Have you ever cooked with bitter melon? (I’m going to assume you just answered no.)
Yeah, I hadn’t either.
It’s a hard-to-find item because I’ve never seen it grown here in Canada and is generally used in Asian cooking, not North American cooking. I had absolutely no idea what this thing looked like, but when I went into my Bangladeshi grocery store in Parc Extension to buy toor dal and saw fresh looking okra and these spiky cucumbers, I knew I had to buy them. Normally I wouldn’t trust the quality of imported items such as these – how would I know if they’re fresh or ripe if I’ve never eaten them or cooked with them before? But because I knew the okra looked like good quality (as well as all the other produce in the store, actually, but okra is one that often looks rundown since there’s usually not a lot of turnover on it), I thought I’d take a chance on the bitter melon.
I’m so glad I did. I knew I had recipes for it, but in the end I could only find one in my favourtite recipe books. Madhur Jaffrey failed me, I think this is because the books I have of hers are the more “accessible” ones – most people don’t know of or have the desire to cook bitter melon. So I turned to “Mangoes and Curry Leaves” by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. They have one bitter melon recipe in the enormous book, but one was all I needed.
6 small (4-5 inch) bitter melons (or fewer larger ones)
3 tbsp salt
1 tbsp oil (it’s better for flavour if you use 3 tbsp but I very rarely do that…)
1/2 tsp cayenne
4 cloves of garlic, mashed to a paste (I used a mortar and pestle but you can use a coffee grinder or other thrown together mashing device.
2 green cayenne chilies, thinly sliced (optional. If I’d had them I would have used them, but I didn’t and it was still fine. You can add a little extra cayenne if you like. The flavour isn’t the same but when you don’t have any green chilies lying around…)
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 tsp sugar (to balance the bitterness and the saltiness)
The recipe starts off with great wording: “An hour before you wish to serve the dish, salt the bitter melon.” This is key!!! This sentence is a little misleading because you don’t just toss some salt over the bitter melons. You need to keep reading to find out how to cut them first, but the point of the sentence is to get you to plan to start cooking this an hour in advance so you actually eat on time. There’s nothing worse than making a dish for the first time and then waiting all night for it to finish cooking. It’s rude for dinner guests (to make them wait) and it can spoil the meal if everything else is ready on time and this takes an extra 45 minutes or more. That is, unless your entire meal is bitter melon, which I wouldn’t recommend since it’s so salty…
So, an hour ahead of time cut the melons lengthwise in half and scoop out the seeds. You can scoop out the white fleshy part that comes out with the seeds too. Don’t worry about JUST getting at the seeds.
Think of it like butternut squash where the inside scuzzy stuff is no good for eating. It’s the green exterior, believe it or not, that you really want to eat. All those spikes will be delicious.
Slice the melons very thinly crosswise (aka not lengthwise). Put them in a bowl and sprinkle on 3 tbsp of salt. Toss them to spread the salt around and let them stand for about 45 minutes. Then rinse them, drain them, squeeze out the excess liquid (with your hands or paper towels, I guess? It doesn’t say) and set the bowl aside until you need it.
Heat a large frying pan or wok over medium-high heat. Add the oil and when hot add the cayenne and garlic. Stir for about 15 seconds and then add the chilies and onion. Try not to breathe in above the pan. This will leave you coughing for a day. Warn anyone else in the kitchen not to breathe in if at all possible either. You need to cook this, stirring, for about 10 minutes. That’s a long time to hold your breathe, I know, but if you skimped on oil like me you’ll be adding a little water a tablespoon at a time every time the spices start to stick to the pan, and that will dull the chilies smell a little. In this case, that’s good. When the onions are soft (more or less the 10 minutes indicated above) add the the sliced bitter melon.
Reduce the heat to medium and cook for about 15 minutes. You’ll need to keep adding water little by little as the bitter melon keeps sticking to the pan. You’re not going to want to stand there and stir constantly, so it’s pretty inevitable that it will stick. Add the sugar and stir-fry a few more minutes until the bitter melon is tender. The recipe says to add 1/2 tsp MORE salt with the sugar, but do a taste test before you do this. It may be plenty salty as is.
The sauce is dark and sticky and salty and…hard to describe, so just find some bitter melon and give it a try. It’s kind of sad the bright green colour darkens but the melons taste better when they’re soft than when they’re all prickly. Raw bitter melon…maybe not a great idea.