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.