Eating Bitter, Part Two: The Bitter Melon and Me


A poetic name for a lovely dish: Phoenix and Jade with Blossoms.

The very first time I tasted a bitter melon was at the home of the couple who were my very first personal chef clients. He was from Bangledesh, and she was from Pakistan, and they both loved bitter melon.

One evening, they had Zak and I to dinner and they served us various dishes, including one that was a heated up leftover. When it was passed to me, there was an apology and much head-shaking and hand-waving. “You probably won’t like it, but if you want to taste it, we would be glad for you to. But it is very bitter, very strong, and most Americans really don’t like it.”

They didn’t know the English word for it: they called it, “karela.”

It had been cut into small half-moon shaped chunks and fried with minced lamb, onions, garlic, ginger, chiles and many spices, including black pepper, cumin and black cardamom. There was a lot of minced mint sprinkled over it.

It smelled really good, so of course, I had to try it.

As soon as I bit into it, I realized what it must have been. “Bitter melon,” I said, as they watched me intently. I think they were waiting for me to make a face. Instead, I smiled, and had another big bite. “This is good,” I said. “I’ve always wanted to try it, but had no idea how to cook it. They eat it a lot in China, you know,” I said as I reached for the serving bowl to add more to my plate. I was surprised by having a heaping pile added to my plate, which I ate gleefully, much to the amusement and amazement of my hosts.

I figured Zak wouldn’t like it, though, because it was so bitter. He declined to test my theory by tasting it, so I was certain that I was probably a mutant.

Because I assumed Zak wouldn’t like them, I would eye the bitter melons in the Asian markets wistfully, but because I wasn’t sure how to go about cooking them, and I thought it foolish to cook them just for myself, I would pass them by.

However, all of that changed a few months ago.

I wrote about our first dinner featuring bitter melon on this blog back in January when I described eating it at Shangrila in Columbus. I saw the words on the menu: “Chicken with Bitter Melon”, and had to have it. When the waitress brought it out, she said to me, “Boy, you sure know what to order! That is my favorite dish on the menu out of everything and I eat it at least once a week. At least.”

I had a bite, and it was love. I couldn’t get enough of it.

Zak tasted it tentatively and pronounced the melon “interesting,” but the chicken “fantastic.” They were cooked with fermented black beans, and judging from the slightly silken texture of the bitter melon, it had been parboiled before being stir-fried. There were onions, and while I saw no evidence of ginger, the flavor was there, leading me to believe that a chunk of it had been allowed to brown in the oil, then was removed, leaving behind its essence.

The next time I got the dish, Zak had a couple more pieces of the melon. Then, the next time, he ate a half-dozen pieces. Then the fourth time, he was eating as much melon as chicken. (I have to admit to ordering the “Chicken with Black Beans” dish, which is the exact same thing without the melon once, but the sauce wasn’t as good without the juice of the melon in it.)

He has been converted.

That time when we were there, the lady who owns the restaurant told us that bitter melon is very healthy for people and that she doesn’t eat it, but drinks the juice of it every day for her health as a tonic. She said it controls blood sugar problems and is good for liver functioning.

I did a little research and found out that she was right–it is very good for you.

But of course, I was all about eating it because I liked the taste.

When we took Morganna to that restaurant, we figured she would love the chicken, but would not like the bitter melon.

She surprised us both with her enthusiastic consumption of a large quantity of bitter melon, along with chicken. She also ate a bunch of choy sum with garlic, tofu and pork soup and gai lan with beef, and was still able to down a small bowl of sweet warm tapioca with lychees. Oh, to be a growing teenager again!

So, what it comes down to is Zak and Morganna and I are a family of American mutants.

We like that which we are supposed to fear–bitter melon.

And now that we have moved away from Shangrila, I had to figure out how to cook it, because I am not driving an hour and a half each week just to eat bitter melon. The Asian market here in Athens carries it now and again, and when I am in Columbus, I can pick some up at the markets there that carry it all the time.

Which is what I did on Saturday.

We had gone with Zak’s parents to Shangrila for lunch, then we dropped them off at the airport so they could fly home. After that, we did some shopping in Columbus, including a trip to the Asian market, at fifteen minutes before closing time.

