Of the five basic flavors, bitter is by far the hardest pill to swallow for the American palate. Sweet, salty, spicy, and yes, even sour flavors have their fans, (sour patch kids candy anyone?), but bitter is, well, bitter. Other cultures tend to embrace the flavor. Italians and Greeks have their beloved bitter greens. Fresh turmeric and cumin provide bitter notes to Indian cuisine, and caraway seeds provide a balance to Eastern European dishes.
But then there is bitter melon. Common to Southeast Asia and India and also known as bitter gourd, bitter melon resembles a cucumber with a bad case of warts. Ranging in color from light to dark green, and covered with either rounded or spiky bumps, this strange, medicinal tasting vegetable is not to everyone’s taste.
The bitter in bitter melon comes from its natural quinine. With more beta-carotene than broccoli, more calcium than spinach, and more potassium than a banana, this is quite an impressive array of credentials. Technically a fruit, bitter melon turns orange when fully ripe and becomes slightly sweet, while its white seeds turn red, although it is not usually eaten in this state. On the spectrum of Yin and Yang, bitter melon is the “yinnest”. Yin foods are cooling foods, and are particularly popular during the warmer summer months.
Bitter melon has been used as a treatment for digestive problems, cholera, and is thought to inhibit cancerous tumor growth. It is believed to strengthen the immune system, and has recently been employed in the treatment of HIV. Bitter melon also contains hypoglycemic compounds, and has been proven to lower blood sugar.
In traditional Cantonese cooking, bitter melon is usually paired with pork, beef, or chicken in a fragrant black bean sauce. Blanching the bitter melon first mitigates some of its intensity, while the pungent combination of garlic, ginger and fermented black beans brings the dish into perfect yin/yang harmony.
Beef with Bitter Melon
- 1/2 lb. flank steak
- 2 tbs.rice wine, such as Shaoxing, or dry sherry
- 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
- 2 small bitter melon
- 4 thin slices fresh peeled ginger, minced
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 1 tablespoon fermented black beans, rinsed and dried.
- 2 tbs.peanut oil
- 1/2 teaspoon light soy sauce
- 1 tsp. sugar
- 4-5 tablespoons hot chicken stock
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon water
- a few drops of sesame oil
Cut the steak into thin slices, against the grain. Put into a bowl, add a tiny pinch of salt, the rice wine and the 1/2 tsp. cornstarch, and work well into the steak.
Cut the bitter melon in half, and scoop out the seeds and white pith. Cut into thin half-moons and drop them into boiling water for 5 minutes. Drain, and refresh in ice water to crisp them. Drain again and set aside.
Combine the 1 tsp. cornstarch with the water and set aside.
Heat a wok over high heat. Add 1 tbs. peanut oil and swirl to coat. When just starting to smoke, add the beef and stir-fry until pink, about 30 seconds. Remove to a plate.
Combine the ginger, garlic and black beans. Heat the remaining oil and add the ginger mixture. Stir-fry 30 seconds until fragrant.
Add the bitter melon and stir fry a few seconds. Add the soy sauce, sugar and stock, and another pinch of salt. Bring to the boil and cook for 3 minutes. Add back the beef, along with any juices, and stir fry an additional minute.
Stir the cornstarch water and add to the wok. Bring to a boil, turn off the heat, add a few drops of sesame oil and remove to a platter. Serve immediately with white rice.
Serves 4 –6 as part of a Chinese style meal.
written by Jim Becker-Chinatown tour guide