A traditional Chinese diet food
I have this theory about food. There are some foods that are inherently appealing to human taste buds, despite cultural differences, personal tastes and habits, or the way you were raised. In the nature versus nurture debate, let’s call these foods the nature foods. My theory says that nature foods appeal to the most basic human survival instincts. Salt. Sugar. Fat. The essentials. These are the no-brainers. No one will turn down a roasted chicken, fried rice or ice cream. You probably would, however, on first tasting, turn down some extra stinky tofu.
Or, on the flipside, pesto. These foods exist in my theory as the nurture foods. They’re the foods you develop a taste for by association, by necessity, or just plain personal preference. Sometimes they’re just strange: fish heads or blue cheese. Other times, they’re too bland: mantou or cottage cheese. Recently, I’ve come to realize that wintermelon fits into the last of these categories. This was a surprise. I’d always thought that with its milky white complexion and unassuming flavor, it was surely a no-brainer. Wrong.
“Eh,” first time wintermelon tasters will often announce – usually accompanied by a shrug – “it doesn’t really taste like anything.”
Apparently, the wintermelon is too unassuming.
On the whole, Westerners are drawn to the heavy-handed flavors in Chinese food. The preferred dishes, such as Eggplant in Garlic Sauce and Ma Po Tofu, are all smothered in sweet, sour, spicy, salty flavors. But there’s a whole other category, the qingdan, or the lighter, milder, side of Chinese cuisine that is often neglected: the basic flavors of Chinese comfort food, a more complex version of chicken broth and toast. Or, if you must, cottage cheese.
And here we have wintermelon. Like its cousin the watermelon, wintermelons can vary from the size of a large grapefruit to the size of a dachshund. Covered in snowy fuzz and a tough peel, the flesh of the melon is colored in a gradient of grass green to milky white when raw, becoming translucent when cooked.
Nutritionally, the thing is mostly fiber, which earns the vegetable a place on the list of traditional Chinese diet foods. But its real, hidden magic is the exact opposite: When lightly sautéed and then well stewed until tender, the melon somehow manages to give its surrounding broth an extra meaty flavor. MSG without the controversy.
When you cook the melon in a soup with a bit of meat, it works its magic and amplifies the savory flavor, creating the illusion that you had been slaving over a hot stove all day. A splash of cream seals the deal. In the kitchen, there’s nothing better than taking credit where credit’s not due. This soup should be a no-brainer.
Wintermelon, Bacon and Corn chowder
2 small cobs of fresh corn
4 cups water or chicken/pork stock
½ kg wintermelon（冬瓜), or 2 cups, diced
½ onion, diced
3 strips bacon, diced
2 tablespoons light cream
Fresh coriander leaves, garnish
With a sharp knife, cut an inch off the bottom of the corn cobs, set the cob upright vertically and slice off the kernels. Scrape the cobs with the back of your knife and set aside the milky liquid with the kernels (this is basically corn starch and will thicken the soup later). Reserve both cob and corn. Cover corncobs with water, or stock if you prefer. Bring to a boil, then down to a simmer. Meanwhile, dice wintermelon, onion, and bacon. In a large, heavy pot, fry bacon in a bit of olive oil to get it started. When bacon is mostly rendered, add onion and saute until translucent and soft. Do not let bacon or onion brown. Add in diced wintermelon, stir until all pieces are covered with fat. Season with salt and pepper. Sautee for 3-4 minutes, add corn and corncob water or stock. Then simmer until wintermelon becomes translucent and tender, and soup has thickened slightly. Stir in cream. Ladle into bowls and garnish with coriander.