I had ducked in the door, and beelined right for the produce section. In addition to the bitter melon, I wanted to pick up fresh water chestnuts if they had them, and some good Thai chiles. The chiles they had, the water chestnuts they did not. But they did have bitter melons, so I stood before the pile and made my selection. I sniffed them, squeezed gently and put six in my basket.

I was about to turn to go when I nearly ran smack-dab into the chest of a very tall Pakistani man, who demanded of me in a raspy, heavily accented voice, “Why do you get that?”

I blinked, and backed up, somewhat confused. I looked up, and then around to see his entire family: a wife in a lovely sari, and four kids, and a grandmother in a blue salwar-kameez, all of them staring at me with wide eyes.

I blinked and he picked up one of my melons and said, “How do you cook it?”

So, I said, “With fermented black beans, onions and chicken.”

He smiled and nodded. “It is very good for you, very good. Healthy.”

They were all smiling.

I smiled.

“In my country,” he expounded, “We cut it up small, and fry it. Onions, garlic and ginger, all make it good.”

I nodded. “With minced lamb, pepper, chiles and cumin, and black cardamom.”

His smile widened and he nodded, “Good, good, yes, you know.”

His wife smiled and patted my arm. “We have never seen a white American eat them. We thought none of you liked them.”

I shrugged and said, “My husband and daughter like them, too.”

The pater familias said, “Good, you will all be healthy, live a long time. Food is medicine, you know. Eat good food, it makes you strong.”

Then he looked around and said, “They are closing the store–we should go.”

Though, I was gratified to see him pounce on someone else’s basket in the line and quiz him about what he was buying, how he would cook it. The man was Chinese, so I decided that it was just this family’s way of making friends with everyone–looking at food and how it is cooked and trading recipes.

When I got to the cashier, she rang up my black mushrooms, chiles and then got to the bitter melon. As she weighed it, she smiled. “This is good as salad, in the summer. It cools you, and makes you healthy. You should try it that way.”

When I got back to the car, it was dark, and our lunch from Shangrila had worn off so we went across the parking lot to our other favorite little Chinese restaurant, the Hometown Oriental Carry-Out and Deli. The owner came over and was glad to see us; she knew we had moved away and that we would be back only sporadically. When I told her that we had to stop at the market for bitter melon, she said, “Oh, that is the best in soup–very healthy. Have it at least once a week to make you have a good strong liver.”

Everyone has a recipe for bitter melon, it seems.

Including me.

I based mine on one I found in Martin Yan’s Yan Can Cook Cookbook that was for Beef with Bitter Melon, which looked like it approximated the flavor profile of my favorite dish from Shangrila.

I added ginger slivers and thinly sliced Thai chile. Though they are both Cantonese, Martin Yan and Ken Hom say that bitter melon is very good with chile; knowing as I do that the slight bitterness of lime oil is very good with chiles in Thai food, I decided that bitter and hot go together well. For a more Cantonese sort of dish, leave these two out and only use ginger juice or ginger oil in the chicken marinade, or cook a big hunk of fresh ginger in the stir frying oil until it browns, then remove it and stir fry as directed to get the flavor without the ginger itself.

Also, I followed Kasma Loha Unchit‘s advice and did not blanch or parboil the melon in any way. She believes you lose flavor in that way and she doesn’t like the way it changes the texture. I have to agree with her; at this point after having it both ways, I prefer just stir frying it the way I did to the way it is done at Shangrila.

As for the garnish in the photographs–it is redbud blossoms. Redbud is a native American leguminous tree, with tiny purple flowers that have red stems and calyxes. The flowers are edible and have a sweet flavor that is a cross between a bean pod and a honeysuckle blossom. It is completely untraditional to use them, but the color was an amazing contrast with the brilliant green, and the flowers are in season, so of course, I had to do it.

I wanted to give it a poetic name, so I called it, “Phoenix and Jade with Blossoms.” Chinese chicken dishes are often named for the phoenix of mythology, and of course, jade is in honor of the brilliant color of the stir-fried melon.

The blossoms are self explanatory; use whatever flowers or petals are in season and which will complement the colors in the dish.


The ingredients for the dish arrayed on the stove: for a more classically Cantonese flavor, leave out the ginger slivers and chiles.

