Stuffed Bitter Melon Soup (Canh Khổ Qua)

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My employer recently presented to me a decision-making process and philosophy to consider: “heck yes, or heck no.” In other words, if you’re not fully excited about a decision or path presented to you then you should probably say no and move on. Maybe he noticed how I like to take my sweet time when making decisions (ha!).

Anyways, it obviously doesn’t work for every situation but it’s an interesting idea I often find useful. Vietnamese bitter melon soup (canh khổ qua), used to be a “heck no” for me, but I’ve had a change of heart.

An acquired taste?

They say you start to like bitter foods as you get older and this is definitely true for me. Along with beer, coffee, and many raw veggies, canh khổ qua is something I actually enjoy which I did not ~10 years ago. Pour-over black coffee is something I’m nuts about right now (currently awaiting a package of Stumptown beans!), with the occasional Vietnamese iced coffee. I’m sure you eat a bunch of food now that you wouldn’t touch years back, right?

Besides, these bitter melons are stuffed with meat and simmered in a tasty soup, which balances the strong bitter taste out quite nicely.

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Bitter melon, strange name

“Khổ qua” is the name of this melon in Vietnamese and roughly means “difficulty/hardship passed.” Most of my relatives who grew up in Vietnam have no idea why it’s called that, and were surprised I even asked since obviously it’s just the name of the plant.

Turns out, this is a plant originating from Africa, but has been used for centuries in Chinese folk medicine (wiki link to momordica charantia) folk medicine. Hong and Kim, from The Ravenous Couple, actually pointed out that in Chinese Mandarin, bitter melon is “ku gua.” Seeing khổ qua as an adaptation of ku gua is very likely, given the Vietnamese language was influenced a lot by China and shares a lot of vocabulary. I’m getting sporadic vocabulary lessons from my grandma, and she often tells me the word in question is a Han word!

It’s most commonly called bitter melon, or bitter gourd though for the rest of us!

Where To Buy Bitter Melon

Where can you find these bitter treats we call bitter melon? They’re  common to Chinese, Indian, and many other Asian cuisines, so your best bet is to hit up a local Asian supermarket! I don’t recall seeing this melon sold at any American mega-marts.

The type you’ll use in this recipe is actually the Chinese variety. It’s rounder at the ends and smoother looking than the pointed, Indian variety. In my experience some seem to be bitter than others, and it’s really a toss-up. I’d love to hear any tips you have on choosing good bitter melons in the comments below!

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What’s your verdict?

So what are your thoughts on bitter melon, heck yes or heck no? Maybe you like it prepared in another way? Let me know in the comments below!

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5.0 from 1 reviews
Stuffed Bitter Melon Soup (Canh Khổ Qua)
 
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Author:
Ingredients
  • 4 bitter melons, 5-6" long or 3 bitter melons 8" long
Filling
  • 1lb ground pork
  • 1 medium onion, ~2/3 cup chopped
  • ½ cup hydrated wood ear mushrooms, chopped (pictured on my egg roll recipe)
  • 1 pack of dried mung bean noodles, chopped. ~1 cup hydrated. (also pictured on my egg roll recipe)
  • 2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • ½ tablespoon fish sauce (optional)
Broth
  • 3 cups broth
  • 4.5 cups water
  • sugar and salt for seasoning the broth
Garnish
  • cilantro, chopped
  • green onion, chopped
Instructions
  1. Soak bean threads in hot tap water and mushrooms in 40-second microwaved hot tap water until soft. About 10 minutes. Drain and rinse mushrooms well.
  2. Cut a slit along each bitter melon and remove the seeds with a spoon. Sometimes it just wont open properly so you'll need to split the melon in half lengthwise and just add the filling.
  3. Bring the water and broth to a boil in a pot on high heat, but put aside about 1 cup for adjusting seasoning.
  4. Add the stuffed bitter melons
  5. Turn heat down to reach a low boil, simmer for 20-30 minutes until bitter melons are fork-tender.
  6. The water will have slightly evaporated and the stuffing released seasoning to the broth, so taste it then add salt and sugar to your liking if needed, or add more hot water to dilute it.
  7. Remove bitter melons and cut into 1.5-2" long pieces.
  8. Garnish with cilantro and green onion, serve with broth.

