Monday, July 20, 2015

Bitter melons & golden sand

The last time we were in Shanghai a couple of years ago, it seemed like every cook in the city was terribly excited about a “golden sand” version of, well, just about everything possible. We got a bit exhausted from having this way too often, but now that some time has passed, my love for this lovely and delicious sauce has been rekindled. (BTW, the illustration on the left is from my upcoming book with McSweeney's and Ten Speed Press: ALL UNDER HEAVEN.)

Golden sand is nothing less than the yolks of Brined Eggs that are mashed and then stir-fried into a buttery sauce. Some of the things we had with the golden sand were less than stellar – combined with shellfish, for example, it’s an overkill of fatty, salty flavors (sort of like crab with drawn butter, at least to my taste) – but when it’s used as a visual and textural and flavorful contrast to the main ingredient, the result can be inspired.

Young bitter melons
My favorite rendition was when it was matched up with bitter melons. Everything was exactly right in this combination: the beautiful jade color of the vegetable against the amber crumbles of salted egg yolk, the crunchy melon sliding on the creamy sauce, and the slightly bitter and yet slightly sweet flavors mingling with the salty and, yes, really buttery aromas from the golden sand made this a winning trifecta.

The bitter melons are cut into thin batons, blanched, quickly cooled down, and only then tossed in the sauce. This serves to leach out most of the bitterness and essentially cook the melon very rapidly, which preserves its exquisite color and crispness.

Bitter melons in golden sand 
Jīnshā kŭguā 金沙苦瓜 
Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish

2 medium bitter melons
Boiling water
6 yolks from Brined Eggs, or store-bought
2 cloves garlic, peeled and trimmed
1 green onion, trimmed
¼ cup fresh peanut or vegetable oil
2 to 3 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons sea salt

1. Wash and dry the bitter melons and trim off both ends, as well as any damaged areas. Cut the melons lengthwise in half and scoop out both the seeds and any pith. Cut the melon halves crosswise into 2-inch or so lengths, and then slice these pieces lengthwise into thin (¼ inch) strips.
Boiling up the "golden sand"

2. Bring the water to a boil in a medium saucepan and blanch the bitter melons for less than 1 minute, or until they turn bright green and taste barely cooked. Rinse the bitter melons with cool tap water in a colander set in the sink, and then drain thoroughly.

3. Use a fork to mash the yolks. Finely chop the garlic and green onion.

4. Pour the oil into a wok and heat it over medium-high until it starts shimmer. Add the mashed egg yolks, garlic, and onion, and stir-fry them until the sauce foams up; add the sugar and salt. Toss in the well-drained bitter melon and mix it quickly to heat the vegetables through. Taste and adjust seasoning. Pour the melons onto a serving plate and scrape all of the sauce out of the wok on top of them. Serve while still very hot.
If jade were a vegetable


Bitter melons aren’t really melons... they’re a type of squash. The problem lies in the translation, because the name in Chinese for both melons and squash is guā 瓜.

You can get a good sense of how weird these names are when you consider that a watermelon is called a “western gua” (xīguā 西瓜), and a pumpkin is referred to as a “southern gua” (nánguā 南瓜). Why? Beats me. One is sweet, the other not so much. Watermelons may have traveled from Central Asia into China, which definitely is to the west, but the pumpkin originates in the Americas, which is nowhere south of China. 

I give up.

A general rule is, the lighter the green of the bitter melon, the less bitter it is. For this dish, a pale green is recommended, unless you enjoy more astringent flavors.

Bitter melons are in season from the warm days of summer up until the first frosts of fall. Select ones that are heavy for their size, and try to avoid any with bruises, as these vegetables spoil easily.

Store the melons in the fridge, preferably with a piece of paper towel around them to soak up any moisture, since they are prone to rot. Use them up within a day or two, if at all possible.

This recipe is for brined chicken eggs. If you are using duck or goose yolks, be sure and adjust the amount accordingly. Also, these latter two kinds of eggs tend to have a gamy or fishy flavor. To combat this, cut each yolk in half, sprinkle them with a bit of white liquor or rice wine, and steam them for about 5 minutes. Cool the yolks before mashing.

Illustration from the forthcoming All Under Heaven (McSweeney's + Ten Speed Press, 2016)
Copyright (c) 2015, Carolyn Phillips
All Rights Reserved - Do Not Reproduce


  1. Another "sand" to try is "windy sand" (風沙), which is a Cantonese technique that basically covers a fried or grilled item with a mound of chopped garlic deep-fried to a crisp. It's incredibly good.

    1. Mmmm, yes! Have a recipe for that in "All Under Heaven" as Typhoon Shelter Crab (避風塘炒蟹). Love that crunchy layer over the juicy crab.