Sweet bitter melon pickles

bitter melonI admit I am not a huge fan of bitter melon. But when transformed into these pickles, I changed my mind. Crunchy, sweet and tangy, with a slight bitter finish, these pickles converted me.

My inspiration came from the Asia Society Event, Chinese Soul Food: Hakka Cuisine. Last spring I consulted with Chef Kin Fong at M.Y. China in San Francisco about the dinner. Most of the menu was inspired by my recipes from The Hakka Cookbook. However, the chef wanted to do something new with bitter melon, a common ingredient in the Hakka diet. He suggested raw paper-thin shavings of bitter melon served with acacia honey and nestled in an ice bowl. Bitter Melon M.Y. China

I was a bit surprised.  Bitter melon is commonly cooked, usually stuffed and poached in broth for soup, stir-fried with meat, or stuffed and braised. I had never considered eating bitter melon raw and cold. As I thought more about the concept, it began to make sense. The sweetness of the honey and the cool temperature might temper the bitterness. Served in ice bowls, it would serve as unique palate cleanser.

bitter melon picklesAll the way home from our planning meeting, I thought about bitter melon served cold and sweet. How would bitter melon taste pickled? I have a recipe for Pickled Mustard Greens in The Hakka Cookbook (page 147). Why not substitute bitter melon for the mustard greens in the recipe? My experiment worked! I loved the pickle’s crisp bite. The sweetness softened the bitterness. They are easy to make and stay crunchy for weeks in the refrigerator. It’s a simple way to preserve surplus melons.

Sweet Tangy Bitter Melon Pickles

Bitter melon (foo gwa)  are in farmers’ and Asian markets now. They don’t look like melons, their shape is more like a slender gourd or a plump zucchini. Their green skin is rutted with bumpy furrows and their interior is filled with white pith and seeds.

Makes about 2 cups

2 medium bitter melons (about 12 ounces)

2/3 cup rice vinegar or distilled white vinegar

2/3 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt or table salt

1. Trim ends off melons. Cut melons in half lengthwise. With a spoon scoop out and discard seeds and white pith. Cut the melon halves crosswise in 1/4-inch thick slices to make about 2 cups.

2. In a 3- to 4-quart pan over high heat, bring about 1 1/2 quarts water to a boil. Add the bitter melon. Stir to separate slices and cook just until bright green, about 30 seconds. Drain and immerse in ice water to cool quickly.

3. In a large bowl, mix the vinegar, sugar, and salt until the sugar dissolves. Stir in drained bitter melon. Cover and let stand at room temperature overnight. Transfer bitter melon and liquid to smaller containers. Cover and chill, stirring once, until the pickles are crisp, sweet, and tangy, 2 to 3 days. Keeps in refrigerator for a few weeks.

 

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Curious about bitter melon?

In the summer, my father used to grow one of his favorite vegetables, bitter melon (foo gwa).  You might see it in farmers’ markets now.  Their appearance prompts curious questions. They don’t look much like melons, their shape is more like a slender gourd or a plump cucumber. Their green skin is furrowed with deep wrinkles and their interior is filled with a white pithy mesh of seeds.

Like their name implies, they are bitter. Although Hakka and many Asians love their strong numbing bite, it may be an acquired taste for the uninitiated. I confess, even though I love bitter in many forms, I find this vegetable stronger than I like. Some cooks claim certain techniques mellow the bitterness. Some simmer the melon uncovered in broth, so the bitterness can dissipate. Marie Chang from Toronto adds tomato to the braising sauce to add some sweetness to balance the bitterness of the vegetable in her recipe (page 163).

Those who love this vegetable celebrate and savor its bitterness. Also many eat it for its health benefits. With all its claims, you might call it a super food.  It is often referred to as a plant insulin and can help lower blood sugar. Perhaps that’s why my father ate so much bitter melon, he had diabetes. It is also high in iron, potassium, calcium. It claims to combat cancer, viruses, colds, psoriasis, and high cholesterol.

To stuff bitter melon: cut melon in rings, remove seeds and pith, and fill cavity.

My father, like many Hakka, liked to stuff the melon. He cut the melon crosswise in rings, removed the seeds, and filled the cavity with a pork filling. He poached it in broth to make soup. See my father’s recipe in the cookbook on page 24. In Hong Kong, I ate a new version stuffed with glutinous rice, Chinese sausage or bacon, and Tianjin vegetables (page 74).

The stuffed rings are most commonly poached in broth, pan browned and braised, or steamed. You can also slice the melon and stir-fry it. Or imbed thin slices in a frittata-like omelet (page 80).

The next time you see this funny looking vegetable, be adventurous and give it a try. You might like it.

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