Bitter is a distinct flavor, an acquired passion that is easily satisfied with bittermelon. This green, bumpy-skinned, firm, cucumber-shaped vegetable is crisp and has a multitude of uses in many cuisines.
Most notably, the Chinese use foo gua in stuffed bittermelon with black beans. Filipinos use ampalaya in pinakbet. Thai people use ma rah jeen in curries. Vietnamese use kho qua in stir-fried dishes and soups. Okinawans use goya in champuru.
Bittermelon, or balsam pear, is said to cleanse the blood of toxins and improve the health of the liver. But its cool energy should be balanced with warm seasonings like garlic, chilies and meat.
Grown in Hawaii, bittermelon is readily available at farmers markets and supermarkets. Use bittermelon while it is green, removing the seeds and pith inside its core.
Cut bittermelon into thin slices for stir fries, soups and salads; cut it into thicker pieces and stuff its hollow core. Its bitterness can be subdued by blanching or salting before cooking, but why bother if bitterness is what you’re after.
If you’ve never tried bittermelon, experiment by simply stir-frying sliced bittermelon with bacon or pancetta.
Hawaii food writer Joan Namkoong offers a weekly tidbit on fresh seasonal products, many of them locally grown. Look for "Fresh Tips" every Wednesday in the Star-Advertiser.