The Food and Wine Hedonist

leave your inhibitions at the door

Mastering the Art of Filipino, Pt 1 – Bitter Melon

I was born in the Philippines and came here when I was but a wee young Hedonist.  Growing up, my parents were pretty well-assimilated and made sure that we were, too.  Except for food.  Like all immigrants, food was their one constant link to their heritage and they strove to maintain that.  And I loved everything they made.

Except two things.

I was at the Farmers Market a few weeks ago and, as it was the middle of August, all of the stalls had tables piled high with all kinds of beautiful produce.  It was pretty crowded that morning, but there was one table that not many people were visiting.  Standing there was an old man with some missing fingers, selling his goods.  I had seen the old man before, but not at the Market.  I swear it was the old man at the Bridge of Death –

Anyway, on his table were stacks of what Filipinos call ampalaya. Most of the world calls it bitter melon.  I call it The Nasty.

BM Whole

BM sliced


People who have never had them before probably wouldn’t stop at that table.  Those that have had them DEFINITELY wouldn’t stop.  As its name implies, it is bitter.  Super bitter. Inedibly bitter. Like “you need to have a chaser of garden soil or kerosene to kill the taste” bitter.  To give you an indication of how awful it is, it’s eaten all over Asia and in some parts of Latin America.  Yet as a food it’s only ever described as having “multiple medicinal purposes.”  How’s that for a glowing recommendation?

My parents were pretty strict about us eating what’s in front of us but my dad, who I’m guessing wasn’t a fan, always gave us a free pass with this.  Every few years, I would try ampalaya to see if my tastes changed enough to tolerate it.   The last time I had it was in 2006 when my mom made her usual preparation of stir-frying it with some ground pork.  I almost yakked.

But here it was right in front of me, being sold by an old man cackling how he loves to eat it raw.  I thought about how I’ve upped my cooking game significantly over the past decade.  I thought about how foodies are supposed to be open to anything.  I thought about how this is good for at least a blog post or two.  I was ready for this challenge.

I was ready to become a full-fledged Flip.

Asian food

Attempt 1 – Raw in a salad

I was pretty sure that the old man was insane, so there’s no way in hell I was just going to eat it like an apple.   I chopped some up and mixed it with some tomatoes and onions.

BM Salad recipe

Nope.  Looks pretty, but still very much The Nasty.

Filipino food

Attempt 2 – Omelet

Checking around the interwebz, it sounds like a popular way to eat it is to sautee some slices and then put them in an omelet.

BM Omelet


This was a little better.  Sauteeing it took away some of the bitterness, but it still came shining through.  The silver lining in this was the little trick of adding a tablespoon of soy sauce to the two beaten eggs.  I’m going to do that more often as it adds some depth to the flavor of the omelet.


Attempt 3 – with Pork Belly

It was then that I decided to call in the big guns.  Literally.  I sent an email over to Gio, the uncommonly tall Filipino behind the awesome The Hungry Giant blog.   Gio is actually IN the Philippines and recently completed culinary school there.  I was thinking of finding someone fresh off the boat, but here’s someone who never got on said boat.  If there’s anyone who could help me out here, it was him.  His reply –

As for the ampalaya, it’s an acquired taste. I used to hate ampalaya because it’s too bitter. You can’t take away its bitterness because it won’t be ampalaya anymore…

What the heck!  This wasn’t sounding good.  He recommended toasting some onions and garlic, then adding cubed pork belly with a little water.  After it becomes tender, add the bitter melon and cook until that softens.  Then, to finish, add a beaten egg and serve with rice.  Here goes –

BM ingredients

The line-up

BM Cut

But it looks so innocent…

BM Cooked pork

I was tempted to just stop here.

BM cooking

Looks promising…

BM cooked

I decided to throw in a sliced hot pepper.


SUCCESS!  I finally found a way to cook The Nasty where I could actually eat more than a couple bites.  Sure, it took completely obscuring it with three of my favorite things – pork, eggs, and hot peppers.  But I did it!  I can’t say that I’ll ever choose to make it again, but I finally took that step to becoming a real Filipino.

So what’s the second thing I couldn’t eat while growing up?  Stay tuned.

