Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Hidden dragon bitter melon -- cool and super good

Bitter melon has a very bad rap. It's considered one exceedingly icky vegetable by most Chinese kids because it can be very astringent. A lot of this has to do with the tender taste buds that sit around in kids' mouths, waiting for nothing stronger than a slice of pizza or a Coke to deal with. So there's that.

But things like bitter melon are not meant for children. Astringency is an acquired taste. Bitterness is for adults. Face it: Campari, lemon peels, eggplant, a pint of Guinness... I don't know of too many parents who sit their kids down to a meal with those sorts of things on the plate.

So save this for your adult friends, folks who like unusual flavors and who are willing to try something that has "bitter" in the title.

Mature, pale bitter melon
The really good news here is that when you select the right bitter melon, it will not be that harsh at all. In fact, it will display nothing but the slightest sharp edge if you play your cards right, and it might even be one of those things that you end up dreaming about, waiting for late fall to arrive so that you can finally eat this dish again.

Because this is definitely seasonal. Instead of the relatively thin, bright green, and definitely astringent ones that hang around Chinese supermarkets most of the year, these expect you to wait until the last warm days of autumn when a chill is in the air, the only time these beauties called "white jade" (baiyu) bitter melon ever show up.

This is, I believe, a variety that was developed in Taiwan, and once in a while you can find them here in the States. They are very large -- about 3 inches wide -- and about a foot long, and if you see one, grab it. I've been on the lookout for them for a while now, and the closest I can find are some very pale green ones that are also quite mild and almost as good as the white jade melons.

These are absolutely ideal raw in a Hunan appetizer that I have adored ever since I set aside my prejudices and gingerly nibbled on a slice. This was done at the enthusiastic urging of my museum director, who always knew his way around the menu of any of China's grand cuisines. Dr. Ho was from the eastern seaboard near Nanjing, but he was a master at enjoying Hunan's greatest foods, too.

This dish inevitably started out our Hunan banquets, and I soon was glomming onto the plate with intense pleasure. It's not at all hard to understand, either, because this dish is a complex mix of textures and also has ALL of the main flavors: bitter, salty, tart, sweet, spicy, umami, and even a bit of funk. Let me break it down for you...

Brilliant red-garbed seeds
The subtle bitterness comes from the melon, of course, but everything else is found in the sauce, where saltiness shows up in the fermented black beans and soy sauce, the tartness is provided by the vinegar, sugar supplies the sweetness, hot chilies and ginger spark the mix, umami (or xian) is there courtesy of the black beans and soy sauce, and the funk shows up in the cilantro and garlic. It's magic.

When you cut open your first mature bitter melon, you might be in for a delicious surprise: the ripe, hard seeds will be wrapped in velvety red coverings. Most people toss the seeds out, but taste those little red socks first because they are wonderfully sweet and soft. I like to peel them off of the tough brown seeds (keeping them for planting next year, if the melon is particularly good) and add them to the dip.

What I've done here is have a bit of fun with the dish, turning it into a coiling dragon. Its name, of course, is from the Chinese hit movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (Wohu canglong), which just about everyone has seen and loved. But few understand what the title means: this is a Chinese idiom that describes people with hidden talents, such as the elegant young lady played by Zhang Ziyi who was studying the black arts.

Try this dish replete with your own little dragon. Chinese friends may soon be muttering that you are a crouching tiger, too.

Hidden dragon bitter melon appetizer 
Canglong liangban baiyu kugua 藏龍涼拌白玉苦瓜
Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer

1 large, pale bitter melon (about a pound or so)
I red jalapeno pepper

¼ cup toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon peeled, finely chopped ginger
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 red jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped
2 tablespoons fermented black beans (douchi), finely chopped
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
½ tablespoon rice or apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1 green onion, trimmed and finely sliced into rings
A few sprigs of cilantro, finely chopped

The seed inside the sock
1. Start this early in the day or up to a day in advance of when you want to serve it. Wash and pat dry the bitter melon. Trim off the stem end, cut the melon in half lengthwise, and scoop out the seeds and pith. If there are red coverings on the seeds, remove them and set this red pulp aside; discard the seeds and pith.

2. Slice the melon into thin, deeply diagonal pieces, and arrange them in a coil on your serving plate, leaving room in the center for your dipping sauce.  Cut two long slivers out of the pepper to form the dragon's horns and a two dots to make the eyes. Place these on the coiled melon on a piece that looks like face (the blossom end is best). Cover the plate and chill. (The bitter melon should be very cold when you serve it, which also cuts down on the bitterness. You can add the flesh of the rest of the jalapeno to the sauce, if you like.)

3. Heat the oil in a wok over high and add the ginger, garlic, jalapeno pepper, and black beans. Stir for just a few seconds just to remove the harsh rawness of the aromatics, and then add the soy sauce, vinegars, and sugar; remove from the heat and then taste and adjust the seasoning. Toss in the red pulp, if you like, and chill the sauce. Just before serving, stir in the green onion and cilantro.


Refreshing & very retro
If you have room for a garden, plant those seeds when the ground is warm and all frost is past. Bitter melons make the most beautiful vines you've ever seen, with brilliant green leaves, bright yellow flowers, and of course the knobby, jadelike melons.

Chinese bitter melons have soft warty bumps all over them, while Indian ones have sharp spines and look like sea slugs. Go for the Chinese ones.

Bitter melons self destruct in a matter of days, dissolving into mush. So, buy them just before you want to eat them.

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