Monday, March 7, 2011

Bitter Melon

I like food with character. I don't need bold, assertive flavors 24/7, but I'll admit I gravitate to them. Bitter melon is a favorite of mine. It isn't for everyone - while popular in Asia, it's more of a cult veggie among Westerners. It's name is only half correct: it's not a melon; it's a gourd. But it is bitter, possessed of the powerful astringency of quinine. Some say the flavor reminds them of asprin. It has a medicinal taste, and in China has many uses in traditional medicine. I've heard of it being good for diabetes, hangovers and psoriasis, among other things. It is densely packed with nutrients, to be sure. But most important to me is that its astringency is a perfect foil to one of my favorite foods: pork.

On Chinese menus it appears in soup or stir fried with beef, but I'm of the belief that bitter melon is at its best with pork in a black bean sauce. And not sliced pork, char siu or the more traditional little spare rib chunks, either. I like it with coarsely ground pork. This has been in pretty regular rotation in my kitchen for 20 years. I'll include it on the menu for dinner parties sometimes, and am still surprised when it's one of the first dishes to be polished off. Bitter melon's flavor can be a bit much for some, but against ground pork and black bean sauce it's capable of winning people over. I'm capable of eating almost half a pound of bitter melon in a sitting, and am lucky enough to be married to a woman who takes great joy in doing the same.

Bitter melon can be found in Asian markets. You want it green, not orange. Sometimes you can find the Thai variety, which is white and very mild. The Indian variety is darker and even bumpier, not what I'd use for this dish. Right now bitter melon appears to be out of season in the Northeast, so not everyone has it, and it's $4 a pound - more than twice what I pay in the summer. But I'll pay it, because I need my fix. Today was one of those days, hence this post.

Approach the bitter melon by slicing it down the center lengthwise (unlike my picture above). Use a teaspoon to scoop out the seeds and white pulp, which you discard. Cut each half of the vegetable into 1/4" half rounds, and you're ready to go.

Note: Bitter melon is not a fast enough cooking vegetable to stir fry the way you would a bell pepper. You have two options for getting it cooked through: you can boil the slices for a few minutes beforehand, drain them and let dry before stir frying. Or you can let the finished dish simmer in the wok over low heat, covered, for a few extra minutes to finish cooking the bitter melon. I like the second method, although it seems to violate standard wok practices. Just remember the less cooked the melon the more bitter it will be. You don't want it totally soft, but you do want it cooked through.

The recipe below will makes enough for a complete dinner for two over rice, or will feed as many as six as part of a larger meal. (The black bean sauce in the recipe is also a no-brainer for seafood dishes, and even works for chicken and vegetables).

Pork and Bitter Melon in Black Bean Sauce

3/4lb bitter melon, cut in half-rounds as described above
1/3-1/2 lb ground pork (coarse is better)
2Tbs Chinese fermented black beans soaked in 2Tbs Chinese rice wine
Tbs soy sauce
1/2tsp sugar
1/3 cup chicken stock
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2" piece ginger, peeled and chopped
1 jalapeno pepper, sliced into rounds
3Tbs peanut oil, for frying
heaping Tbs cornstarch made into a slurry with and equal amount cold water, to thicken

Pour oil into hot wok. Add bitter melon and stir fry for 3-4 min, adding a little oil if needed to keep from sticking. Add garlic, ginger and hot pepper and fry another minute. Add ground pork and sugar and fry until pork is mostly cooked, about two minutes. Add chicken stock, sugar, black beans in rice wine and soy sauce. Lower heat and let simmer (covered works fine) until bitter melon is cooked through, about four minutes. Stir in the cornstarch slurry until the liquid is the consistency of gravy. Discard extra slurry. Serve over white rice.


kim said...

I love bitter melon. I like to cook it with diced tofu. While people shun away from the bitter taste, it's this uniqueness that I adore.

JP Bowersock said...


It's great stuff. Thanks for the comment!

deanna w said...

thanks for the recipe! this is how my mom cooks it too, except she's the only one who likes "foo gwa" in the family!

JP Bowersock said...


"Fou gua" was the first words I learned in Cantonese. Not that I can speak much more than being able to order a couple pork buns in a bakery, count and name a few favorite veggies. But that's enough to notice how much Mandarin is being spoken in Chinatown today, which is a change.

birdie said...

yes Mandarin is more prominent in today's chinatown but you know what else? something i noticed which is very distinct to manhattan's chinatown (I hail from Canada) is the marked use of toishanese especially with the elders. as a 1st generation chinese with toishan roots it's very refreshing to hear as I stroll about Mott etc. !

JP Bowersock said...


I spent a fair bit of time in Montreal's Chinatown - that's where I first tasted a number of dishes that are now favorites: seafood in black bean sauce, congee (jook), sauteed water spinach...

But yeah, Manhattan has a Toisan population, for sure. Just the other day I was walking through Chinatown and passed a group of young, well dressed people obviously heading for a night out. The snippet of conversation I heard was this:

"What do you know? YOU'RE Toisan!"

"What are you talking about?! YOU'RE half Toisan!"

Cracked me up.