I have seen bitter melons in the grocery store but never bought one because (1) I didn't really know what to do with it and (2) I had my doubts about how fresh they really could be since it considered a tropical vegetable.
Well to my suprise I saw some at my Farmers' Market yesterday. There are several types; I purchased 2 that looked like they could have been a warty zucchini or cucumber. This farmer grew them like summer squash except that he trained the vines to grow up strings so that the melons would not lay on the ground and get eaten by insects living in the dirt. They actually were beautiful to look at on his table. He chuckled when I told him that I never bought one before and wondered what suggestions he had for how to best prepare them. Before he really got around to responding, several people standing by jumped right in to the conversation to offer their experiences.
I'll share what I did. First I looked in all my vegetarian cookbooks for some general information and recipes for bitter melon and found nothing. (I have given my one Indian cookbook to my older son's girlfriend for her to enjoy; I'm sure there would have been many recipes in there.) So then I looked on the web and found this fascinating notation on the web site for the National Bitter Melon Council: "A long, warty, and very bitter fruit used in global cuisine, healing practice, and art. A member of the gourd family, it possesses qualities that can be used as food, medicine, and as instigators of situations that promote conversation and community." Wow - instigators of situations that promote conversation and community! Well, I already discovered that at the Farmers' Market. :-) Tomorrow I am going to serve the following recipe at a small gathering of neighborhood moms at my home, and I'll just bet that it starts conversations there, too!
Basic Bitter Melon Stir-Fry (modified from a couple of recipes seen on various web sites)
1 pound bitter melon (about 2-8" long melons)
1-2 tablespoons minced garlic (I used our home-grown garlic)
1/2 teaspoon chili pepper flakes
1 tablespoon oil for stir-frying
1 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon red wine, balsamic, or rice wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sugar
a few drops sesame oil
To prepare the bitter melon, cut in half lengthwise, remove the seeds and pith (I used the jagged front of a grapefruit spoon to scrape all this out) and cut on the diagonal into thin slices. Sprinkle salt over the slices and place them in a colander to drain for 15 minutes. The slices were still incredibly bitter (!) so I followed the additional suggestion of one of the women talking to me at the Farmers Market by next rinsing them in the colander and then blanching the slices in boiling water for 3-4 minutes before draining again.
In a small bowl, mash the chili pepper flakes and the minced garlic together with the back of a small spoon or a flexible flat knife.
Heat wok over medium high heat and add 1 tablespoon oil. When the oil is hot, add the minced garlic and chili mixture. Stir-fry briefly until aromatic (about 30 seconds).
Add the bitter melon. Stir-fry for about 2 minutes, then splash with the vinegar and soy sauce. Stir in the sugar. Cook for another 1 to 2 minutes, until the bitter melon is browning and beginning to soften. Stir in a few drops sesame oil if desired. Serve hot or even chilled.
This recipe says it serves 4. I don't think so, maybe ~14 people taking a small taste as an experiment the first time or as a small taste at the beginning of an Indian meal. I learned in my reading that traditionally in India a small amount of a bitter food like this dish would be eaten as the first course of a meal, served with a small amount of something like plain cooked rice, to both stimulate the appetite and wake up the taste buds. I can vouch that this dish will do just that, along with being an instigator of situations that promote conversation and community.
Enjoy something new this week from your Farmers Market!
Diana Dyer, MS, RD