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Bitter Melon

by Wonona Wong Chang

Vegetables and Vegetarian Foods

Fall Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(3) page(s): 25 and 26

Known as a blood purifying food, this often bumpy-looking member of the melon family gets its taste from quinine. That component makes it a very valuable food item in the tropical lands where it grows and most often is consumed. Chinese herbal doctors classify it as a cool vegetable. It is particularly suitable for the hot summer months, times when it is easily available.

Bitter melon has a limited growing period. Usually, this is from May through September. However, in warmer climates it is somewhat longer than that. Known as Momordica charantia and called a vegetable, it is technically a fruit from a tropical plant known throughout Asia. It is called fu gua, mo gua, and lai guaby the Chinese. In English it goes by other names including 'balsam pear' and 'bitter cucumber.' The Cantonese have yet another Chinese name for this fruit/vegetable. They call it ‘cool melon’ or liang gua. There is an old Chinese maxim that says ‘bitter makes good medicine.’ When I was growing up in Indonesia, I often heard the Chinese expression that says just that: ku kou liang yue.

Bitter melon is grown in Southern China, mostly from South of the Yangtze River south, to Vietnam. Since no other vegetable has its unique bitter flavor, it is popular, especially in Cantonese cooking. They steam, braise, and stir-fry it. This unusual member of the melon family blends well with many protein dishes as it enhances them. It does particularly well with frog legs, many kinds of fish, pork ribs, pork and beef based soups, and beef ribs. It makes them into savory dishes.

Nutrition professionals claim that it is a rich source of many essential vitamins, but not all people like its taste. There are many who detest it in spite of the many nutritional and medicinal values touted. Many Chinese and other Asians believe that bitter melon is good for the body. They say that eating it makes people calm and cool. At my home in Sumatra we always had a dish of bitter melon on our dinner table when it was in season. Probably the best known dish in America made with bitter melon is a stir-fried one of steak, fermented black beans, and garlic. Second to that is another popular one found at dim sum meals. This one is a slice of it stuffed with ground or chopped pork and mixed with garlic, chillis, and fermented black beans. In China and throughout Southeast Asia, bitter melon is cooked with many different foods. It is even used as a beverage, made into a tea-like drink.

According to Chinese history, during the Wing Loh period of the Ming Dynasty (1403 - 1424 CE), Admiral Zheng He led an armada of many, many naval ships on a very famous expedition to Southern Asia. Under his command were naval sailors and officers, thirty thousand strong. This expedition took him to the countries of Vietnam, Java, Sumatra, Malacca, Siam (now called Ceylon), and India. His thirty ships were very large sea-going vessels, each of them carried a thousand men aboard.

During this particular trip, the admiral collected exotic fruit, unusual vegetables, and other interesting items. He brought them back to show Emperor Ming Chengzu, who financed the expedition. While on the island of Sumatra, his log describes a melon with bumpy and rough skin that has succulent meat. It is one, he said, with a taste uniquely bitter. He called it the 'Bitter Melon of Sumatra.'

Besides this melon, he also brought back other exotic foods such as bird nests and shark fins. And, he returned with seeds of many tropical fruits such as the durian, a fruit unique to the Malaysian archpelago. In exchange, admiral Zheng He gave the local people samples of many Chinese vegetables and fruit. Bitter melon was originally used as an herb to cure red eye and other syndromes such as the migraine head-ache. It was not until the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911 CE), that records list it as a food.

Many people like these melons but not everyone knows how to prepare them. Those who have problems with the bitterness need to know how to diminish the quinine-bitter taste. They should begin by buying them slightly immature and light green. Then they should cut them in half in either direction in order to scrape away the seeds and soft tissue attached to them. Some bitterness can be eliminated. One technique is to boil them for three to five minutes; it is an optional one. Next one should cook them according to the recipe’s direction. When raw, bitter melons stay in the refrigerator for several weeks. When cooked, they are best used immediately.

