Bittersweet Cravings for Bitter Melon

Columns Ono, You Know

May 26, 2012

Story By: Dining Out Team |

My world revolves around food. At work or at play, food is the center of my universe. Go figure, right? As the editor of Dining Out that shouldn’t come as any surprise. And being that I come across a variety of exotic foods on a daily basis, I’m grateful that I’m not a picky eater. Truth be told, I can pretty much say I’ll try everything at least once. Whether it makes it on my list of “can’t live without” is an entirely different story.

Well, this week, I took my non-discriminating palate to sample dishes that pay homage to a distinct fruit that may leave a bitter taste in your mouth: bitter melon. The name gives it away, but it’s safe to say that bitter melon is most definitely an acquired taste – a taste that I’ve grown to love, in fact. My grandmother and mother both incorporate it into many different dishes that as a child I despised, but now crave. And when I can’t get my hands on my family’s cooking, I turn to the following Ono, You Know establishments for a “bittersweet” home-cooked meal!

Lung Fung Chinese Restaurant

There’s just something about authentic Chinese food that screams “comfort food” for me, and Lung Fung Chinese Restaurant in Niu Valley Shopping Center is a longtime favorite of mine. This East Oahu establishment opened its doors in 1981, which means locals have been enjoying irresistible Chinese cuisine with hints of local goodness for generations.

Be it Minute Chicken Cake Noodle, Crispy Gau Gee or Sweet-Sour Spare Ribs, Lung Fung’s ever-expansive menu is sure to impress a raging appetite. While glancing over the menu, Beef with Bitter Melon caught my eye. My grandmother would often make this dish for me while growing up, so it always holds a special place in my heart. Priced at $10.95, Beef with Bitter Melon features a captivating symphony of morsels of tender beef, carrots and, of course, flavorful pieces of bitter melon swimming in a black bean sauce and stir-fried to perfection. Scoop this over a bowl of rice and it’s a force to be reckoned with.

“Beef with Bitter Melon is one of those dishes that is only popular with some customers. I’ve noticed the younger generations don’t seem to care for it as much – they say it’s too bitter,” says restaurant manager Eddie Ma with a laugh. “Although, I’ve heard that bitter melon is good for your health.”

And while, yes, bitter melon might not be everyone’s cup of tea, the fact that this entree has been on the menu for years is proof that it does have its avid fans – myself included.

“We also can cook up bitter melon soup, but that’s only upon request,” Ma adds.

Lung Fung Chinese Restaurant
Niu Valley Shopping Center
5724 Kalanianaole Hwy.
377.5555 or 377.5566
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Max’s of Manila

Now what would a tribute to bitter melon be without the inclusion of Max’s of Manila? Without a doubt, Max’s is my go-to choice for home-cooked Filipino fare. Mention those sweet words: Crispy Pata, Filipino Bistek, Pork Sisig and Adobo, and my appetite has ascended into heaven. Add to that Max’s Fried Chicken and a refreshing glass of Sago’t Gulaman, and I can hear the angels start to sing! But while I was reveling in my foodie fantasies, Elizabeth Joven, operations manager of the Dillingham location, brought me back to the task at hand: bitter melon.

“Bitter melon is a staple in Filipino cuisine. It’s used in many of our dishes,” she says.

Before I knew it plates of Pinakbet ($8.95) and Ampalaya con Carne ($8.95) sat before me ready to be devoured.

According to Max’s experts, Pinakbet is a Filipino staple vegetable dish from the Ilocos Region located in Northern Philippines. The name of the dish comes from the Ilocano word pinakebbet, meaning “shrunk” or “shriveled.”

“Pinakbet consists of pork and shrimp sautéed in a special blend of bagoong alamang (shrimp paste) with fresh ampalaya (bitter melon), okra, sitaw (string beans), eggplant, squash and kangkong,” Joven explains.

And Ampalaya con Carne is super sarap (delicious), in my book! Max’s twist to a Filipino vegetable classic made of fresh ampalaya (bitter melon) and beef tenderloin tips in savory brown gravy and oyster sauce, Ampalaya con Carne is a must-try. Don’t let the bitter melon intimidate you, there’s a great chance you’ll love it.

With 127 branches in the Philippines, two branches in Dubai, two in Canada and eight branches in the U.S., we’re lucky to have Max’s to call our own here in the Islands. Max’s of Manila is slated to open six more restaurants in the Philippines and four additional international branches.

Max’s of Manila
801 Dillingham Blvd.
(also located in Waipahu Shopping Plaza)
951.6297
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Nuuanu Okazuya

Located on Nuuanu Avenue is Nuuanu Okazuya, a top-notch haven that meets all of your okazu needs. Known for its local and Japanese onolicious items, Nuuanu Okazuya was founded by the Nagamine family close to 30 years ago. Owner Mark Kitagawa decided to partner with the Nagamines in 2007, and takes pride in the fact that his eatery, although small, provides patrons with a wide-ranging menu, which features the freshest of ingredients. You can find a complete listing of menu options at nuuanuokazuya.com.

Beckoning bitter melon? Well, guess what? Kitagawa and manager Johnathan Mosley are quick to point out three flavorful bitter melon favorites with a bite.

Goya Chanpuru ($2.25 per serving) is a traditional Okinawan dish, which translates to “bitter melon stir-fry,” and showcases a savory blend of cooked bitter melon, pork and tofu in a pork-based sauce.

“This dish is very popular and healthy – anything with bitter melon is very healthy – it’s said to be a brain food, good for the brain,” Kitagawa explains.

Then, for something unique, sample Nuuanu Okazuya’s Namasu ($2) with a bitter melon twist.

“Of course when you add the bitter melon component to the namasu, it’s going to be a bit more on the bitter side, but not as bitter as a cooked bitter melon,” Mosley says.

Last, but not least, you most certainly have to take a bite out of the establish-ment’s Stuffed Bitter Melon ($2.25 each), which boasts a flavorful filling of pork hash, not to mention the added kick from the bitter melon.

Nuuanu Okazuya
1351 Nuuanu Ave.
533.6169
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