Aw, Snap

Bitter melon adds flavorful crunch to savory dishes.


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Photo by Lori Eanes

Is a melon a fruit or a vegetable? The answer is both: the first botanically, the second, sometimes, culturally, as with bitter melon, a staple of east, south, and southeastern Asian cooking.

For those who hear melon and think of plump, round honeydew or watermelon, bitter melon’s appearance can come as a surprise. It looks like a large cucumber covered in ridges and warts. And as the name suggests, this melon is anything but sweet—it has a flavorful, crunchy bitterness that is best enjoyed cooked. The ingredient is often paired with egg or pork, and adds balance to flavors such as oyster sauce, garlic, or sugar in stir-fries and soups.

Photo By Lori Eanes

Chef Nite Yun

“I remember hating it growing up,” smiled Nite Yun, chef-owner of Nyum Bai, whose mother’s traditional Cambodian cooking she now celebrates with her own cuisine. “Now, I crave it. It’s a comfort food for me.”

The craving is a healthy one, as bitter melon is high in vitamin C, folate, zinc, and potassium and has purported medicinal properties (studies have shown some potential to help lower blood glucose levels). Once only available at specialty Asian markets, bitter melon has become more mainstream in recent years, due to popular demand and local cultivation. Yun’s childhood in Stockton included fresh bitter melon thanks to the gardening efforts of that area’s large Cambodian community; now, the fast-growing vine flourishes at sun-drenched farms in areas such as Fresno, meaning widespread availability at spring and summer farmer’s markets, and produce sections of supermarkets such as Berkeley Bowl West.

There are many varieties of bitter melon, the two most common being Chinese, which is oblong and a bright, light green; and Indian, a shorter, squattier, bumpier version with a darker rind. Yun shops for Chinese-style bitter melons at the Mithapheap Market on 14th Avenue in Oakland. She recommends choosing brightly colored, firm, fresh-looking fruit, with no soft spots. The bumpy skin is the best part—do not peel or bruise it. The inedible seeds and pith, however, should be gently scooped out with a spoon before cooking (the flesh is too delicate for a knife, warns Yun).

How to serve? One mainstay of Cambodian cuisine is bitter melon soup—or canh kho qua—made from hollowed-out bitter melons stuffed with glass-noodles and pork belly. Here, Yun shares a less time-consuming dish that still manages to highlight the vegetable’s strengths, including, she says with appreciation, “that nice crunch.”

Nyum Bai, Emeryville Public Market, 5959 Shellmound St., Kiosk 3, Emeryville.

 

Chef Nite Yun’s  Cha MaReash

1.5 pounds bitter melon (about 2 medium)

4 tablespoons vegetable oil

8 cloves garlic, smashed

1/3 cup ground pork

1.5 tablespoons brown sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon fish sauce

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

4 eggs, beaten

Rinse the bitter melon and cut it in half lengthwise, removing and discarding seeds with a spoon. Cut the melon into thin slices.

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add smashed garlic and sauté until golden brown. Add the ground pork and cook until opaque, about 2 minutes. Add the bitter melon slices and continue to cook until softened, about 3 to 4 minutes.

Stir in the brown sugar, salt, fish sauce, and black pepper and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.

Push the bitter melon aside and pour beaten eggs into center of skillet. Gently stir the eggs until they are lightly cooked and beginning to firm, then combine with the entire contents of the pan. Continue to sauté until everything is cooked through, about 1 minute. Serve immediately. The chef recommends serving the dish with Three Ladies Brand jasmine rice.

 

Published online on April 13, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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