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Seriously Asian: Bitter Melon

[Photos: Chichi Wang]

If I were to write the Nasty Bits column for vegetables, bitter melon would be at the top of my list of underappreciated vegetables that take some getting used to. Though most of the squash or melon we eat possess a light and sweet flavor, there is nothing mild about bitter melon. True to its name, the squash is unabashedly bitter, with an acerbic taste that leaves your tongue and the roof of your mouth dry. The exterior of the melon is riddled with wart-like bumps; the interior resembles any other melon with a cluster of foamy seeds in the center. The cooked texture of bitter melon, like that of zucchini, is palatable, albeit uneventful.

Why, then, eat such an offensively flavored melon? Precisely because its bitterness, at times almost unbearable, is unique and memorable. Many Asian culinary traditions, not to mention those in Central and South America, embrace bitter melon. The Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Thai, Vietnamese, Filipino, and so forth, counter the bitterness of the fruit with spicy, sweet, or savory components.

In Indonesia, bitter melon is used in salads, stir-fried, cooked in coconut milk, or steamed. The Vietnamese stuff the melon with ground pork for use in steamed dishes or soup. Thai cooks combine powerful birds eye chilies with the melon, using generous splashes of fish sauce as well. In China, cooks often stir-fry slices of the melon with pungent fermented black beans and ground pork, adding dried red chilies to taste.

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To select bitter melons that are on the mild side of bitter, look for whiter or more yellowed exteriors that contain deep red seeds inside. The more immature the squash, the greener and more bitter it will be. Though you can stir-fry almost anything spicy, savory, and sweet with the squash, I like to pair the vegetable with at least one savory component, such as fermented black beans or belacan (fermented shrimp paste), as well as something spicy, such as bird's eye chilies or jalapenos. Adding a few teaspoons of sugar to the stir-fry helps tame the bitterness of the squash.

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On a hot summer's day, Chinese cooks will allude to the "cooling" quality of the squash. Medicinal properties aside, stir-fried melon is a refreshing dish that's worth looking into, even if it takes an acquired palate to appreciate.

Stir-fried Bitter Melon with Ground Pork, Fermented Black Beans and Fish Sauce

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