What the heck is this and what do you do with it?

Chinese Bitter Melon

I love discovering and experimenting with new ingredients, but the one I stumbled upon at the farmer’s market today really created a challenge. The vegetable: Chinese Bitter Melon. For just fifty cents, I decided to give this warty, pickle-looking thing a try and see what could be done.

Bitter melon seeds

Being that this bitter melon, also known as balsam pear, couldn’t be found in any of my cookbooks I turned to Google and discovered that the National Bitter Melon Council which provided me with much needed guidance. First of all, and this shouldn’t be a surprise, but the bitter melon is indeed bitter. The council advised either blanching it in boiling water for two minutes then shocking it, or treating it as I would eggplant and soaking it in salt for 10 minutes. Secondly, the bright red seeds are edible but can be difficult to digest. Finally, the site recommends pairing it with strong flavors such as garlic and coconut milk, and explained how it can be a coolant and palate cleanser to rich sauces.

Eggplant soaking  Blanched and shocked bitter melon

After reading this my decision of what to do with the bitter melon become clear: I would make a curry with it along with chicken, garlic, onions, eggplant, coconut milk.

The site also offers a lot of information on the reported health benefits of bitter melons and how they’re nutritionally rich in iron, beta carotene, calcium, potassium, dietary fiber, and Vitamins A, C, B1 and B3. It also discussed how they can be used medicinally to lower blood sugar in diabetics, to treat gastrointestinal infections, to combat breast cancer and to assist in HIV treatments. Very interesting… now I’ll just have to decide if I like it.

Turns out bitter melon isn’t so bad. Granted, it’s not something I’ll often crave, but I’m glad I gave it a try. I first tasted the melon just after blanching it when supposedly it wouldn’t be so bitter. My first thought was “this isn’t so bad.” Then the strong aftertaste hit me. I tried it a second time about halfway through cooking it with the curry and other ingredients and I could immediately tell that the bitterness had mellowed, although it didn’t seem to lessen any after that and certainly didn’t become a little sweet the way the once bitter eggplant did by the end.

The final curry dish served over basmati rice was delicious, something I’ll definitely make again. If I happen to stumble across bitter melon then sure, I’ll buy one and throw it in. If not, I’ll happily substitute another vegetable.

Bitter Melon & Eggplant Curry with Chicken

1 Chinese eggplant, sliced thin

1 tablespoon Kosher salt, divided

1 Chinese bitter melon, halved and seeds removed, sliced thin

2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided

1 large chicken breast, cubed

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 yellow onion, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon tumeric powder

1 teaspoon curry powder

12 ounces chicken stock

4 ounces lite coconut milk

1 tablespoon corn starch

Basmati rice

Place the sliced eggplant in a bowl and cover with cold water and 1 teaspoon salt. Let it rest for 10 minutes, then drain well. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to boil and add the sliced bitter melon. Cook for two minutes, then drain and rinse immediately under cold running water or submerge in an ice bath. Drain well and set aside.

Sauteing chicken  Vegetables

Set a large saute pan over medium high heat and add 1 tablespoon vegetable oil. Once hot, add the cubed chicken and cook for two minutes, then remove from the pan leaving the oil behind. Set aside. Add the remaining oil to the pan along with the garlic and onion. Saute for two to three minutes or until the onions begin to soften. Add the bitter melon and eggplant and cook for five minutes, stirring often.

Curry in the pan  Curry & Basmati Rice

Mix in the cumin, tumeric, curry powder and remaining salt and cook for one minute, then return the chicken to the pan and cook for another minute. Add the chicken stock and reduce the heat to medium-low so that the liquid simmers. Cook until the stock reduces by half, about five minutes, then stir in the coconut milk. Return the liquid to a simmer. Separately, whisk together the cornstarch with 1 tablespoon cold water and add it to the pan. Continue to cook for two minutes or until the sauce has thickened. Add more cornstarch mixed with water if necessary. 

Serve warm over basmati rice.


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