Beef with bitter melon, and cooking as intimacy.
Adapted from: the classic Chinese preparation.
Much has been written about how the children of immigrants cook the dishes they grew up with to be transported back to the kitchens of their loved ones; not nearly enough, on the other hand, about those who have learned to cook on their own as a way of bridging a generational and cultural divide, a chasm of intimacy. In this version the emotions are murkier; the story is not as palatable. But it’s the one that feels truer to me.
Almost everything I know how to cook I learned to as an adult, hundreds of miles away from the parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles who might have, in another life, taught me how. I learned by perusing popular Chinese cooking blogs and watching other families cook together on YouTube. This is never without a certain degree of shame: from not being Chinese enough, which meant I had to resort to the same resources white audiences did; from not being close enough to my family to have inherited their recipes. Like I said: the emotions are murkier.
In the same way that a teenager with a crush might start listening to a band to have more in common with that person, I have always cooked certain things to feel closer to my parents. I do so with the hopes that it’ll give us something to talk about, to bond over. A memory or anecdote from life in China, if I’m lucky; some comparative notes and cooking feedback, at the very least. Usually, it’s the latter—but intimacy beggars can’t be choosers.
Bitter melon is one of those dishes. It’s part of a series of taste memories that I have kept in a bell jar so that I can compare future iterations against them. The reality is, the dish that will unlocks my sentimentality is likely much simpler than the recipes I’m trying, as is the case with most home-cooked meals. For example, white pepper and cooking wine seem to make an appearance on every ingredient list, but I don’t remember ever having them in our pantry. That’s fine. We learn to feel our way forward in the dark.
The bitter melon is—true to its name—a bitter member of the Cucurbitaceae family, which includes squashes, gourds, cucumber, luffa and watermelon. It has a pronounced bitterness that I’ve always irrationally associated with health benefits, much like dandelion. With origins that retrace back to Africa, it’s popular today throughout the Asian continent. In Chinese cuisine, it’s most often stir fried with meat (pork or beef) and douchi (fermented black beans), which is my preferred way of making it.
You can salt bitter melon before cooking it to strip away some of its bitterness; I don’t, because that flavour is precisely the reason why I crave it. In this recipe, it’s stir-fried with douchi, ginger and garlic, then added to ground beef seasoned with soy and oyster sauces. I served it with white rice and garlicky snow pea leaves as a side.
It felt, for a short moment, like homecoming.
I referenced a recipe from the newly-published Family Meals: Comfort Food Cooking, a delightful food zine. I don’t have the cook’s permission to republish it here, but here’s a similar recipe from the Woks of Life. I recommend not skipping the blanching step, as it helps immensely with texture.
Other ways to enjoy bitter melon include:
Goya champuru, from Okinawa, Japan, in which it’s stir fried with tofu, egg, and pork belly.
Thoran, from the Kerala region of India, which combines bitter melon with coconut.
Tom Juet Ma Ra, a Thai soup, which involves stuffing bitter melon with a meat filling and slow cooking it in a light broth.
With love and hopefully more consistency,