Secrets to making bitter vegetables taste great
Who in their right mind would actively seek bitterness? But actually, kǔ (苦), or bitterness, is very much a taste embraced in Asia, where a large variety of traditional recipes have developed for various bitter plants.
One of the staples on a menu in a typical restaurant in Beijing is the liángbàn kǔguā (凉拌苦瓜), bitter gourd salad – usually a cold, hostile plate of insipid, bitter slices. Looking at a bitter gourd, you’d wonder whether it is actually meant for human consumption. Its lumpy green surface, more reptilian than culinary, may not be the most inviting, but its nutritional benefits have made it one of the most popular vegetables in Asia from China to Vietnam to India.
Bitter gourd contains high amounts of vitamins A, B1, B2 and C, and minerals like calcium, phosphorous, iron, copper and potassium. It enhances digestion, detoxifies, and stimulates the liver. In traditional Chinese medicine, it is known as a powerful cooling vegetable, beneficial to those with too much heat and moisture in their bodies.
Another bitter but more easy-to-cook vegetable is jiècài (芥菜), the Chinese mustard green, available almost year-round in Beijing’s markets. Its long, curved stems and large furled leaves are an elegant contrast to the bitter gourd. As with all other bitter vegetables, the mustard green is considered a potent cooling food in traditional Chinese medicine. Cooking mustard greens makes them meltingly tender, but it does not lessen its bitter bite.
While there are some tricks to reducing bitterness in vegetables, such as soaking them in salt or vinegar before cooking, the best way to balance the yin of bitterness is with the yang of sweetness – mustard greens can be tempered with pumpkin or other sweet starchy tubers like butternut squash or sweet potato, while bitter gourd cooked with coconut milk is a popular combination in Southeast Asia.
Bitter Gourd in Mild Coconut Curry
• 200g black lentils or your favorite type of pulse
• 4 medium-sized bitter gourds
• 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
• Thumb-sized piece of ginger, crushed
• 1 tsp coriander seed
• 1 tsp mustard seed
• 1 tsp cumin seed
• 1 curry leaf
• 1 tbsp turmeric powder
• 1/2 tsp whole black peppercorn
• 1/2 tsp chilli powder, optional
• 1 can of coconut milk
• Salt to taste
Note: For those who don’t like spiciness, chilli powder can be replaced with a bit of brown sugar or a swirl of honey before serving.
Cook the black lentils in plenty of water until just soft. Drain water and set aside.
Slice the bitter gourds in half and remove the white pith and seeds. Sprinkle salt over the inside flesh and leave for 15-20 minutes. The longer you soak the bitter gourd in salt, the less bitter (and saltier) it will get. Bitterness can be further reduced by scraping away the lumpy skin of the gourd with the back of a knife until the surface of the gourd is smooth. Rinse the gourds free of salt and chop into 1-inch-thick pieces.
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil over medium heat and sauté the garlic and ginger until soft. Add the coriander, mustard and cumin seeds. Stir occasionally and cook until the cumin seeds release their aroma and the mustard seeds start to pop and hiss. Add the rest of the dried herbs and spices and heat thoroughly.
Add the lentils to the spice mixture and coat evenly with the spices. Add the coconut milk and bring to a slight simmer. If the mixture is too thick, add water. Allow the lentils to cook in the coconut curry until they are soft.
Finally, add the bitter gourd to the coconut curry. Cook until soft. The longer the gourd is cooked, the less bitter it will be, though overcooking it will cause the flesh to become mushy.
Serve piping hot over rice.
Mustard Greens and Pumpkin Claypot
• 500g spare ribs
• 1/2 tsp corn starch
• 1/2 tsp salt
• 1/4 tsp ground white pepper
• 1 tsp sesame oil
• 1 tbsp rice wine
• 200g pumpkin, butternut squash or sweet potato, chopped into bite-sized chunks
• 250g mustard greens, roughly chopped
• 2 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
• Thumb-sized piece of ginger, sliced
• Broth or water for cooking
Marinate the spare ribs in corn starch, salt, ground white pepper, sesame oil, and a splash of rice wine for about 15 minutes. Place the mustard greens in a large claypot and set aside.
In a large pan, add 2 tablespoons of oil and place on high heat. Brown the pieces of pumpkin on all sides. Place the browned pumpkin on top of the mustard greens in the casserole.
In the same pan, sauté ginger and garlic over medium heat until they start to release their aroma, then remove from the pan and add these seasonings to the claypot with the mustard greens. Turn the heat up and brown the spare ribs thoroughly. Remove them from the pan and arrange on top of the pumpkin in the claypot.
Still using the same pan, heat up the water or broth until it simmers; pour into the claypot, covering the mustard greens and some of the pumpkin. The greens will wilt and give up water as they cook.
Cover the claypot and allow it to cook on the lowest heat for about 30 minutes. Add salt to taste and serve hot with white rice.