I've never been a big fan of bittermelon. Our neighbors growing up were Okinawan, so every so often there would be Goya Chanpuru, basically an egg - tofu - bittermelon, and pork (and sometimes Spam) stir fry of sorts. I still had never developed a taste for it. Same with the Missus......
But a funny thing happened on this trip, we had bittermelon several times, and kind of enjoyed it. I'll pass on dipping it in honey, though. So naturally, after arriving back home, we've been cooking with it.
This post is more about my bittermelon education, rather than a bunch of recipes. As you see in the photo above, in my first few attempts, I did the usual cross slicing of the bittermelon, and using a spoon removed the pith, where most of the bitterness is retained. I used to two different tricks to remove excess bitterness..... the first was salting the bittermelon, then letting it sit for 20 minutes or so before rinsing and stir-frying. The second was the blanch method, which is what Ba Ren uses, as you can tell by this photo of their stir-fried bittermelon (which is pretty good, BTW).
It was still a bit too bitter for us, however. That's when the Missus decided that we should "shave" the bittermelon. Doing so would minimize the amount of pith and for our tastes, gave us the right amount of bitterness.
I found that you really didn't need to salt the bittermelon for very long when shaving. Just ten minutes or so, enough time for me to prep my other ingredients (save one). Not to delve too deeply into the "Qi" of food, but bittermelon is considered cooling, thus folks are advised to eat it during the summer. I thought I'd balance things out a bit by adding a few "warm" and "hot" ingredients to the dish. Namely Red Bell Peppers, onion, and blanched garlic. For me this was a natural combination, the sweetness of the red bell peppers and blanched garlic offset the bitterness. There were a couple of items we had in China that seemed to complement bittermelon for our tastes. One of them was Baihe - Lily Bulb. After tasting the sweet-oniony-mildly starchy flavor of fresh Baihe, we ordered it whenever we saw it on the menu. I also loved the onion like flavor that finished with a good bit of starchiness...... onion flavored potatoes.... talk about my dream vegetable.
Unfortunately, fresh lily bulb is hard to come by in these parts. I did find dried lily bulbs (i.e. dragon teeth), which I've had in soups, and wondered how these would fare in a stir-fry.
I made sure to rinse these well, three or four times, I then poured mildly boiling water over the bulbs and covered with a plate for about 10-15 minutes until the bulbs had softened. Getting back to the Qi of food, Lily Bulbs are also considered a major "Yin" food. It is also often used to clear up dry cough, sore throat, insomnia, and restlessness.
A quick stir-fry in the Big Kahuna, with a simple seasoning of good quality sea salt resulted in this:
The bittermelon combined with red bell pepper and blanched garlic was fabulous. It's too bad that the dried lily bulb just didn't work out too well. It is not nearly as full-flavored as the fresh stuff, and the texture is too starchy, lacking that bit of onion-like crunch.
Another item we had with bittermelon were ginko nuts. I won't go into the supposed health benefits of ginko nuts in this post, as they range from asthma and skin ailments to gonorrhea..... And like the lily bulbs, fresh ginko nuts are hard to come by. And when available (Nijiya and Mitsuwa has them once in a while), they are quite expensive. So we decided to go with the canned stuff.... which also needs a quick rinse, since the smell can be pretty off-putting. We also thought the addition of sweet onion would add another nice layer of flavor, along with some "Yang" to balance the "Yin".
A quick, and I mean quick stir-fry over 55,000 BTU's produced this:
I realize I forgot to list the health benefits of bittermelon, which is a pretty long list. Bittermelon is supposed to help digestion, constipation, promote liver health, and more recently some studies have indicated that bittermelon may be helpful in treating HIV. There are debates as to whether it is quinine that makes bittermelon bitter. Many cultures do use bittermelon both prophylactically, and to treat malaria.