Thursday, January 13, 2011

stir-fried beef with bitter melon

I remember when I was young, the garden in my childhood home was filled with a cornucopia of plants. Some grew more successfully, others not so much. One of the less successful was our attempt to grow corn, which were rewarded by some of the ugliest, gap-toothed, bland corn that we had the misfortune of eating. But, I have to admit, it was fun for us kids to be able to experiment in the garden.

One plant that had more luck was my father's bitter melon. Not one person in the house liked them, except my father. And every time he asked the cook to serve some bitter melon, with pork or beef, he would undoubtedly tout the supposed health benefits of bitter melon and try to convince us kids to try them, which were greeted with silent thoughts and plans on how to kill this evil plant.

Knowing all of this, you might be forgiven in thinking that I must be crazy to want to try and cook the stir-fry bitter melon and beef (vietnamese: bò xào mướp đắng) from the cooking book Little Vietnam by Nhut Huynh that I gifted myself this Christmas (I got it for 40% off. Score!). I seriously did think that I was going to enjoy it, that I was going to like it after all these years, that my palate would have developed enough to appreciate the bitterness of the melon. To be fair, there are a lot of things that I now love as an adult but hated with a passion when I was a kid, like the funny smelling coriander. So, I convinced myself, this would be similar.

Unfortunately, I was utterly wrong. The finished dish looked deceivingly inviting and exotic. But, as the saying goes, judge not a book by its cover. I was honestly sad that the bitter melon was overpoweringly bitter, that I only managed to eat probably a quarter and picked the rest out and proceeded to eat the beef strips only, which, fortunately, were delicious. It's not the sort of happy ending that I want for my first attempt on the journey to cook adventurously.

Though, it wasn't totally the ending that I expected or hoped, I am consoling myself by the fact that I did get the adventurous part right.

I have adapted the following recipe from Nhut Huynh's book, for those of you who are brave enough to try.

Stir-fried beef with bitter melon
Adapted from Nhut Huynh's Little Vietnam

Beef marinade ingredients:
  • 1 tbsp canola oil
  • 1 tbsp granulated white sugar
  • 1 tbsp hoi sin sauce
  • 1 tbsp oyster sauce
  • 300g rump beef, thinly sliced

The rest of the ingredients:
  • 1 medium sized bitter melon (bright green, immature, firm to the touch one is better)
  • 1 bulb of garlic, crushed and minced
  • 1 tbsp granulated white sugar
  • 1 tbsp fish sauce
  • 2 tsp soy sauce
  • canola oil

  1. Marinade the beef with the combined canola, sugar, hoi sin and oyster sauce. Cover the bowl with cling wrap and store in the fridge for at least 20 minutes.
  2. I would eat this with rice, so this would be a good time to have some rice cooking in your rice cooker.
  3. After the rice is cooked and after it's been at least 20 minutes, cut the bitter melon in half, lengthwise. Scrape out the seeds. Then cut the bitter melon in thin slices, 2 mm thick maybe? The slices may seem a bit thin, but believe me when I say that you'll thank me when you had that thin slice of bitter melon with the comparatively chunky beef strip in one mouthful.
  4. Next, in low to medium heat, stir fry the minced garlic until fragrant, before adding the bitter melon slices, sugar, fish sauce and soy sauce. Keep stir-frying until the bitter melon is tender and translucent. Keep an eye on the heat, we wouldn't want burnt sauce or burnt bitter melon.
  5. Remove the bitter melon and its juices from the pan into a bowl, wipe the pan clean with paper towel.
  6. Reheat the pan until it's smoking hot, add a splash of the canola. Add the beef and the marinade, stir-fry and move the content constantly to avoid burning. Once the beef is browned all over (1-2 minutes), turn the heat down to low and return the bitter melon and its juices to the pan. Stir to combine for a couple of minutes.
  7. Plate up and serve with a bowl of steamed rice.

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