Phoenix and Jade with Blossoms

Ingredients:

2 medium sized bitter melons
1 small onion cut into half, then into slices
1/2″ cube fresh ginger cut into slivers
2 Thai chiles, cut into very thin diagonal slices
2 tablespoons fermented black beans
1 boneless skinless chicken breast cut into thin, narrow slices
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
1/4 cup chicken broth
edible flowers for garnish
3 tablespoons peanut oil
1/8 teaspoon sesame oil

Method:

Cut bitter melons in half longitudinally. Scrape out seeds and pithy interior. Slice diagonally into 1/4″ half-moon shaped slices.

Marinate chicken in one teaspoon of soy sauce and cornstarch for at least fifteen minutes.

Heat wok and add peanut oil. When it is smoking hot, add onions, then ginger and chile and black beans. Stir and fry about two minutes, then add chicken, spreading it out to form a single layer on bottom of wok. Leave it for at least one minute to brown on the bottom, then stir fry until nearly done. Add bitter melon and continue stir frying for one minute. Add sugar and second teaspoon of soy sauce and stir frying about thirty seconds, then add broth and stir and fry, allowing liquid to reduce until it clings to the chicken and melon slices.

Drizzle sesame oil over and give one last good stir.

Pour onto platter and garnish with flowers.


A closeup of the dish shows the fantastic contrast in colors and textures. When redbuds are not in season, one could use violas, sweetheart rose petals or chive blossoms for the flower garnish.

15 Comments

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  1. Now I really want to try bitter lemon! I’m wondering if I’ll like it. So far, I’m the white person I know other than you who likes Indian pickle (mmm, I had lemon with my dinner Sunday night at Mango Grove, which has gotten realy good). I wouldn’t be surprised if I like the melon too.

    Comment by Amy — April 19, 2005 #

  2. You have to add Morganna to the Indian pickle loving brigade, Amy. She loves the hot lime pickles.

    And at this point, I think Zak would like them better, too; if he can eat and love bitter melon, then Indian pickles are easy.

    I think you will like the bitter melon: remember in Indian cookery, it is always paired with onions, ginger and garlic and often chiles; in Chinese it is onions, sometimes chiles, often garlic or ginger and other strong flavors like fermented black beans. These strong flavors offset the bitterness and bring out the latent sweetness and herbal qualities of the melon.

    If you get it and it is prepared well, I really believe you will like it. You certainly took to the pickles right off!

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — April 19, 2005 #

  3. Since you were sooooo right about the hot and sour soup, I’ll take the bitter melon under advisement as well.
    *gradually changes food habits*

    What really excited me was the flowers!!!

    I think redbuds are fantastically lovely, and this pre-Spring I ordered one from a catalogue that promised it would be hardy to zone 4. I am working on creating an extremely varied hedgerow across my front yard that I am going to incorporate it into (2 kinds of elder, 2 saskatoon berry-bushes, honeyberry-something like blueberies but cylindricalish, a round honeyflower bush for hummingbirds, and pussy willow so far).

    I ordered it for beauty (although the fruits are said to be attractive to birds as well) but finding out that it is an edible flower is bonus!!

    As always, THANKS!

    Comment by wwjudith — April 20, 2005 #

  4. The way I found out it was edible was this:

    Sunday, we went to the Unitarian Fellowship here in Athens, and took part in the Flower Communion ceremony, which is a lovely service that originated in Prague wherein people share flowers from each other’s gardens. Well, after the service, we were hanging around talking, as one always does after a Unitarian service, and one of our old friends, Don, came up with a branch of redbud, and while he was talking with us, he would pause and strip some flowers off the branch into his mouth and munch them. He looked rather like a giraffe, and he offered us some of the blossoms to try.

    Of course, I had to try them, and it turns out that they are very good and flavorful.

    The next day, our next door neighbor, Dan, told me that his wife and he had redbud blossoms every year on salad, and it was a treat they anticipated every spring.

    This was not a traditional Appalachian wild food I had grown up with–you learn something new every day!

    Good luck with the bitter melon–I would try it out first, probably with a group of other adventurous eaters so that you are not stuck eating an entire huge platter of the stuff yourself on the first go. Or buy one and cook it using my recipe or another one, and use it as a side dish. Like you could do my recipe with more chicken and less melon just so you can try it and not feel like you are wasting food if you don’t like it.

    Oh, and the bitter melon from this recipe–it is very good leftover and cold the next day, straight out of the fridge.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — April 20, 2005 #

  5. Yanno. This stuff is the stuff of nightmares for most Chinese children. That’s all I’m sayin’ ;)

    (But you might almost have me converted…especially since I’m moving to Hong Kong 2.5 months ahead of schedule!)

