A critical ingredient in making bitters is one or more bitter herbs. The grapefruit bitters I set out to make called for gentian as its bittering herb. I suppose I could have ordered online but that would be too easy. It was also unclear from the recipe whether I needed a powder, a liquid extract, fresh or dried whole herb. All I knew for sure was that I wanted to get my hands on some gentian so I could get to messing around with it. After fruitless online searches for herbs turned up lots and lots of marijuana but no gentian, I found a Chinese herbalist two miles from my house that looked promising.
I was not sure if they would have gentian, or what it would look like, or how I would ask for it. The old man who ran the shop was a Chinese pharmacist or maybe a wizard that spoke zero English and looked at me with a skeptical eye. I thought for a second he was going to sell me a small critter and tell me not to feed it after midnight. He pointed me to a book that had a Chinese to English list of herbs. Gentian was not listed. It could have been called something else or not listed or…I was not going to quit. Luckily there was a customer who seemed like a regular who had an English to Mandarin app on her iPhone.
She looked up and said “Long Dan Cao?”
The old wizard guy said “Long Dan Cao?”
She said “Long Dan Cao.”
The old wizard guy turned and pulled open a large drawer directly behind the register and pointed to a large pile of brown brambles contained within and said “Long Dan Cao?”
I said “I don’t know… I hope so.”
They both seemed really concerned that I might try to eat the stuff. To these two I was buying a potent medicine. It would have been too difficult and I worried a bit insulting to try to explain that I was going to be making cocktail bitters. The nice lady tried to be nice and suggested that it would be good for me and help me lose weight. Unfortunately her animated hand gestures seemed to suggest that said weight would be lost out my ass. Regardless, I assured them repeatedly that I would not be eating my Long Dan Cao.
I went to cross reference this with the list by looking up Long Dan Cao. There it was and on the English side it said “Rentian.” I wish I was joking. I did however shake my head, smile and ask how much. This stuff was only a buck fifty an ounce. Two ounces of gentian might last me a year or more but I would have been a little embarrassed after all that to just buy only a few pennies worth. So now not only am I the proud owner of a big ol’ bag of gentian, I now know how to ask for it and I know what it looks like, and so do you.
I feel like I just fixed the internet.