July 24, 2006
Bitter Melon with Chiles, Yogurt ,and Peaches

Bitter Melon is a vegetable that Americans don't eat a lot of. To my Hollywood trained eyes, it looks an awful lot like something a face sucking octopus-alien would hide in. I don't think any face sucking octopus-aliens do hide in them, however as bitter melon is apparently a staple of Indian, Southeast Asian, and Latin cuisine and news of attacks by emergent face sucking octopus-aliens would certainly have reached the mainstream press by now. Or at least the Weekly World News.

Nevertheless, I've always looked at the pale green fruit with curiosity and a bit of dread. I mean, it's called BITTER melon. Just how bitter could it be?

While driving this weekend, I stumbled on a farmer's market and a bumper crop of local bitter melon - fresh, bright green, and beautiful. The time had come to end my bitter melon inexperience. Along with the bitter melons, I picked up local donut peaches and a pint of small, hot green peppers. I didn't know then they were all destined for the same skillet.

I can't say this recipe is authentic to ANY culture. It's just what I came up with after tasting the melon in its raw (and very bitter) form. Like many of my recipes, I started with a very basic idea - in this case, that bitter melon could be treated with basic fried spices and chiles - and worked from there. Eventually, I added a little of all the other flavors, from sweet to umami, to help balance out the bitter to my bitter-wimpy American taste buds.

One recipe note - the anise in this recipe is crucial. It shapes the bitter flavor of the melon to make it easier to enjoy. The peaches and lime juice balance the melon and give your tongue multiple sensations to enjoy at once.

Bitter melon is not necessarily for everyone, but it might be something you end up enjoying.

Bitter Melon with Chile Yogurt and Peaches
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds, whole
1 teaspoon mustard powder
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon aniseseeds, whole
black pepper to taste<
2 garlic cloves

1/2 onion, cut into thin half-moon shapes - about 1/8" each
5-7 bitter melons (about 5" in length each)
3 small hot green peppers, cut into 1/4"-1/8" dice, seeds and stems included
juice of one lemon
2 small peaches or 1 enormous peach, cut into 1/4" dice. Peeling only necessary if peel is particularly tough
1/4 cup yogurt
2 tablespoon nam pla (fish sauce), may substitute soy sauce

Cut off the very tips and stems of the melons. Cut all but two melons in half lengthwise and scoop out seeds and pulp. Discard. Slice the other two, with seeds and pulp, and the hollowed out halves into 1/4" slices across the width. The seeds and pulp are the source of much of the bitterness and you can control the bitteness of this dish by increasing or decreasing the amount of pulp and seeds in the dish.

It's a lot of ingredients, but this dish comes together quickly.

Heat oil and butter in a large skillet until hot over high heat. Add spices, garlic, and onions and stir until onions are well coated. Reduce heat, and sautee until onions are slightly softened.

Add melons and peppers and stir. Sautee for seven minutes over medium heat. Add lime, nam pla and yogut and stir well to coat. Add peaches and continue to sautee until the peaches are soft and the bitter melon is just barely softer than crispy.

Serve with rice or nan.

Posted by Barrett in Maryland at July 24, 2006 7:40 AM Print-friendly version

How strange! Aside from bitter, how did the melons taste - like aspirin? Quinine? I've cooked with sour flavours, but I'm wracking my brain to think of what - besides a nice cold G&T - has a pleasantly bitter taste...

Is it truly a member of the melon family? Can it be consumed raw? Enquiring minds want to know!!

(Yeah, I could google it, but why not make you work?)

Posted by Meg in Paris on July 24, 2006 at 12:02 PM

The taste was not unlike a more intense version of the moist seeds of cucumbers or tomatoes or even plain uncooked pumpkin seeds. I've been told they are technically a squash like zucchini, so that may account for it.

It took a little courage to get past the first raw tasting, but as they cooked, they mellowed a little.

Eggplant. There's that bitter component to eggplant that this reminded me of.

Posted by barrett on July 24, 2006 at 12:58 PM

I've always been afraid to cook with bitter melon, too, but I love the idea of peaches with it. In the community garden adjacent to my house in Boston, many Chinese families had small, intensively-gardened plots. One woman, Nancy Soohoo, grew the most amazing bitter melons. She had built a frame out of wood and strung wire across the top. The melon vines grew up and over the frame, and the melons hung down into the cage. She brought me inside one time to admire the melons. It was like an upside-down lunar landscape -- absolutely beautiful! I asked whether I might try one of the melons, and she said no, because she thought I (non-Asian) wouldn't like the taste. I've steered clear of the melons ever since, though I remember Nancy with great fondness.

Posted by Lydia on July 24, 2006 at 3:51 PM

Its just not as bitter if you fry it with a lot of spices and chopped onion. Rather its a green vegetable, quite good for eyes and health...........and to think of eating it raw....................is only wat you can think and never eat.

Posted by Jonathan on July 25, 2006 at 6:00 AM

Zak and Morganna and I adore bitter melon. The favorite way we eat it is stir fried with onion, garlic, ginger, chile and fermented black beans. I usually add white meat chicken slices to the stir fry, but I like it without the chicken, too.

I have had it cooked Indian style, as well--and I like it that way fine, but neither Morganna and Zak like it unless the Cantonese fermented black beans are there.

It is odd--it is the only member of the cucurbit family, which includes cucumbers, melons, squashes and pumkins, that Zak likes at all. He despises the rest, but the one member of the family that most Americans cannot abide, he is all about it.

Very weird, my husband.

Posted by Barbara on July 26, 2006 at 9:25 AM

the chinese way is awesome: cooked, of course! but with black bean sauce & beef... mmmm.

Posted by lindsay on January 26, 2007 at 1:51 PM
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