Vegetables:
Arugula
Broccoli
Fresh Burdock Root
Cabbage
Dandelion Greens
Other Dark Leafy Greens
Kale
Radicchio + Chicories
Watercress

Bitter Spices:
Fenugreek Seeds
Sesame Seeds
Turmeric

Happy Liver Spring Green Soup, serves about 4

Spring is a good time to incorporate more fresh greens and bitter herbs—local if possible—into your routine. This soup is an example of how to balance flavors so there is a hefty dose of liver-supportive bitter herbs, but the end result is balanced and delicious. It tastes like a smooth bowl of comfort rather than a bitter stew. I had a busy day when I first made this and texted William to tell him about it so he could have dinner ahead of me. He’s one of the best recipe testers because he’s one of those supertasters that picks out anything strong flavored or off. When I got home and asked him about this soup, his response was “That’s A LOT better than I was imagining.” And an empty bowl. This is a true spring tonic. Enjoy! 

2 Tbs. olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. fresh ginger, finely grated or minced
1 tsp. turmeric
Small pinch of ground black pepper
1 fresh burdock root, peeled and diced
1 pound sweet potatoes, (4 cups chopped)
4 cups mineral broth or water
1 Tbs. dried nettle leaves (or 1 handful of fresh nettles)
2 cups arugula or similar seasonal greens (watercress, spinach, chard, nettles, etc.)
4 cups kale
1 Tbs. apple cider vinegar
Fresh herbs to top
Cooked lentils to top (recipe below)

  1. In a large pot, heat the olive oil on medium heat. Stir in the chopped onions and cook until soft, about 10 minutes. Stir in the minced garlic, salt, and ginger and cook a couple minutes more. Add the turmeric and black pepper and let it cook just until the aroma comes up. Then stir in the sweet potatoes, burdock root, broth and nettles. Bring to a boil.
  2. Once it boils, cover and turn down to simmer for 15 minutes or more, until the sweet potatoes and burdock are soft through. Then add arugula and kale to the top. Cover and allow them to steam soften for a couple minutes. Stir them in. 
  3. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for a few minutes before pureeing in batches until smooth.  Return to the pot and add the apple cider vinegar and taste to adjust seasoning. When it’s missing something, I find it often needs just a tiny bit more acid to balance – try adding a few more drops of vinegar.
  4. Serve topped with fresh herbs and cooked lentils. I chose lemon balm since that’s what is growing abundantly in my garden right now. Mint or parsley would be wonderful as well. For an active individual, pairing this with a slice or two of a nice whole grain sourdough or similar bread may round out the meal even more

A Good Pot of Lentils, serves 3-4
Portions to Serve 1: 1/2-3/4 cup lentils

1 cups green or brown lentils
1/2 tsp. salt
3 cups water

Optional Aromatics: Choose 1-2
1 tsp. coriander seeds; ½ carrot; fennel fronds; 1 sprig thyme; 2 sprigs flat-leaf parsley; ½ celery stick; 1 small bay leaf

  1. Place 3 cups water, lentils, and salt in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Add 1 to 2 of the aromatics and return to a boil.
  2. Reduce heat and simmer until the lentils are tender and no longer chalky at their core, about 30-45 minutes. Let them cool slightly in their cooking liquid.  

Much of my nutrition practice is focused on individuals and athletes with digestive health issues such as leaky gut, food allergies and intolerances, chronic GI distress, malabsorption of foods and nutrients, and inflammation. If you’re tired, stressed, and not really sure what to eat to help or hurt anymore, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

The Six Tastes for Balanced Meals and Digestion

For a long time, it’s felt appropriate to share a food as medicine approach to eating in this space, but I’m not so sure I’ve adequately explained how to do this other than to share meals that are largely based on whole, minimally processed from-nature ingredients. 

I know you want to eat food and meals that taste good, and are also good for you, but it’s important to recognize that everything we eat also has an effect.

That effect can be incredibly subtle or super obvious and I don’t mean just the effects of the caloric, macro or even micronutrient content of your meal, but because each subtle flavor within a food and meal will affect your body and your mind. 

