If you’re from a family with “old world” roots or have hippie parents, you probably grew up eating a wide variety of foods—foods that became increasingly embarrassing to bring along during school lunches as you got older. But secretly, it’s just as comfortably delicious as wearing your favorite old sweater.
My mother used to cook a pot of food from scratch for us every day. She would leave it on the stove for us to find when we got home from school. My brother and I were latchkey kids because she worked at her restaurant. It was exciting to arrive at 3 in the afternoon, come home and see what we were having for dinner.
We rarely had friends over, which made the pot presentation seem a lot less tense. I would have died of shame if they had seen the pots that made me most happy: soups stuffed with entrails or braised duck, pickled mustard greens and daikon stew.
I would have cringed if they had tried my other favorite, stuffed bitter melon soup, and it had ruined their faces.
Fortunately, my own children don’t need much persuasion when it comes to eating a wide variety of foods. Apparently it’s not weird anymore to have weird food in your lunch box.
But still, I was a little hesitant to send them to school with a bitter melon stir fry. So I did it anyway. I thought, if anything, it would be character building. I was pleasantly surprised when their thermoses came back empty.
The expression I heard the most growing up was “Eat this, it’s good for you”; now it’s also the expression he overuses the most. But I can understand why so many of us who grew up in the old world are outraged when foods are declared “newly discovered” or “superfoods.” It’s a badge of honor, but also frustrating because inside we’re all screaming, “Goji berries? We have been sucking them into our TCM soups since the womb!”
Turmeric, coconut oil, animal fats, all fats… don’t even get me started on aging fish… like I said, a badge of honor.
The same is true of bitter melon (Momordica charantia). Many who have never eaten it are curious about it now, as the popular health literature has made a lot of noise about it. And so it should be. Bitter melons are packed with fiber, vitamins, minerals, and more. However, they are a hard sell for restaurants – it’s not called bitter for nothing. The strong taste should be celebrated or muted.
“It was such a pretty vegetable, like a miniature albino alligator in vegetable form.” Photography: Getty Images
I once grew a white variety for chef Peter Gilmore as a test. It was such a pretty vegetable, like a miniature albino alligator in vegetable form, if you can imagine such a thing. It would have made the perfect garnish on one of their delicately beautiful plates, shaved equatorially paper-thin. Perfect, except that it would have dominated the entire dish with its lovely medicinal bitterness. It’s not what most chefs are looking for, no matter how pretty.
Instead, bitter melon is relegated to home cooking and more rustic kitchens, like our restaurants. We put it on our menu for the first time this year, during its peak season. We made it because I wanted to eat it every day and because they were growing prolifically on the farm, and no one else would buy them.
And you know what? So many people asked for it! She sold out. The general consensus declared it the most pleasingly nostalgic dish. Diners would always describe the family member who cooked it best (often his grandmother) and how what they had just eaten had made them remember.
So the next time you’re in an Asian grocery store and see that gnarled, green, alligator-like vegetable, remember “buy it, cook it, eat it, it’s really good for you.” Just don’t wrinkle your pretty face when you try it.
Bitter melon stuffed in chicken broth
(also known as my happy soup)
Please read the recipe before attempting this – there are some steps that require advanced preparation.
Step One: The Filling
1 kg of minced meat from pastured pork preferably 30% fat
6 garlic cloves finely chopped
1 small organic ginger nut grated
1 tablespoon canned salted radishes finely chopped
1 teaspoon white pepper
3 tablespoons Braggs Aminos Protein or light soy sauce
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons of the best quality sesame oil
2 organic free range eggs defeated
Mix all of the above ingredients together with your hands until well incorporated, then refrigerate, covered, with a kitchen towel, for at least an hour. The night is ideal.
Step two: prepare the melon
4 medium bitter melons – choose the ones with rounded ridges
Cut the melon into 10 cm logs and gently remove the pith and seeds with a spoon. Stuff all the way to the edges. If you have leftover stuffing, shape it into meatballs.
Step Three: Make the Soup
2 liters of chicken broth (homemade is better)
4 dried shiitake mushrooms rehydrated and quartered
1 bunch of coriander – finely chop the stem and leaves, beat the roots until they are crushed
1 bunch of chives thinly sliced
2tbs of Braggs Aminos
2 tablespoons of the best quality fish sauce
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
2 tablespoons shallot oil you did last week
Bring the broth with the flattened coriander root and shiitake mushrooms to a boil. Place the stuffed bitter melon and meatballs in the pot gently and simmer for 20 minutes or until the pork has cooked through and the bitter melon has softened. Season with Braggs and fish sauce.
When ready to serve, portion out the bitter melon and additional meatballs, pour the broth over the top and garnish with cilantro and scallions, drizzle with the shallot oil, and sprinkle with white pepper.
Overnight this soup gets better, so always make more than you think you can eat, because your liver will thank you and you’ll want to do some chin-ups afterwards.
Palisa Anderson is a farmer at Boon Luck Farm and a restaurateur at Chat Thai, Boon Cafe, Assamm and Samorso
This article was modified on October 30, 2019. The caption of an earlier version incorrectly placed the eastern state of Assam in western India and used Myanmar’s outdated name Burma.