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.
To select bitter melons that are on the mild side of bitter, look for more mature ones with whiter or 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 jalapeños. Adding a few teaspoons of sugar to the stir-fry helps tame the bitterness of the squash.
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
- 2 bitter melons, preferable yellow or whiter in color
- For the ground pork mixture:
- 3 ounces ground pork
- 1 teaspoon rice wine
- 1/2 teaspoon minced fresh peeled ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- For the sauce:
- 2 medium cloves garlic, minced
- 3 tablespoons Chinese fermented black beans, smashed
- 3 dried red chilies, or to taste
- 2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon rice wine
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1/4 cup water mixed with 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 5 tablespoons oil, for stir-frying, divided
To prepare the bitter melon, halve lengthwise and scoop out and discard all the seeds. Cut the melon crosswise into 1/4-inch thick slices and set aside.
For the ground pork mixture: In a small bowl, mix the ground pork with the rice wine, ginger, sugar, and salt. Set aside.
For the sauce: Mix all the ingredients for the sauce in a bowl and set aside.
Heat a wok over high heat. Add 3 tablespoons oil and heat until shimmering. Add the pork mixture and cook, tossing and stirring, until the pork is just cooked through. Scrape out onto a clean plate.
Return the wok to high heat. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil and heat until shimmering. Add the slices of bitter melon to the wok. Stir-fry over high heat until the melon is considerably softened but still a bit crisp, about 5 minutes. Add the sauce mixture and mix with the melon, then stir-fry 1 minute longer.
Turn off the heat and add the cornstarch slurry to the wok. Stir around rapidly to prevent the cornstarch from clumping. Add a few tablespoons more water to the wok if needed to thin out the sauce. Return the wok to low heat and simmer the mixture for 20 seconds. Add the pork mixture back to the wok, stirring to combine. Serve immediately.