Tuesday, February 22, 2011


I had a mad craving for that peculiar taste that offends most Western palates: pungent bitterness.  Perhaps it was the storm last week that made me want to serve chicken tinola (stew) with lots of ginger and thin slivers of bittermelon, a steaming fragrant soup eaten with jasmine rice, fortified by the warming qualities of ginger and the immunity-boosting benefits of bittermelon.  Food to strengthen our bodies and nourish our souls as many around us literally went under the weather with week-long flus and colds that lingered on for months. 

On Clement Street I wandered in and out of Asian grocery stores in search of this notorious vegetable, also known as pomme de merveille, pomo balsamo, balsamini longa, muop dang, tsuru reishi, bittergourd, balsam pear, sopropo, arsorossie, ku gua foo, pare, peria, karela, balsamina, balsamapfel, mara (Source: http://www.tropilab.com/momordica-cha.html )

Over the years I have discovered from co-workers who are either themselves immigrants or have roots in another country outside of the US that bitter is also a taste they crave and that bittermelon is considered soul food in their grandmother or mothers' kitchens.  In dim sum carts I have seen halved bittermelon stuffed with ground meats and steamed until tender.  Bittermelon sauteed with fermented black beans and pork slices are common fare in most Chinese restaurants.  I was happy to find stewed bittermelon on the menu of one of our favorite Burmese places on Clement. A friend of mine talks about how his grandmother in Surinam used to prepare a dish of bittermelon that he still craves to this day. He goes on his own bittermelon hunt in Oakland Chinatown. An old college friend who now lives in Las Vegas saw my post and said too bad I was not local because he kept a stash of ampalaya in his refrigerator. 

I did not find bitter melon last week on Clement Street, which makes me even more determined to resume my search again.  At one store the cashier looked at me as if I had asked for caviar. "What? You want bitter melon? Bah! Too expensive now. More than $3 a pound."  Feeling a little indulgent, I went to another store where my request was not understood by the barely English speaking proprietor and I was shooed away. At the last place I checked there was an empty bin and a sign that made me smile: better melon. I could not have misspelled it any better and arrived at the heart of this culinary wonder.

From Surinam to India, Vietnam, China, Burma and the Philippines, to my own kitchen in San Francisco, bittermelon is a vegetable not to be scraped off the plate as offensive to the palate but obsessively sought after, maybe even slightly revered.


  1. Bittermelon is also soul food in Okinawa! Called goya in the Okinawan dialect, there's a dish known as goya champuru that managed to even spread in popularity as an Okinawan dish to the mainland Japan. My parents grow their own each summer and it's the REAL bumpy kind, with some very pointy bumps. Stirfried with sliced pork belly (or spam or even corned beef hash), and tofu, sometimes bean sprouts. Yum-my!

    I never appreciated it until I lived in Okinawa! The mo' bittah, the bettah!

    And so happy you're blogging again!

  2. Thanks Yuko! I have really enjoyed following your blog, too. I love that Okinawans consider bittermelon soul food as well. I'll have to try making goya champuru myself. Sounds delicious!