Friday, April 16, 2010

The Bitterest of Melons

O my vegetable friends, I've been away too long, my energies dispersed to the four winds like tiny mustard seeds traveling in search of a moment in which to alight onto a cool bit of loamy soil and marinate awhile in their spicy oils.

There is much gastronomical news to tell over my next few posts, the first of which involves my meeting of two founding members of the National Bitter Melon Council, an exciting and formidable society dedicated to the furthering of knowledge and enjoyment of the much-maligned bitter melon. Recently relocated from Boston, bitter councilors Hiroko Kikuchi and Jeremy Liu have been feeling out the lay of the land, splashing about in the bowels of the Bay Area gastro-intellectual foodist complex, and bumping up against the likes of yours truly at the Gastronomica UC Berkeley event two weeks ago. Expect a Weird Veg + Bitter Melon Council steaming hot pot conversation post to ensue.

These bitter melon agents have so swimmingly plumbed the depths of the bitter melon universe on their pleasingly designed website [side note: Weird Veg redesign coming soon!] that I feel I can add no further metaphor, can lead you down no additional information superhighway. I can only gesture mutely toward their copia of bitter melon aliases--Balsam pear, balsamina (Spanish), ku gua or foo gwa (Chinese), and assorossie (French), point you in the direction of their Bitter Melon Homeopathy for Urban Renewal: Bitter is Better public garden-intervention project, which included the construction and launching of bitter melon seed bombs, and instruct you to follow their advice on cooking the bitter melon.

But as in other times when I find myself at the outer limits of my ability, I turn to the Joy Luck Club ethos of my inscrutably Asian mother, who finds no greater pleasure than showering her lucky golden dragon sweet river pearls of wisdom upon my humble head. According to Cô Thao, as you may address her:

1. Eating the burnt edges of toast makes you stupid

2. You should never give a knife as a gift because it will cut up the ties of your relationship to that person. But if this should ever happen accidentally, the giftee should give the giver a penny so that the gift becomes transformed into a purchase, and all potential curses are thereby lifted.

3. Drinking bitter melon tea will lower your blood pressure. This ancient pearl actually comes from my grandmother, whom I address as Ba Ngoai and who drinks dried bitter melon tea she gets from Seattle's Chinatown. My mom was recently diagnosed with high blood pressure and so has taken to buying whole bitter melons and boiling one for an hour, then drinking the bitter water for a circulatory relaxation effect. This benefit has not been medically proven and does not occur on the Bitter Melon Council's list of bitter melon health benefits or ethnomedical uses, but my mom says it works and so does her home blood pressure monitor. In S.F., the Alemany and Heart of the City Civic Center farmers' markets are good places to find bitter melon in addition to your average Asian-owned corner market.

Below, Cô Thao demonstrates the preparation of the bitter melon:

First, slice it open lengthwise.

Then pull the halves apart.

Using a spoon and strong twists of the wrist, remove the central pith and seeds, which pinken as the gourdy fruit matures, and are more bitter than the green meat.

Continue to scoop (disembowel) the melon. Yours will not look as neat and easy as this.

If you are just boiling the bitter melon for its strong tea, then slice it only as needed to fit in the pot. Otherwise, you can cut it into thick segments to be stuffed with ground pork, or slice it thinly to stir fry with garlic, onions, cilantro, and ground pork. It also makes a very nice soup, with ground pork.

Before eating, emotionally prepare yourself for the bitter punch. It can get addictive.


Nick Sung said...

this is the ONE thing, the ONLY thing,
i don't particularly enjoy eating.
it's too...YOW! you're a brave one.

i did grow up eating it though,
so i don't think of it unkindly.

kale daikon said...

Think of it like a shot of kombucha. YOW!

Nick Sung said...

eek and i just ate it raw the other night—pickled? salted? juiced by lemon? it was served with raw mackerel and a lemon wedge, and was possibly the least offensive BM i've ever eaten; i might even call it tasty! we ate every last slice.

the noteworthy thing was the combination — the bittermelon in context worked nicely.

yollielaurel said...

Aren't we kinda crazy eating bitter vegetable? Oh, but I just cooked one two days ago, sauteed in garlic, onion and scrambled egg. Another way of fixing it is sauteeing garlic, onion, pork and shrimp and adding boiled mung bean. Ampalaya leaves also taste good with this recipe.