For my first meal of the new year I ate a bowl of apples with low-sugar granola and nonfat, plain yogurt. It was a healthy start, I thought, and it was my breakfast of choice while on vacation but I followed that with a cheeseburger for lunch. I was at the beach–I started each day of vacation with a 4-mile run–I thought it wouldn’t hurt. It’s all about balance, right? I ate very carefully for most of the eight days and now that I’m back home I’d like to continue with the mindful eating.
In preparation for this beach vacation I tried not to indulge in so much rich food but it was hard to avoid completely given the holiday meals shared with friends and family. To compensate, I prepared one particular dish several times; one that I thought would help me get in swimsuit shape.
Have you ever had bitter melon? Also known as goya, bitter gourd, ampalaya, depending the country being referenced, bitter melon is a tropical vine grown in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. True to its English name, bitter melon can indeed be bitter to the uninitiated palate. Blanching the vegetable before stir-frying it removes some of its bite but I’d be lying if I claimed that you’d like this dish at first taste (It took a few tries for my husband to begin to like it). Ampalaya is a key ingredient in a few Filipino dishes, now some of my favorites, but I didn’t always appreciate its boldness. It took some years for me to actually enjoy bitter melon and after a few years of it being absent from my life, I’ve had an insatiable craving for it these last couple of months.
Maybe it’s the “clean” taste I like. Even when cooked with black beans (Chinese) or shrimp paste (Filipino)–bitter melon’s bold flavor is best cooked with other bold ingredients–after a meal of bitter melon and rice my mouth feels like it’s been washed out with soap and water…in a good way. As cliche as this may sound, I always feel like I’ve done something good for my body after eating it. Maybe it’s the high nutrient content (iron, potassium, calcium, Vitamins A, C, B1, B3) but I haven’t been able to get enough of it. It might take some convincing for you to try bitter melon but if you’re up for it this Chinese recipe I came across has been my go-to for a few weeks. I’ll share the Filipino dishes featuring bitter melon on the blog soon. It is my goal to make a convert out of you!
- 2 medium bitter melons (roughly 1¼ pounds; found in Asian Markets)
- ½ chicken breast (or any meat you prefer, about 4 ounces)
- 2 teaspoons finely shredded ginger
- 1 teaspoon Shao Hsing rice cooking wine (I doubled this)
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce (I use a little more)
- 1 teaspoon plus five tablespoons oil
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- ½ teaspoon sesame oil (I double this)
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- ¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
- 1 tablespoon Chinese dried black beans (I doubled this; these are not hard dried American beans. Sold in Asian markets, they're soft and sealed in plastic in the dried foods aisle. Not the same as black bean sauce in a jar)
- 1 clove garlic, finely minced (I use at least 2)
- Prepare the bitter melon: Bring a pot of water to a boil in a medium saucepan. While you wait, slice the bitter melons in half lengthwise then scoop out the seeds with a spoon. Slice each half into ¼-inch thick slices on a diagonal. Once the water's boiling, add the bitter melon slices and wait for the water to return to a boil. You may remove at this time or cook for another minute or two to reduce the bitterness. Drain and rinse under cold water (to stop cooking) and set aside.
- Prepare the chicken: Cut the chicken into thin strips. Place in a bowl and and add to it the ginger, rice wine, soy sauce, 1 teaspoon cooking oil, cornstarch, sesame oil, sugar and pepper. Stir and set aside.
- Prepare the black beans: Rinse the black beans in several changes of cold water until the water runs clear. Drain and mash with the garlic and set aside.
- Cook: Heat a skillet over high heat. Add two tablespoons of oil then add the chicken pieces. Cook without stirring for 1-2 minutes until one side of the chicken is brown then stir fry for another 1-2 minutes. Remove from the skillet and set aside.
- Add the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil and also the black bean and garlic mixture. Add the bitter melon and stir-fry for about 1 minute then add the cooked chicken (and juices). Stir fry for another minute then plate. Serve with rice.