Bitter melon is one of those things that I used to detest as a kid and to this day, I can't say I'm a huge fan. It's a curious looking vegetable (technically a fruit), that looks a bit like a cucumber with blisters all over it. If you hang out at Asian groceries you've probably seen them and wondered what they were.
True to its name, it is intensely bitter, almost to the point where you wonder if it's safe to eat. These things make endives taste sweet in comparison. So why would anyone want to eat it? In eastern medicine bitter melon is considered to help with digestion and prevent diseases ranging from malaria to type II diabetes. While I'm always skeptical about such claims, they are rooted in centuries of history, so you have to wonder if there's some truth to them.
On this particular occasion, one of L's co-workers gave her one and I found it laying in the veggie drawer just begging to be cooked. Not being one to waste food, I thought back to my childhood when I'd tried it at my grandparents home. Though I can't say I've had it more than a handful of times, I do remember it being cooked with a lot of oil, salt, sugar and umami to cover up some of the bitterness.
This preparation I came up with sits somewhere between Japanese and Chinese food. It's richly fatty from the pork, which along with the dried anchovies and black bean sauce imparts some serious umami. The miso, mirin and sugar serve to mellow it all out making for a well rounded (though still bitter) side dish.
So was it as bad as my childhood memories? After the first few bites, my tongue adaped to the bitterness and by the time I finished it off I was craving some more. It pairs well with beer and made a nice accompaniment to a steaming bowl of rice.
- Cut the ends off the bitter melon then slice it in half lengthwise. Use a spoon to scoop out all the seeds and pith then slice them into 1/8" crescents.
- Heat a pan then add the pork. If there's a reasonable amount of fat in it, you shouldn't have to add oil. Break up the meat and fry until some of the fat has rendered out then add the garlic and dried anchovies. Continue frying until the meat is completely cooked and the garlic is fragrant.
- In a small bowl combine the black bean sauce, miso, sugar and mirin.
- Add the bitter melon to the pan and stir-fry until the melon is translucent and almost tender. Finish by adding the sauce and stir-frying until the pork and melon are well coated and the sauce has caramelized.