Particularly when you eat in the same pattern of meals and flavors day in and day out. 

The Six Flavors 

There are six primary flavors within foods and ideally, all six flavors are incorporated into main meals, and at least four flavors are enjoyed at breakfast when we tend to eat a smaller amount. The six flavors are: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, pungent, and astringent

Now, what foods have which flavor? And what are their effects? 

Sweet 

The SWEET taste comes from foods that contain natural sugars: sweet root vegetables like carrots, squash, beets, all fresh and dried fruit, whole grains, natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, and molasses, and fresh dairy products such as milk, butter, and ghee. 

The sweet flavor builds tissues within the body, calms the nerves and nervous system, and relieves hunger. It’s the flavor you likely reach for when you’re eating to soothe an emotion or for comfort. This is natural since the flavor of our first food of milk is sweet. That food-memory association between sweet food, love, and being comforted is particularly strong. 

If you are dry, thin, nervous, anxious, scattered, or have nerve disorders, more naturally sweet foods are indicated and may be missing in adequate amounts in your meals – these are the whole grains, root vegetables, sweet fruits, and natural sugars. 

Salt 

The SALTY taste comes from foods that are naturally salty including seaweeds like kombu, arame, wakame, and nori. Some water-based vegetables are also naturally a little salty including celery, tomatoes, zucchini, and cucumbers. And of course, natural salt such as sea salt or pink mineral salt provides this flavor. Adequately cooking our foods in salt, and adding in a teaspoon per serving of dried seaweed when cooking beans or other stewy meals is an excellent way to build the salty flavor into a meal that will help us to retain the water we consume and have tissues that are more deeply hydrated, as well as provide a natural source of iodine – a critical and often missing nutrient for optimal thyroid health. 

If you are dry, drink plenty of water but are still dehydrated, experience constipation or find that the meals you cook taste “flat,” incorporating the salty flavor during the cooking process, rather than at the end, can be especially helpful. 


Sour

The SOUR flavor comes from foods such as lemons, lime, vinegars, unripe fruit, and fermented foods such as yogurt, pickles, kimchi, sauerkraut, sourdough bread, soy sauce and tamari. Many individuals either avoid sour foods or over-do them in meals. Both not enough and too much can cause problems. Adding in just a little squeeze of fresh lime juice or a little spoonful of apple cider or white wine vinegar at the end of cooking meals is frequently just enough of the sour flavor to lubricate tissues and stimulate the digestion process.

If you tend to run extra warm or frequently experience hot, agitated emotions, experience acid indigestion or reflux, have loose or sticky, incomplete stools, rashes, inflammation, or itchy, acne-prone skin, you may be over-doing the sour taste in your meals. 

Pungent

The PUNGENT flavor comes from hot and spicy peppers, black peppercorn, onions, garlic, ginger, mustard, horseradish, wasabi, raw radishes and turnips, asafoetida, cinnamon and cloves. 

This flavor increases heat and stimulates digestion and metabolism. As such, you should incorporate it into your meals in slightly larger amounts if you are routinely cold, experience poor circulation, or have low digestive fire –meaning you don’t digest or tolerate foods well

But for many others, too much pungent flavorings causes extra heat, excessive sweating and inflammation, skin rashes, acne, or eczema, agitated emotions, acid indigestion or reflux, and loose stools and diarrhea. 

If you tend to be a person that’s eternally on the move, both physically or mentally, and find it difficult to slow down your mind or pause for a relax break or day, it’s safe to say you may also benefit from cutting out too much of the pungent flavor — take a couple weeks without onions, garlic, and spicy peppers and then take note of how you feel.

Bitter

The BITTER taste is one many of us avoid. That’s unfortunate because the actions of bitter are to stimulate the digestion process by telling the body to begin releasing essential digestive acids and enzymes. The bitter flavor also helps the liver performs its routine detoxification process (necessary to get rid of waste products, excess hormones, and toxins), and it lightens tissues that are puffy and retaining water. 

