Bitter Melon, Bitter Tears

I’m sorry, bitter melon, but I don’t think it’s going to work out between us. No, hush, just listen.

I remember when I first saw you at the farmers market. You were so different from all the other vegetables, all rough around the edges. I admit I was afraid to approach you, and I had a real thing going for zucchini at the time, so I just let you be. But I couldn’t get you out of my head. Finally, after reading about your virtues in Cooking from the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America, I screwed up the courage to talk to you.

cross section of a bitter melon with red seeds insideThings were going so well when I first brought you home. Remember how lovingly I cleaned your every crease and crevasse with a mushroom brush? You didn’t even complain when, in my youthful inexperience, I cut you in half lengthwise, when we both know you deserve to be cut in half crosswise. And then to look at your seeds. Oh, your seeds. So large, so bright red, your seeds were just screaming of your readiness, your ripeness. As I lovingly filled you with a mixture of pork, onions and cilantro and set you to simmer nice and slow, our future together seemed – and smelled – so bright.

No, don’t cry. Look: it’s not about you, it’s me. I was raised in the American Midwest on two flavors: sweet and salty. Have you tasted our ketchup? Nothing in my culture, my upbringing prepared me for a bitter flavor like yours. So, so bitter. You were like nothing I’ve ever tasted before, and you deserve to be with someone who will really appreciate you.

Maybe if I just didn’t try to consume so much of you at one time, if I chopped you into a salad, if I used you as an accented flavor rather than the main part of the dish, maybe then… No – you’re right. No sense in fooling ourselves. It’s over. Goodbye, bitter melon.



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6 comments on “Bitter Melon, Bitter Tears”

  1. Trout Caviar 11 August, 2011 at 8:02 am

    I laughed, I cried. Is it really over? Well, it was a lovely, if bitter, farewell.

    You know, the Chinese have an expression, “chi ku,” eat bitter. It sort of encapsulates the basic human condition, enduring life’s hardships, and maybe they eat things like bitter greens, bitter melon to inure themselves to the real bitterness in life?


  2. Tom 11 August, 2011 at 8:04 am

    That’s an interesting concept, Brett. Maybe growing up in the US at the close of the 20th century didn’t give me much reason to develop a taste for bitter melon. But if the economy and political situation continue along the course they appear to be taking, maybe bitter melon will be the next hot food trend.

  3. Amy P. 11 August, 2011 at 11:36 am

    LOL, I had a similar run-in with bitter balls from the farmers market, just couldn’t make myself like them! At least you tried.

  4. Tracey 11 August, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    Oooo, it’s a shame that your first experience with bitter melon left – you know it’s coming – a bitter taste in your mouth. I can’t tell from the photo of the dish, but did you scrape out the white pith? That’s where a good portion of the astringent compound is found. It may also help to sprinkle salt on the veg and let it sit for a few minutes, then rinse it off before cooking. I’d encourage you to try it again, but certainly understand if you don’t – after all, once bitter, twice shy [sorry, couldn’t resist].

  5. Kelley 12 August, 2011 at 12:36 am

    I’m with you on it–though I will have a few bites. My Lao husband on the other hand LOVES them, prepared I think the way you seem to which is traditional. And get this: my toddler likes them that way too! She eats bitter. Its amazing. And goes to show you, midwestern upbringings really do limit us!

  6. Tom 12 August, 2011 at 6:09 am

    Tracey- I think I did scrape all the pith out; I removed any parts the spongy white parts down to the layer that was shiny and dully green. But that’s one of the hazards of cooking from books – you’re never sure if you’re doing it right.

    Sheesh, you and Kelley are going to have me going back to bitter melon to give it one last shot.