Bitter melon (khổ qua in Vietnamese) is a part of many cultures and cuisines. In India, deep fried bitter melon rings (karela) are a common dish. Vietnamese people use the smoother variety of bitter melon, and the vegetable is often prepared steamed or in a broth. In this particular preparation, I filled the bitter melon with tofu, bean thread noodles and wood ear mushrooms, but you could definitely use chicken or pork. I typically pair mine with rice, but you can also serve a simple vegetable broth if you prefer.
This dish is usually cooked for the Tết holiday as its name: "bitter" reminds people not to forget or disrespect the poor living condition experienced in the past.
Eating shouldn't be a chore, so if you're a little put off by the description, I understand. The taste is very unusual but I think this dish really does taste great though, so I urge you to give it a try.
Servings: 8 servings
4 fresh bitter melons
1/2 lemon, juiced
2 (12-ounces) packages firm tofu
2 teaspoon canola oil
2 shallots, finely diced
1/2 yellow onion, finely diced
1 tablespoon cilantro, finely chopped
1 tablespoon green onions, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ginger garlic paste (see tips), finely minced
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup mung beans
4 wood ear mushrooms, sliced
1 teaspoon mushroom seasoning salt (or regular salt)
2 ounces dried bean thread noodles
1 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
Prepping the bitter melons: Cut the bittermelons in half. Using a melon ball scoop, remove and discard the spongy center and the seeds. Soak the bitter melons in lemon water.
Prepping the tofu: Cut the tofu into 1/2-inch slices. Blanch the tofu for about 3-4 minutes in salted hot water. Drain the liquid. Let the tofu cool a little. Then mash the boiled tofu with your hands using disposable gloves. The tofu should resemble large-sized cottage cheese curds. Set the tofu aside.
Prepping the bean thread noodles: Place the dried bean thread noodles in a bowl. Don't forget to cut the little cotton threads and discard them! Soak them in cold water for 20 minutes and drain. Cut into 1 inch lengths. Set aside.
Making mung bean paste: Place the mung beans in a small saucepan, barely cover with water, then slowly cook for about 30 minutes. It will form a dry paste. Set aside.
In a large bowl, combine the tofu, bean thread noodles, mung bean paste, cilantro, ginger garlic paste, shallots, onions, green onions, sugar and wood ear mushrooms. Season with mushroom seasoning salt and pepper.
Remove and discard the liquid from the bitter melons. Pat them dry and stuff them with the tofu mixture.
Place the stuffed bitter melons in a steamer, bring the water to a boil and reduce the heat to medium-high. Cover and steam for about 30-40 minutes. Check doneness with a fork; the bitter melons should be soft and tender but still firm (not fall apart). Remove from the steamer. Let them cool a little.
I served them with brown (for a healthier version) jasmine rice. You can also make a vegetable broth (see tips).
You can find bitter melons in Asian stores.
After several tests, Thanh Son tofu is hands down the best kind to use for this recipe. If you live in the Bay Area, you have to try it. They sell in almost all the Asian markets in downtown San Jose, and their main shop is on 2857 Senter Road, San Jose. It's a very little shop but everything is very good. Their tofu has the best texture; it's made fresh daily. This is the perfect place for vegetarians. I buy 2 to 3 pieces of fresh tofu every week. If you don't have this brand, I think silken tofu might be the closest kind, resembling the texture of scrambled eggs.
Fresh Wood Ear Mushrooms.
You can find wood ear mushrooms in Asian stores. I was pleased to find that my local Asian market now carries fresh wood ear mushrooms (I usually use the dried version) at the market today. They're grown locally in Half Moon Bay (CA) and they're sold in 6-ounce packages. They're flavorless but they give an interesting, chewy texture to the tofu filling.
I use ginger garlic paste a lot in my cooking. It tastes great and is very healthy for you as well. Just clean the ginger, carefully removing any dirt. Peel the ginger root with a paring knife or the edge of a spoon, then finely chop the root. Place the chopped ginger and 5 cloves of garlic in a blender and, add about 2 tablespoons (or more) of water for a smooth flow. Transfer to a jar and store in the refrigerator. You can keep this paste for at least a week in the refrigerator.
Mushroom seasoning salt brings a very distinct, earthy flavor to the tofu filling. You can find it at gourmet specialty stores or in most Korean stores. I buy mine at Marina Foods -10122 Bandley Drive -Cupertino, CA 95014.
One of the most common condiments to serve with khổ qua is Sriracha sauce. It's the red chili sauce with the green cap. For those, like me, who are not into spicy food, you can serve the bitter melons instead with a dipping sauce called nước chấm.
For the meat version, fill the bitter melons with the same filling I used for stuffed tomatoes.
For serving the stuffed bitter melons in a broth, use the same broth I used for vegetarian soup with bok choy.