By Nigel Spence
As food trends evolve, chefs are constantly in a frenzy of motion and brainstorming to meet the sophisticated demands of consumers in search of new and unusual flavors. Sweet and savory combinations, which for many years, held first place on menu options are being laid to rest as a new taste is quickly emerging this year – bitter. Jamaicans would say: “Weh sweet yu gwine soon sour yu”. (LOL) – Although food is rarely the reference for this proverb – ha!
With more and more emphasis on health food, people are taking their veggies seriously and are going all out to include choices like kale, arugula, endive, turnip greens, beet and seaweed, to name a few. Others are drinking cocktails mixed with “bitters” or Campari, for a new excitement in flavor. New snacks are on the market combining sweet with bitter or spicy and bitter. Dark chocolate is being used even more in certain food and snack preparations.
Scientists believe that bitter foods actually assist the body in absorbing more nutrients; increase metabolism and even detoxify. I also read in a local newspaper where a food analyst stated that bitter flavors “offer a big mouthfeel” and provide such a flavor boost that consumers would no longer want a salty taste and thereby, lessen their sodium intake.
We were never short of bitter foods in our day, growing up in Jamaica – we just never appreciated it as much then. Greens like bok choi, mustard, callaloo and even watercress frequently made their way to our breakfast or dinner table, prepared in several ways, sometimes including saltfish, salt pork and/or bacon.
I remember one time though, a tantalizing aroma was coming from our kitchen. Mom was over the stove preparing some kind of dish with bacon, saltfish and some strange looking green berries.
Her excitement was contagious and I found myself watering at the mouth anxious to get a taste of this delectable delight. She had only cooked enough for herself but was willing to share a little with me. Feeling special, I waited patiently at the table as she placed a saucer in front of me with a little of the delicious-smelling mystery dish.
Dying to dig in, I filled my mouth in one motion, with almost half of the food on my plate. However, within a few seconds, my facial expressions began to contort, first with delight, then with shock, ending in total disgust – kinda like the guy on the TV show – “Incredible Hulk”. As quickly as I shoved the food in my mouth was as quickly as I spat it out! That was my first introduction to “Susumber” also known as gully beans – small green berries that grow in bunches and packs a very bitter taste especially the older the berry.
People, no amount of bacon or saltfish could disguise the bitter aftertaste of those beans! I could not believe mi Modda coulda do me so bad. But looking over at her enjoying every bite, I realized it was not a trick, she was really sharing her joy with me – I was just not ready yet for the experience.
Another day, I remember running inside from the heat of the sun to grab some water from a jug in the fridge. Standing tall beside the water jug was a plastic container full of ice cold lemonade…well that was my thought at the time. I filled my glass and downed almost half of the liquid before my brain caught up to my tongue. Something was very wrong! I can remember thinking to myself “Oh God, not again!” The so-called lemonade turned out to be a jug full of the bitter herb Cerasee which was drawn earlier and left to chill. Man, that was another experience I will never forget!
But thank goodness for time. It is the healer of all wounds, whether from injury or food.
In my profession as a Chef, I keep an open mind and accept new concepts in food preparations while often re-visiting old traditions. This has helped me to create some of the most amazing recipes enjoyed in my restaurant and at home. Along with my newfound healthy lifestyle, I have to say my taste buds are simply exploding with sheer delight as each new creation is introduced.
So get ready to hone in on the wild side of “bitter” – the trend for 2016. Unlike Mom’s gully bean escapade, there will be no spitting out of food nor “Hulk” contortions… this one is a keeper for all ages and palates and will have you yearning for more. Enjoy my friends – to your good health!
Sautéed Shrimp & Bitter Melon
2 Cups bitter melon, sliced
1 small yellow onion, med dice
1 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 scotch bonnet pepper, seeds removed, finely chopped
1 large tomato, large dice
3 tbsp coconut oil
1/3 cup water
2 Tablespoons fresh cilantro, rough chopped
salt & pepper to taste
Cut the ends off the bitter melon and cut in half lengthwise. Do not peel them. Remove the seeds and pith from the inside of the melon using a spoon. Cut the melon diagonally into 1/4-inch slices.
Blanch the sliced bitter melon in salted boiling water for 3 minutes and drain. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon sugar to the melon and toss and reserve.
In a large sauté pan over medium heat add coconut oil onions, garlic, tomato, scotch bonnet pepper and pepper. Cook for 3 minutes until onions are translucent, then add shrimp. Cook for an additional 2 minutes over medium heat until shrimp turn pink then add bitter melon. Reduce the heat to low and cook for an additional 3 minutes stirring to incorporate all. Garnish with cilantro.
Serve over steaming white rice.
Nigel Spence, a Culinary Institute of America alumnus, was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Nigel freelanced at the Television Food Network for 3 years where he worked with culinary luminaries such as Mario Batali, Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse. Chef Spence has appeared twice on Throwdown with Bobby Flay where he emerged the victor in cook offs against the Food Network star and was featured on CBS when he appeared on Tony’s Table as well as ABC’s Neighborhood Eats, NBC’s The Today Show , Sirius’ Everyday Living with Martha Stewart and TVFN’s Chopped. The acclaimed and New York Times-reviewed Ripe Kitchen and Bar is Mr Spence’s first entrepreneurial endeavour.