Thursday, September 25, 2014

Stuffed Bitter Melon in Tomato Sauce

Bitter melon is an aptly named vegetable that is said to be an acquired taste.  Who acquires this taste, I have no idea.  To me it seems this is either a taste you have a natural affinity towards, or it is one that you may grow to tolerate but never truly acquire.  There are techniques to lessen the bitterness, but nothing will totally eliminate or disguise it.  An aspirin ground with a quinine malaria pill is how it tastes to me, but my wife loves it.  And so……

Often, stuffed bitter melon is served in a soup.  Indonesians stuff it and simmer it in coconut milk. I had been thinking it might be good finished in a tomato sauce like the Vietnamese sometimes do with cabbage rolls or tofu puffs, and then I came across a recipe in The Hakka Cookbook by Linda Lau Anusasananan that suggested just that, saying that the tomatoes helped soften the bitterness.

There are many suggestions on how to reduce the bitterness in bitter melons, but whatever method you use will not make them entirely lacking in their characteristic quality.  After coring them and slicing them into 1/2-inch rounds, I salt them with kosher salt and let them stand for at least half an hour.  After this, they should be rinsed and drained before they are stuffed.

The stuffing is equal parts ground pork and minced shrimp mixed with chopped green onion, ginger, garlic, finely diced carrots, and salt.   For four bitter melons, I used about ten ounces each of pork and shrimp.  This is something that comes down to personal taste, so put more ginger in if you're fond of ginger, or leave it out if you don't like it. 

Once they are stuffed, brown them in a hot frying pan lightly coated with oil.  After they have been browned on both sides simmer in the tomato sauce in a covered pan for about twelve minutes, until the melon slices are tender.

The tomato sauce is simply equal parts chopped tomatoes and water seasoned with a couple tablespoons of fish sauce and sugar.  Anusasananan's Hakka recipe uses oyster sauce instead of fish sauce, so that's another option.  This strikes me as very much a home comfort food recipe that is open to tinkering to adjust to each family's taste.  It's not a fussy dish, so give it a try and feel free to adjust it to your own tastes.