Bitter foods include aloe vera, dandelion leaves and root, dark leafy greens, all vegetables in the brassica family, burdock root, eggplants, Jerusalem artichokes, sesame seeds and oil, dark chocolate, coffee, and fenugreek seeds.

Like the pungent flavor, we want just a small amount of bitter flavors in our meals — not an excess. Where many people tend to consume too much bitter is in the form of coffee. Coffee is a stimulant, and caffeine can be particularly troublesome for the liver, especially if you have hormonal imbalances. Try to reduce your coffee intake to no more than one to two 8-oz. cups in the morning if you enjoy coffee regularly. 

Astringent

The ASTRINGENT taste comes in beans and legumes, cruciferous / brassica vegetables such as kale, cabbage, broccoli, and brussels sprouts, unripe bananas, pomegranates, cranberries, and most herbs and spices including basil, bay leaves, caraway seeds, coriander, dill, fennel seeds, marjoram, nutmeg, oregano, parsley, rosemary, saffron, turmeric, vanilla, coffee, tea, wine, and alcohol. 

The astringent flavor helps us to absorb water, and dry and tighten tissues. I’ve used an alcohol-based (astringent) toner on my face a couple times a day for years, and to no surprise, I’ve also tended to experience frequent dry skin. The astringent nature of my facial toner is a wonderful example of what happens internally when we consume astringent foods. This can be excellent and necessary, in small amounts! 

If you experience chronic diarrhea or varicose veins, two examples of the tissues not being able to hold onto their fluids, astringent foods or herbs may be beneficial in slightly larger amounts. On the other hand, if you have routinely dry skin, or a dry internal condition like constipation, eating and drinking less astringent foods will be helpful. 

Six Flavors in Balance

Above all, a great way to begin to understand the effect of the different flavors and particular foods is to really pay attention to the flavor of the foods you are eating. Can you taste the sweetness when thoroughly chewing a whole grain or a steamed carrot? Can you pick out the drying, astringent effect as you take a sip of black tea, coffee, or wine? Do you notice how you internally heat up after a sandwich with spicy mustard or a bowl of particularly spicy soup? And then what do you notice in the minutes or hours afterwards?

When you begin to eat more meals that have a balance of the flavors, you’ll also notice that ongoing digestive symptoms and food intolerances might begin to reduce and eventually may even go away. And because meals simply taste better without being elaborate or extra complicated, cravings or over-eating begins to be less of an issue.

Much of my nutrition practice is focused on individuals and athletes with digestive health issues such as leaky gut, food allergies and intolerances, chronic GI distress, malabsorption of foods and nutrients, and inflammation. If you’re tired, stressed, and not really sure what to eat to help or hurt anymore, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

Garlic-Orange Tofu and Peanut Cucumbers with Rice

When I glance out the window this morning, it looks like it’s raining. But I look again and it’s still ash. We’ve been raining ash for the last couple days as the air quality went from clear blue skies over Labor Day weekend to a dramatic sweep of heavy smoke on Monday evening as several fast-moving forest fires have been burning in the cascade mountains and now closer near the edge of town to our east. Our hens have been out foraging as usual but I worry about their little lungs. Our teenage kitten, a truly needed and lovely new addition this summer, has been upset at the eery light the last couple of days.

I’ve been back to morning meditation lately first thing before I get out of bed or turn on the light, and this morning’s had me expressing gratitude for our air purifiers, those ‘noise machines’ that I have routinely tsk-tsked since William insisted on them in the last couple years. And also gratitude for a safe home. The alarm of LEVEL 3–GET OUT NOW evacuation alerts going off on my phone throughout yesterday afternoon for the northeast edge of the city, truly a ways off from us but too close for comfort, brought that gratitude home.

Today at least we got a sunrise, smoky as it was. Yesterday was just a dark red Apocalyptic haze, which is becoming the norm in Western Oregon in the last 36 hours.