 

Cá Kho Tộ Recipe – Vietnamese Caramelized & Braised Catfish

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The tộ in cá kho tộ refers to the clay pot this dish is traditionally prepared in. I don’t have any spare clay pots on hand and I bet most of you aren’t going to have it either so we’re going to cheat a bit and make this in a good ol’ fashioned non-stick pan.

Mom’s old restaurant served cá kho in a clay pot, but she admitted to me it was actually cooked in a pan and just transferred into the pot. The cooks even heated up the clay pot to fool unsuspecting customers into believing it was the actual cooking vessel. Wow. (shh!)

This was a popular dish in southern Vietnam since meat and fish were plentiful. Obviously many types of fish were available there, but certain dishes tend to stick to certain varieties or be influenced by local availability.

What type of fish?

Cá lóc (snakehead fish) is commonly used in Vietnam because it’s cheap. Another popular and pricier option was cá trê. Both of these are only available in the freezer sections of Vietnamese markets. This frozen variety is not worth trying.

Instead, people here tend to avoid the ‘fishier’ options like mackarel and go for catfish:

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Its popular for its higher flesh content with less bones–a pretty American choice right? This braised catfish is eaten at any time of the day, year-round. A common practice is to use the filets from the center to make this braised fish recipe, and use the heads and tails for canh chua (a sour soup full of veggies–recipe coming soon!).

My aunt actually came over today to make cá kho with tinfoil fish (cá he), in a pressure cooker, which I’ve never gotten the chance to experiment with. This fish is stronger smelling, so she balanced that by adding some tea(!).

Thoughts on Fish Sauce

On my older thit kho recipe (Vietnamese braised pork with eggs) I recommended using Three Crabs brand fish sauce, simply because that’s what my mom uses quite often. There really is a slew fish sauce brands to try though.

I need to experiment with more types for my own knowledge. However, Kyle Hildebrant and his friend did a blind taste test on his website, Our Daily Brine. It seems as if the better fish sauces were from Vietnam, and tended to have fewer ingredients, mainly fish, salt and water. The ones that didn’t taste as good coincidentally (or not?) contained a combination of hydrolysed vegetable protein, MSG, or caramel color.

Another consideration when choosing a fish sauce is your health. Some brands contain sodium benzoate, a common food preservative. The Center for Science in the Public Interest describes it as safe for most people except for “sensitive individuals.” Pair that with this substance causing an off taste in many brands is enough reason for me to avoid it when possible. Or at least venture into discovering better brands.

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How To Serve It

Ca kho is a very rich and salty dish, so it goes well with many veggies to balance it out. Serve this with sliced cucumbers, boiled vegetables, or even some pickled mustard greens (dua chua) despite the salt content.

If you ever cook recipes on Hungry Huy, I’d love to see pictures of it and to hear from you! Cheers!

Cá Kho Tộ Recipe - Vietnamese Caramelized & Braised Fish
 
Prep time
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Author:
Ingredients
  • 1 pound catfish filets (bone and skin optional)
  • salt to clean the fish
aromatics
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • ½ yellow onion, sliced
seasoning & cooking liquid
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1.5 tablespoons fish sauce
  • About ½ teaspoon thick soy sauce
  • ½ cup water & ½ cup coconut juice (OR 1 cup coconut soda)
  • 1 chile, sliced (to taste, optional)
garnish
  • 1 stalk chopped green onion (scallion)
  • 1 sliced red chile
Instructions
  1. Generously salt fish and rinse under water to clean it. Set aside to dry.
  2. Add oil to a pan and saute garlic over medium heat until lightly browned.
  3. Layer onion on top, then the fish, evenly spaced.
  4. Add the seasoning & cooking liquid (& optional chiles) and turn the heat to high until boiling. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning.
  5. Bring it to a simmer for ~20 minutes. Adjust seasoning if needed.
  6. Gently flip the filets of fish over and simmer for a final ~10 minutes with the lid partially covered.
  7. Stand there to watch it the final ~10 minutes to prevent it from burning! During this time you can continually spoon the sauce over the fish.
  8. Add green onion during last 2 minutes to wilt & top with sliced chiles to garnish if desired and serve.

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