Bitter melon provides surprisingly tasty treats with added nutrition
Eaten raw by itself, bitter melon is definitely an acquired taste, but when it’s prepared properly with the correct seasoning and ingredients, it loses its sharp flavour and compliments a variety of Vietnamese dishes.
For hundreds of years, Vietnamese have used bitter melon as a part of their daily nutritious diet and as a medicinal ingredient to treat ailments, particularly during summer.
Like people in Japan, China and India, the Vietnamese have cooked different dishes from this fruit.
My relative Nguyeãn An Vinh from the Taây Nguyeân (Central Highlands) province of Ñaék Laék, recently visited my home in Haø Noäi, asking me to cook him a dish of bitter melon.
"Since I moved to Ñaék Laék in 2009, I've had a craving for the dish," Vinh told me.
I woke up early in the morning to buy five organic bitter melons, 300 grams of minced pork, onions, coriander, wood ears and field mushrooms to cook möôùp ñaéng nhoài thòt (bitter melons stuffed with pork and other above-mentioned ingredients).
First I soaked the wood ears and mushrooms in water for half an hour. Then I washed them clean, cut them into pieces and mixed with the meat, fish sauce and onion.
I cut each bitter melon into four pieces, leaving their insides as they were and soaked them in light saltwater for 20 minutes to reduce their bitter taste. Then I stuffed the mixtures into each fruit.
Vinh joined me to place the food into a pot of boiling water.
"I still remember that we have to put it in the pot with a spoonful of soya sauce and cook it for 20 minutes. Am I right?" he asked me. I agreed with him. When the food was boiling, it emanated a very special fra-
"What I liked most was the light bitter taste of the dish compared to its original flavour, which was extremely bitter."
grance, making our mouths water.
Vinh helped me to put several spices into the pot and then put coriander leaves into a big bowl.
"We should eat it hot," he reminded me.
When we began eating, Vinh said he was really enjoying the dish.
"What I liked most was the light bitter taste of the dish compared to with its original flavour, which was much bitter," said Vinh.
He asked me to cook other dishes such as stir-fried bitter melon with egg in the next meal during his one-week stay in the capital.
Cooking this dish was much easier. I cleaned two fruits, cut them into thin pieces then stir-fried them with dried onions and other spices for 5 to 6 minutes until it was done to a turn. Then I put two eggs into the pan and stirred them quickly.
I added green onions over the hot food before putting it into a plate.
Vinh told me that the dish looked very attractive because of the green colour of the bitter melon and the yellow yolk of the eggs.
He told me that this dish should also be eaten hot.
While enjoying the dish, Vinh said he could never forget bitter melon dishes cooked with other ingredients by his mother.
Vinh's wife Buøi Thu Trang said she could not forget how her mother-in-law used to make dried bitter melon tea which they often drank during summer to cool their bodies and prevent sunstroke.
Trang said she still knew how to make the tea.
First, the fruit was sliced into thin pieces and dried completely, she explained.
"We should let it cool, pack it into a box, and then put in the refrigerator for later use. Making bitter
melon tea is the same as green tea. Each day one should drink 3 to 4 cups. It is good for health," said Trang.
I, myself, can never forget my grandmother's dishes cooked with bitter melon. For vegetarians, they were stir-fried with soya cheese and for non-vegetarians there was salad mixed with salted and shredded pork, or chicken soup cooked with bitter melon and pineapple.
However, what I liked most among all these was the fruit steamed with fried markerel.
Ingredients included markerel, bitter melon, green onions, garlic, chilli, oyster sauces, coriander and cooking oil.
Lean markerel was ground until it was well kneaded and then mixed with onion, salt, minced chilli and a spoonful of cooking oil.
Bitter melon was cleaned and after the insides were removed, each fruit was cut into 3 to 4 pieces. These were put into a pot of boiling water over a big fire for 1 to 2 minutes and then poured into a basket.
With a spoon, the fish was scooped up, stuffed into each piece and steamed on a hotplate for 15 minutes.
Lettuce was displayed on the plate, and the bitter melon pieces placed on it. Oyster sauce was poured on the food and the plate decorated with coriander.
This dish was a bit difficult to make but we all enjoyed it because of the crispy fried markerel and the light bitter taste of the fruit accompanied by a very striking smell of oyster sauce.
Meanwhile, herbalist Toâ Bình Minh said there are many substances in bitter melon such as vitamin C which are very helpful to prevent ageing and reduce cholesterol in the blood.
He advised people, particularly women, to drink ground fresh bitter melon.
"You should mix it with lemon or apple juice to reduce the bitterness," Minh said.
During summer, bitter melon was a very good substance for mothers to treat their children's prickly heat.
"One or two fresh bitter melons are cut into little pieces or mashed and pressed hard to squeeze out the water. That water is then poured into a basin with which the babies are bathed," he said.
By doing so, prickly heat is considerably reduced or stopped, and the child feels comfortable and healthy, said Minh.
Bitter melon can help to reduce glucose levels in diabetics if they regularly drink a cup a day. It also helps to strengthen the immune system, treat gravel, pancreas cancer and many other ailments, the herbalist said.
"Alkaloid in bitter melon helps improve blood circulation, prevent inflammation, reduce fever and cool the entire body," Minh said.
A plate of bitter melon salad helps people to cool down in the summer heat.
Bitter melon stuffed with minced pork, wood ears, onions and other ingredients makes for a delicious dish in Vieät Nam.