And now for some recipes that just might make you a lover of this fruit/vegetable:
Stuffed Bitter Melon II
1 pound, or two bitter melons
1 Tablespoon fermented black beans
1 pound ground pork
1 scallion, minced
12 dried shrimp, optional
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 Tablespoon dry sherry
1 teaspoon corn starch
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons peanut oil
2 teaspoons corn starch mixed with two tablespoons water
1. Cut the bitter melon across the narrow way into one-inch sections. Remove the seeds and pulp and discard. Set the circles aside.
2. Rinse black beans in cold water, drain, and discard the water.
3. Soak the dried shrimp in warm water for half an hour or until soft. Drain and mince them.
4. Combine ground pork, shrimp, scallion, soy sauce, corn starch, half the sugar, and the pepper and salt. Mix with a fork or chopsticks in one direction for half a minute. Stuff this mixture into the center of the bitter melon rings.
5. Mix sherry, light soy sauce, sugar, and one cup of water.
6. Heat oil and brown the stuffed bitter melon rings on both sides. Then add garlic and black beans; stir-fry a few seconds and add the sherry-soy sauce mixture. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer for twenty minutes. Remove the stuffed melon rings to a serving dish. Reserve the sauce.
7. Add the cornstarch-water mixture to the remaining sauce. Heat until thickened, then pour over the stuffed bitter melon, and serve.
Approximate nutrient analysis when serving four persons. Each serving has 399 calories, 8 g carbohydrate, 20 g protein, 456 mg sodium, 31 g total fat, and 82 mg cholesterol.
Marinated Bitter Melon II
1 pound, or two bitter melons
1 Tablespoon fermented black beans
2 Tablespoons corn oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon thin soy sauce
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 teaspoon sugar
dash of MSG, optional
1. Cut melon in half length-wise and remove and discard the seeds and pulp. Cut melon halves into onw-inch thick pieces. Parboil them in boiling water for one minute, then drain.
2. Place the black beans in a small bowl, cover with cool water, stir, and drain. Repeat one more time.
3. Heat the oil in a wok, add half of the chopped garlic, stir for a few seconds, add the black beans and stir for half a minute then add all the remaining ingredients and continue stirring for another half a minute.
4. Put it all into a dish, cover, and refrigerate for twenty-four hours, then serve.
Approximate nutrient analysis when serving four persons, and assuming almost no liquid is consumed. Each serving has 342 calories, 2 g carbohydrate, 37 g protein, 250 mg sodium, 5 g total fat, and 137 mg cholesterol.
Bitter Melon and Pork Soup II
1 bitter melon
1 quart chicken broth
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil, optional
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 pound boneless pork loin, cut into thin strips
3 slices fresh ginger, minced
1 egg
1. Cut bitter melon in half length-wise, then discard the seeds and pulp, and slice it into one-inch pieces.
2. Mix soy sauce, sesame oil, and salt.
3. In a large suacepan, bring soup stock to a boil. Add pork strips and ginger. Simmer for one minute, then add the bitter melon and cook simmer ten minutes more.
4. Add soy sauce mixture, stir, then bring it to a boil and turn off the heat. Beat the egg and drop it into the soup stirring constantly for half mintute. Then let the soup stand for three minutes before serving in a preheated soup tureen.
Bitter Melon with Steak
1 pound bitter melon
8 ounces flank steak
6 slices ginger, shredded
1 scallion, minced
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 Tablespoon oyster sauce
2 teaspoons dry sherry
3 Tablespoons canola or corn oil
2 cloves garlic
2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed with two teaspoons cold water
1. Prepare the bitter melon by cutting it in half length-wise. Discard seeds and pulp. Then cut it into one-inch thick pieces. Parboil them in boiling water for one or two minutes, and drain.
2. Cut beef steak with the grain into two-inch strips. Slice the strips across the grain into half-inch thick pieces.
3. Mix the steak with ginger, scallions, soy sauce, sugar, oyster sauce, and sherry.
4. Heat oil, add garlic and stir-fry for ten to twenty seconds. Add beef mixture and stir-fry for one minute before adding the bitter melon mixture. Stirfry this for two minutes, then add the corn starch mixture and cook until the sauce thickens. Then serve.
Approximate nutrient analysis when serving four persons. Each serving has 189 calories, 5 g carbohydrate, 13 g protein, 326 mg sodium, 13 g total fat, and 22 mg cholesterol.

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