We can still smell the smoke inside even with a couple good air purifiers so I’ve been adding turmeric to all my meals, taking or eating extra vitamin C and vitamin E-rich foods (hazelnuts, peanuts, sunflower seeds, leafy greens), and adding tulsi / holy basil, and licorice and marshmallow roots to my tea blend. The first three are taken with the idea of combatting the oxidative stress that comes with particularly toxic wildfire smoke particles. If I had a particularly vitamin-C rich food or herb on hand such as amla fruit powder, camu camu powder, or rose hips, I’d use that instead of just plain supplemental vitamin C. The last two roots of marshmallow and licorice are for soothing irritated internal tissues, such as the lungs and digestive lining. Even though I’m staying inside and out of the terrible air, this stuff is incredibly potent. Turmeric particularly helps my smoke headaches.

—–

While I’ve been meaning to share more about digestive health in this space over the next few days—since this is an area that my previous survey indicated is definitely a need. But first, I think we can all use a really good meal that’s refreshing, comforting, and enjoyable while summer is still here.

I know many individuals avoid tofu because they’re unsure of how to prepare it, or when they’ve tried to in the past the texture is all wrong. I was there for a long time (probably 10 years since I first attempted tofu until I was comfortable cooking / eating it). So I’ve outlined a little more detailed way to prepare it. This is my go-to method and yields the texture we prefer.

Then the tofu is paired with finely chopped cucumbers tossed and marinated in the same dressing as the tofu is marinated and cooked in, and enjoyed with simple brown rice. The result is a simple concept but the taste is truly rich and incredible. Hope you’re staying safe in whatever way where you are, and if you tend to avoid tofu because you’re unsure how to cook it, give this recipe a try.

Garlic-Orange Tofu and Cucumbers with Rice, serves 4
inspired by Anna Jones in the The Modern Cook’s Year

16 oz. / 453 grams firm tofu, drained

dressing:
3 cloves of garlic, minced
3 Tbs. reduced-sodium tamari
2 Tbs. brown rice vinegar or raw apple cider vinegar
1 Tbs. toasted sesame oil
1 Tbs. honey or maple syrup
a pinch of red pepper flakes
¼ tsp. ground black pepper
¼ tsp. ground coriander
the zest and juice of 1 unwaxed/organic orange

1 cup / 190 grams brown rice
2 cups / 470 ml water
1 ¼ lb. / 600 grams / ~4 cucumbers
a few pinches of salt
¼ cup /35 grams peanuts, toasted
a small handful of fresh basil, minced

  • Slice the block of tofu in half lengthwise, wrap in paper towels like a birthday gift, and then stack the wrapped tofu between two cutting boards. If you have something heavy in your kitchen, put it on top of your cutting board as a weight. (I use my giant Shakespeare textbook). Leave to press out the liquid for about 30 minutes.
  • While the tofu is pressing, whisk together the dressing ingredients.
  • When the 30 minutes is up, unwrap the tofu and slice it into equal size cubes (I get about 48), and combine it with 1/4 to 1/3 cup of the dressing in a container with a leak-proof lid. With the lid on, give it a few shakes to immerse in the dressing and then chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes and up to a day. More time will allow for more flavor to develop.
  • Once the tofu has marinated, turn it and its dressing onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake at 400 degrees F for about 40 minutes, flipping it over halfway through.
  • After the tofu goes in the oven, cook the rice in a medium pot on the stovetop. Add 2 cups of water, 1 cup of brown rice (ideally pre-soaked but simply rinsed and drained if not), and bring the pot to a boil. Once it boils, turn down to a simmer, cover, and cook undisturbed for 40 minutes.
  • While the rice and tofu are cooking away, dice the cucumbers into small (~1-cm) pieces. Place the slices in a colander that’s over a sink or another bowl, and sprinkle and toss through a few pinches of salt. Set aside for 15 to 20 minutes to release some of their liquid.
  • Then take your (clean) hands or a clean kitchen towel and press the cucumbers to remove any extra liquid that may have been released. Put the cucumber in a bowl and add ¼ to 1/3 cup of the remaining dressing. Add more to taste. Scatter over and stir through the toasted peanuts.
  • Once the tofu and rice timers are done, remove them both from the heat and serve with the marinated cucumbers. Sprinkle atop some fresh minced basil leaves if desired.