Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Day 240 - Eating Bitter Melon


I have never tried bitter melon. In fact, I was completely unaware of this vegetable from southern Asia until a passing conversation about my more memorable “I have never...” experiences I had a group of friends several months ago. After telling my story about trying the most pungent fruit on the planet, durian, early in my “I have never...” year, an acquaintance in the group spoke up. “If you think durian is bad, you should try bitter melon,” he said bluntly, “that stuff... well, you just have to try it.” His statement was enough to garner my curiosity, and as someone that is always up for a challenge that will likely create an experience worth talking about, I promptly added “eating bitter melon” to my list of “I have never...” events. At that time, I didn’t know how or where I would obtain the vegetable, but I knew I would do my best to gain my first experience with bitter melon before my “I have never...” year was through.

After that initial discussion, some time passed before the thought of bitter melon crossed my mind again. A discussion Rachael and I had about trying a local Filipino restaurant ultimately led us to do some research on the establishment and its menu. That effort resulted in Rachael and me reading through a variety of restaurant reviews, which made periodic reference to dishes containing bitter melon. Recalling my intention to try the food, I excitedly committed to trying the restaurant with Rachael in the future. Ultimately, that resulted in the two of us pinpointing tonight as the night to experience bitter melon for the first time. As a result, Rachael and I bundled up and headed out in the cold to make the short trip Mubahay Philippine Cuisine on Madison’s south side.

Upon arriving at the location, Rachael and I were surprised to find that the restaurant had closed early for the night. Although the decision was understandable given the arctic cold that was still gripping the region, the discovery left me scrambling to find another way to obtain bitter melon to keep my “I have never...” year intact. After failing to locate the vegetable in a nearby Asian foods store, I convinced Rachael to head to Midway Asian Foods, the store at which I had located Durian earlier in the year, as a last ditch effort to find bitter melon. With no other options left, I could only hope I would find bitter melon there, lest my 365 day goal be broken.


Upon arriving at Midway Asian Foods, I quickly made my way to the store’s small but diverse produce section. With Rachael at my side we scanned the section with haste, taking note of each item as we walked further down the aisle. My hope fading, I pressed toward the coolers near the end of the produce section. Suddenly, Rachael broke the silence as we walked. “There it is!” she said swiftly lifting her arm to point. No more than a few feet in front of me, tucked into a small basket on the top shelf of the display case rested a pile of green vegetables that looked much like cucumbers with ridges worked into the length of their bodies. Shocked at the find, I felt an immediately feeling of relief take me. Without hesitation, I began sifting through the vegetables looking for a bitter melon that seemed to be the most fresh. Moments later, I had my bitter melon in my hand, and my “I have never...” event for the day had been saved.

After spending a little more time at Midway Asian Foods to satisfy Rachael’s curiosity about the products they offered, the two of us headed home to get our first experience with bitter melon underway. Excited at the idea of trying the exotic vegetable, I did some quick research on how to cut and prepare the bitter melon before setting to work on its long, pale green body with a knife. Following some instructions I found online, I cut the bitter melon in half lengthwise, revealing a spongy yellow center laden with oddly shaped seeds. Proceeding, I scooped out the core of the vegetable with a spoon and cut the bitter melon’s outer flesh into small edible pieces. As I did so a strong, grassy odor lifted into the air and set me back in my chair. Looking over my work I took note of the surprising yield of several dozen pieces of bitter melon that came from the relatively small vegetable. “That’s a lot.” I said to Rachael in a kind of disbelief at the pile of green, half-circle chunks of bitter melon on the cutting board before me. “I hope I like it,” I continued as I looked up at her. She replied with a statement of fact. “Well, there’s only one way to find out.”

Slicing

Strange

On Rachael’s cue I lifted a piece of the bitter melon from the cutting board and held it to my nose. A fresh, leafy smell consumed my mouth and nose, snapping my head back slightly. “This is strong,” I said with a bit of caution as I looked at the cut-celery-esque slice of bitter melon, “Here’s goes nothing.” With that, I bit into the bitter melon and began chewing. Almost immediately an intense, bitter flavor filled my mouth and caused my face to scrunch up in a tense form. The flavor was akin to that of the stalks of Timothy-grass I recall tucking in my mouth as a child, but the intensity made it feel as though I had a wad of grass pulp rolling in my mouth. In other words, the bitter melon tasted like its name; bitter.

The scoop

Diced

The taste was so strong that I struggled to chew the bitter melon enough to swallow. My eyes watering, I eventually swallowed with a big gulp and shuddered. I had taken down a piece of bitter melon, but despite the bitter melon’s absence in my mouth, the bitterness lingered on. As a result, I immediately darted to the kitchen in search of anything to rid my mouth of the flavor. Although flavored drinks, salty snacks, and sweets seemed to dull the taste, the bitter melon’s subtle persistence made a slight bitter taste resurface after everything I ate. When I say bitter melon is strong, trust me, its strong.

The first taste

BITTER.

After settling down from my first piece of the bitter melon, I sat back down at the table and looked at the heap of cut vegetable in front of me. Wondering if more of the bitter melon would cause the same effect, I decided I would eat one more piece to join Rachael in her first taste of the vegetable. Although the factor of uncertainty surrounding the vegetable’s taste was gone, my second piece of the bitter melon was equally as strong as the first, which left me fending off the bitter taste with anything and everything I could find for a second time. Although Rachael was better able to tolerate the flavor, she agreed the bitter melon’s potency and bitterness made it nearly inedible. As a result, we decided we would give it one last try after frying it in a manner similar to that used in south Asia. After taking a few minutes to let it cook, Rachael best summed up that leg of our experience with a simple response to our next taste test, “Nope, it’s still terrible.”

With that, the two of us decided to bring our first experience with bitter melon to a close. Although I felt bad about tossing out the remaining portion of the vegetable, its intense flavor and overwhelming bitterness left me uncertain as to how it could be used in any dish that would appeal to our tastes. Stated plainly, bitter melon was the bitterest thing I have ever tasted, and anything that can contort my face the way this vegetable did probably doesn’t belong on our home menu. In spite of that, I can honestly say I would try bitter melon again if it was cooked into a dish by someone with expertise in Asian cooking. After all, there must be a reason why people choose to eat, and something tells me it just might have a use if cooked properly. That stated, until I encounter a bitter melon dish of that nature, I’ll simply do my best to forget the flavor of this odd little vegetable.

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