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.
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!
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!
- 4 bitter melons, 5-6" long or 3 bitter melons 8" long
- 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)
- 3 cups broth
- 4.5 cups water
- sugar and salt for seasoning the broth
- cilantro, chopped
- green onion, chopped
- 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.
- 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.
- Bring the water and broth to a boil in a pot on high heat, but put aside about 1 cup for adjusting seasoning.
- Add the stuffed bitter melons
- Turn heat down to reach a low boil, simmer for 20-30 minutes until bitter melons are fork-tender.
- 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.
- Remove bitter melons and cut into 1.5-2" long pieces.
- Garnish with cilantro and green onion, serve with broth.