leave your inhibitions at the door
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.
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.
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.
Nope. Looks pretty, but still very much The Nasty.
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.
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 –
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?