Have you ever eaten bitter melon?  What’s the nastiest thing you ever ate?

About thefoodandwinehedonist

I don't know everything about the world of food and wine, but I'm not going to let a small detail like that stop me from blogging about it.

20 comments on “Mastering the Art of Filipino, Pt 1 – Bitter Melon

  1. reversecommuter
    September 10, 2013

    LOVE this post! The Nasty sounds indeed quite icky. But I give you huge props for multiple attempts in finding a way to tackle the bitter duke.

    • Yinzerella
      September 10, 2013

      I like “bitter duke.”
      Anyway, John–soy sauce in eggs? Good tip.
      Also, great post. I like experimentation!

  2. reversecommuter
    September 10, 2013

    cuke not duke (autocorrect grrrrrrr)

  3. Duff's Wines
    September 10, 2013

    My Nasty was when. I was a child. I’d come home from school to the smell of Fin n’ Haddie. It was a strong smelling creamed fish served on toast. We had to eat it because my father had memories of the dish when he served in Europe in WW II. I had to finish (pardon the pun) my plate and on some nights would be still sitting at the table several hours after all others were done, gulping down a potential throw up and staring at cold Nasty. I love fish to this day but every once in awhile a certain odour brings me back and I just can’t finish. Thanks for bringing this memory back to me.

  4. Chris Dorch
    September 10, 2013

    It just goes to show you… Bacon does make everything better…

  5. armchairsommelier
    September 10, 2013

    SUPER post! I’ve never tried bitter melon. Never even thought about trying it. Probably still won’t — even after you hid it in pork products. I just don’t like the bitter family of foods.

    The nastiest thing I’ve ever eaten is also a remnant from my childhood. My dad is Swedish. Every year for Christmas (then and even now), we eat Lutefisk. Lutefisk is essentially Fish Jell-O. It’s dried cod that’s been reconstituted in lye (yes, the poison), and served over boiled potatoes. It’s the Lord God King of the beige food group. It actually doesn’t taste like much of anything, but it has the consistency of snot. If I go home for Christmas (or my folks come here), I humor my dad with a “ceremonial bite” to appease my Nordic ancestors. But it’s beyond awful. Salud!!

    • thefoodandwinehedonist
      September 10, 2013

      I’ve heard of Lutefisk, but never heard of anyone ever eating it. The lye is a little scary.

  6. ksbeth
    September 10, 2013

    black pudding when my dad was feeling his irishness

  7. talkavino
    September 10, 2013

    Great post – love all that hard research work you took upon yourself : ) . No, I never had an ampalaya, but I can see how one can try to tame it as it looks innocent enough ( versus fried insects, for instance) for one to try to concur it.

    I don’t have too many bad memories associated with food – one of the worst is probably the tripe which I tried to eat at a Chinese dim sum place in New York – that was NOT pleasant….

    • thefoodandwinehedonist
      September 10, 2013

      I actually love tripe, but not sure if I’ve seen it at dim sum. I’ve had chicken feet there, though. I like them, but there’s not much to them.

  8. the winegetter
    September 10, 2013

    I’ve had it in a Chinese dish in SF and hated it. What I did like though was the bitter melon greens, the leaves, sauteed in Thailand. That was super tasty, just a tad bitter and very refreshing.

  9. PinotNinja
    September 10, 2013

    the moral of the story — pork belly fixes everything

  10. The Daily Sampler
    September 11, 2013

    I’m so scared of produce I don’t recognize. Maybe with your guidance I can break down some walls this year!

  11. rachelocal
    September 16, 2013

    I received two bitter melons in my CSA box. I’ve only ever seen it cooked on the show Chopped, and I think they soaked it in milk first? Or maybe that was rabbit kidneys. I’m going to try it with your pork belly method. Can’t go wrong with pork belly.

    • thefoodandwinehedonist
      September 16, 2013

      That’s another downside to CSAs – I’m sure the guys packing them were snickering. Make sure to take a bite of it raw so you can verify I’m not crazy!

  12. Pingback: Mastering the Art of Filipino pt 2 – Roasted Pig | The Food and Wine Hedonist

  13. Pingback: Mastering the Art of Filipino Part 3 – The Final Exam | The Food and Wine Hedonist

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