Sunday, November 21, 2010

Adventures in Supermarketing

We have a wonderful Asian supermarket nearby called Assi.  It is a fun place to shop because their inventory is very different from my local grocery store.  They have live eels, fluke, and abalone in tanks next to the requisite lobsters, their ice cream flavors include exotic flavors like red bean and corn-and-cheese, and the produce section has whole rows of items I have never seen before.

So, I am starting a new project.  Each week I will buy one unfamiliar thing from Assi's produce section, research it, cook it, and let you know all about it.  This week I bought a bitter melon.

This funky fruit looks a lot like a cucumber that has gone bad.  It is bright green, spongy to the touch with a clean smell.  It is a tropical fruit, but grown mostly in China, India, and Africa, and also eaten in Japan, Pakistan, and Vietnam.  It is supposed to have many homeopathic applications, such as aiding in digestion and helping lower the blood sugar of Type 2 diabetics.  Laboratory research is ongoing about ways it may aid in treating malaria and HIV.

Typically used like a vegetable in savory recipes, we decided to add it to a stir fry.  First you cut the ends off and split it lengthwise in half.  The seeds inside are the size of pumpkin seeds and need to be removed along with most of the pith.  Then, we sliced it in 1/4" strips.

Raw, it is crunchy, tastes slightly herbaceous but mostly bitter, and has an intense drying effect on the mouth.  Although it tastes nothing like beer, that drying sensation reminded me of drinking a very hoppy IPA. 

We used pork and black bean sauce because most recipes I found extolled the triumvirate, saying the pork paired well with the bitter melon and the black bean sauce reduced the bitterness.  I am sure you could use chicken or tofu with equal results.  Here's how:

1 lb meat or tofu, cut into strips
1 bitter melon, deseeded and sliced
2 T black bean sauce (I found this in the Asian section of my regular supermarket)
rice to accompany

Heat olive oil in a pan, when it is hot add the meat and bitter melon.
Saute until meat is brown and melon has softened slightly
Add the black bean sauce, mix in thoroughly and cook two more minutes
Serve over rice

Even cooked, the bitter melon was still pretty bitter.  The taste hadn't changed much, just the texture -- after stir-frying it had the consistency of a cooked green pepper.  The black bean sauce, like most bottled Asian sauces, was a salt bomb, but it was delicious and paired well with the pork and the melon.  I don't know how much of the bitterness it removed; I think the rice was a better means to that end.  (Some recipes suggest that blanching it before adding it to the stir fry will further reduce the bitterness.) 

I was nervous about this dish because of all the negative comments on forums about the bitter melon.  One person, in response to "What should I do with a bitter melon?," went as far as saying "Curse the farmer and throw it out!"  Many others said it was an acquired taste, and I can see how that is true.  It isn't my favorite new ingredient in a stir-fry, but it was edible on its own, and pretty good with a big spoonful of rice.  I wont rush out and buy it again, but I found recipes for using it in a curry and, knowing my penchant for curries, I would be willing try it that way some other time.

Next up: Okinawan Purple Sweet Potatoes


  1. My Step-Mother-in-Law is Thai and has offered to take me to one of the Asian markets here, but I've not been yet.

    I might have to go when they're back from Bangkok, but I think I will skip the bitter melon :)

  2. Could you comment on the less exotic pear-apples I gave you tonight? Let me know if you like them. I think I'll put them in my Thanksgiving salad with gorgonzola cheese. ( no pine nuts)