Putting A Sweet Spin On Bitter Melon
Chinatown is a mecca of culinary inspiration, with its enticing restaurants and street markets, aromas of herbs and spices, and colorful energy flowing through every street. Take the time to wander past the food stands that vivify the neighborhood and you’re likely to stumble across fresh ingredients, especially fruits and vegetables, that you don’t often find in the regular produce aisle of the grocery store.
This past week, while following my taste buds around the historic district — and weaving my way through piles of lemon grass, galangal, choy sum, you name it — the friendly folks at Chinatown Hawaiian Market introduced me to bitter melon, a savory fruit I’ve always heard about, but never tried.
Though its pronounced bitter flavor makes it an acquired taste, the bumpy, gourd-like ingredient — also called goya, karela or balsam pear, depending on where you are in the world — remains lauded for its health benefits and is prevalently used throughout Asian cuisines. I had high hopes for this unique bite, seeing as I’ve never shied away from other bitter-flavored treats that appeal to foodies these days, including dark chocolate, India Pale Ale beer and specialty coffee.
Excited to find bitter melon’s sweet spot, I set out to try it at some of the best eateries in Chinatown, where I knew they would do this green goodie justice.
A LITTLE GOES A LONG WAY
Many adults, myself included, now love flavors and ingredients that we wouldn’t have touched when we were kids. I often hear people who grew up eating bitter melon tell a similar story, including Little Village Noodle House general manager David Chang.
“When I was a kid in Hong Kong, where I grew up, I never liked to eat bitter melon,” he recalls. “But as I got older, it’s one of the key ingredients for me. Now I appreciate the flavor — I love it.”
Chang serves up the green bell pepper-colored ingredient at Little Village in the form of Bitter Melon Scrambled Eggs ($10.95). It’s not only one of his favorite dishes, but it’s also ordered frequently by customers of older generations, for whom bitter melon was always a part of their diets. “This is comfort food for a lot of people,” he adds.
It was exciting to finally show my palate what it had been missing all these years, and while I wasn’t sure if I would like it, I was pleasantly surprised by this simple yet delicious dish. As it turns out, I can hang with the bold, sharp bitterness of the fruit, which is so expertly balanced out in this preparation with fluffy and moist scrambled eggs. “We poach the bitter melon in hot water,” notes Chang, “so it takes away a little bit of the edge.”
It seems to me that enjoying bitter melon is all about finding the right presentation, in which its strong characteristics are brought into harmony with the accompanying flavors.
Little Village Noodle House
1113 Smith St., Chinatown
GOOD AS GOLD
Now that I discovered a taste for bitter melon, I was ready to find more of it at Golden Palace Seafood Restaurant.
According to general manager Gary Lam, one of the main reasons bitter melon is so popular in Chinese cooking is because it’s ultra healthy. “It helps get rid of toxins in your body,” he says, noting that the Chinese consider bitter melon to be leung gua, or having the ability to bring a cooling balance to the heat in one’s body. Retaining its crunch when cooked, bitter melon also is associated with lowering cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
Golden Palace — easily spotted on North King Street by the red and gold pillars at its entrance — makes Bitter Melon with Chicken ($7.95), accented with garlic and rich black-bean gravy.
“It’s a common dish that we make for customers on a daily basis,” says Lam.
The entree is customizable, as regulars don’t hesitate to order it with their protein of choice (such as beef, pork, sea bass or shrimp) or with just the bitter melon alone. If you stop in to try it before May 5, ask your server about Golden Palace’s bai-san sets offered in honor of the Ching Ming festival, during which ancestors are remembered. Lam reminds customers that they also may call ahead to order bai san.
Golden Palace Seafood Restaurant
111 N King St., Chinatown