    Comment by etherbish — April 20, 2005 #

  6. LOL!

    Well, it is an aquired taste, even for Chinese people, Ladi!

    I think that the reason I liked it right from the start was because I already liked things like bitter greens and pickles made from whole citrus fruit, including the peel with the bitter pith.

    Have fun in Hong Kong! Eat extra for me!

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — April 21, 2005 #

  7. I love bitter melons! It has a more-ish effect on me, can’t stop! I usually double boil the soup because simple boiling is too cooling. Shirley

    Comment by Anonymous — April 25, 2005 #

  8. How do you make your soup, Shirley? Let me know and I will try it out the next time I get some bitter melons and then write it up in a post!

    It has that same moreish effect on me, too. (I also love the word, moreish. It is so delightfully British.)

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — April 25, 2005 #

  9. Barbara,
    I cut the bitter melons into matchsticks about half an inch thick. Blanch pork soft bones. Put bitter melons, blanched pork, tomato wedges and shiitake mushrooms and double boil. I get a whole meal out of it, as well as soup. Shirley

    Comment by Anonymous — April 26, 2005 #

  10. barbara – i love the name of your blog!! and of course, i love the fact that you’re in ohio – i lived in cincinnati for a long time before coming to l.a.

    anyway, just cruising through all the entries for dmblgit – you know, checking out the competition ;) the flowers make the dish so incredibly goregeous…

    Comment by sarah — June 22, 2005 #

  11. Hello, Sarah, nice to meet you!

    I do like using flowers in food, and I thought that the brilliant green of the melon and the fuschia brilliance of the redbud looked delicious together, very seductive, like the flavor of bitter melon itself.

    I am glad you like the name of my blog–it is also the name of my culinary arts business which encompasses catering, personal chef work, cooking lessons and consulting-public speaking. I keep threatening to open a tiny restaurant of the same name, but I do like seeing my friends and family and so don’t think I would like to be tied down to a restaurant.

    Anyway, thanks for stopping by–I hope you read some more here and like what you see.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — June 22, 2005 #

  12. I just tried the Phoenix and Jade recipe for my first bitter melon experience. It was really good, although the melon was a bit of a struggle (each piece had to be paired with a bite of chicken). We had no leftovers, so we can’t try it cold :-) I think I’ll try bitter melon with pork next. Is the melon supposed to be crunchy or cooked through?

    Comment by beth — July 13, 2005 #

  13. The issue on whether the melon should be crunchy or cooked through is a personal one.

    (We just had chicken with bitter melon tonight too–we were in Columbus and stopped in at Shangri-la and had to get it.)

    At Shangri-la, they parboil the melon–this removes some of the bitterness and also softens the fruit somewhat. They drain it and then pat it dry before adding it to the stir fry near the end. The texture of bitter melon cooked in this way is softer, and somewhat velvety, though it is still cohesive and not mushy in the least.

    The way I cook it, I do not parboil. I straight up stir fry it until it is what I call “tender-crisp,” which means it isn’t totally crispy–there is some softness to it, but it still snaps. Zak, my daughter Morganna, and I like this texture better–but the flavor is much more strong this way.

    Bitter melon takes getting used to, though I took to it pretty quickly. Now, I can gobble it down madly–I just love it that much.

    Pork should be very good with it. I haven’t tried that yet. I did try beef with it, and neither Zak nor I liked it that way. The beef was too strong and different in texture. It just didn’t taste right.

    Good luck with the pork–let me know how that turns out.

    Oh–and if you have no leftovers–you did it right, because it tasted good enough to eat it all up the first time!

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — July 13, 2005 #

  14. Hi Barbara,
    Nice to read your blog about bitter melon. My wife and I have been enjoying it for a couple of years now (I’m the cook). My local Safeway now carries it year-round (in northern California). I usually make it as a stir-fry, but have never used ginger or fermented black beans – I usually do it with onions, mushrooms, and turkey breast, and of course, curry powder. I’m told that if you ask for it in Chinese restaurants, or Thai restaurants, they can add it to almost any dish. In many places, though, that only applies while it’s in season.

    Thanks,
    Shneor

    Comment by Shneor Sherman — February 25, 2007 #

  15. still dont know how to eat it

    Comment by gaz — March 28, 2007 #

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