No taste assaults us more than bitterness. Unlike our mammalian instinctive attraction to sweetness, a love for bitter is learned. It used to be standard practice that every Bengali mid-day meal would begin with bittermelon. Bengali children learn to swallow bitterness, some eventually grow to enjoy it but at some point all have to learn how to endure it. “It will clean your blood,” promised adults. The magical medicinal properties were supposed to offer redemption. From the bittermelon, I learned that things have properties and abilities beyond my experience. Apparently the unpleasant properties in my mouth accompany pleasant and beneficial properties for my body. There is more to what I taste.
In addition to the narrative of healing there were also a threat of future sweetness denied. “You must eat the bitter to enjoy the sweet,” was not an abstract lesson. Strangely both my daughters enjoy bittermelon bhaji despite my continued aversion. Perhaps the narratives had stronger hold on them or maybe they inherited a high tolerance for bitterness from their father. Beyond the cultural narrative, bittermelon remains more than a vegetable for human consumption, more than all its qualities and properties of bitter, bumpy, seedy, green, organic, domesticated, transported, cultivated, eaten etc. Bittermelon represents a location in existence, in geography, in cultural narrative. When we invite the bitter-melon into our shopping cart, cooking pot and stomach attracted by its potential healing and nourishing powers, we also invite all the other factors that made the bittermelon possible. The bittermelon and I find each other as locations of existence, worlds colliding, along with the worlds of pots, refrigeration, trucks, grocery stores, Asia, Ayurveda, markets, plastic bags, oil, spices, salt, plates, earth, rain etc.
Ingredients (all quantities are gentle suggestions)
- 2 Bittermelons
- 2 small red potatoes (enough to be equal the sliced bittermelon)
- 1 small onion
- 1-teaspoon turmeric
- ½ -teaspoon chili powder
- Salt to taste
- 3- tablespoons oil, vegetable, canola whatever you have.
1. Collect Ingredients.
You can usually find it in any Asian grocery store in the U.S. (to my surprise our local Kroger started carrying the strange vegetable among other distant geographical things). I wonder about the following questions: Doesn’t this counter the slow food local food movement? Is it wrong to eat Bitter-melon in the U.S. where it is not grown? Where does turmeric grow? Are onions and potatoes local? How are these ingredients grown? What is their history? How did people start eating bitter-melon anyway? How far is your grocery store? How are you getting there? What makes it possible for all the ingredients to be available? What makes it possible to gather all the ingredients on my counter? How many grocery trips? How many farmers, carriers, clerks, and stockers?
2. Slice the prickly bittermelon in half lengthwise. Scoop out seeds using a spoon. Thinly slice each half. This might be a good time to use a mandolin. Massage the sliced bittermelon with a generous palm full amount of salt. Let slices sit and sweat for at least a half an hour. Then wash and rinse the sliced bittermelon with cold water, a few times. Let rest in colander and dry. The salt draws out the bitterness. This strange process can be emotionally instructive. As if, we need to draw out bitter emotions in order to wash it away. What happens when salt meets the bitter-melon? What is that relationship about? Similarly, kale, another bitter vegetable, needs to be massaged with oil in order to make edible raw. Does this make kale related to bitter-melon? This process of salting, resting, rinsing and resting (again) takes time and energy but makes the dish taste roasted and experienced instead of angry and bitter. The encounter of Lisa and the Bitter-melon requires a lot of preparation.
3. Julienne potatoes. Keep skin on. The red potatoes hold on to their structure despite the stir-frying. Yellow or russet potatoes, although delicious, fall apart and are best saved for mashed potatoes. Neutral buttery potatoes have the magical power to temper the bitter and bulk up the dish with smooth sweetness. How does a potato grow in darkness? What is the relationship between the earth and the potato?
4. Thinly slice onion. Consider the all the things involved. Knife, cutting board, onion, hands, eyes, tears, kitchen, house, suburb etc. All these things come together in a particular way for the new thing “thin onion slices.”
5. Heat oil in a large saute pan so you don’t suffocate the vegetables. A crowded pan will make the slices steam and become soggy, instead of developing the delicious roasty bits on the edge. I too feel steamy and soggy when faced with a crowded room. Add sliced onion, turmeric, chili power and salt. Saute until your nose detects the slight roasting of the spices as they merge into the hot oil as one complex flavor. Onions will become soft. Add a teaspoon of water if the spices begin to stick or burn.
6. Add bittermelon and potatoes. Toss and sauté on high heat until all the vegetables are coated in the spiced oil. As the vegetables begin to soften, lower heat to a simmer, place lid on pan and let the now roasted vegetables continue to soften in the steam, about 10 minutes. If the vegetables are old and dry, having traveled the world to get to your kitchen, the bhaji may need a tablespoon or two of water to help steam and soften.
7. Once vegetables soften, raise heat and fry once more without lid. This will dry and roast the now tender vegetables allowing the spiced oil to cling. Do not stir so much that the vegetable break up into a mush. The pieces of potato and bitter melon should keep their form. Restless stirring does not make things cook faster.
8. Serve with steaming hot plain white rice. This will probably feed 4-6 depending on your love of bitterness.
All this is only part of the story about when bitter-melon and I meet. As the bhaji enters my internal system it begins to remake me, as I had remade it. The mechanics of that internal world is a mystery to me. Even if someone were to explain the all the narratives of nutrition, digestion, biological structure and systems, it still would not begin to explain the existence of the grown, hollowed, sliced, salted, fried and digested vegetable. Everything has mysterious existential depth, even bitter things.