Have you heard through the grapevine that the Lunar New Year is near? It will be on the 16 February this year, only one week from now. In Vietnam, this occasion is called Tet which is a celebration that lasts more than 2 weeks (1 week before the New Year and 10 days after it). These days whenever I call my parents in Vietnam, they’re always busy preparing for this big yearly event. People usually have to prepare for it one month in advance, sometimes even 2 months. Why all the fuss, you may ask? Well, imagine for 10 days straight, at least 10 guests, adults and children alike, will visit your house each day. Won’t you need to clean every corner of your house? Won’t you need to buy enough food (more food than your guests can eat, that is) to be a good host? And that’s just a part of the preparation. So 1 month may not be enough for you to do all the much needed work. I will write about this Vietnamese special occasion in my next article. Today I want to present to you a recipe, a Southern Vietnamese traditional food for the New Year: stuffing meatballs bitter melon soup.
The traditional dishes of Tet often have a special meaning. For bitter melon soup, the meaning lies in its name. The Southern Vietnamese name for bitter melon is ‘kho qua’ which sounds like ‘burden shall pass’. And so the dish represents a wish for last year’s difficulties to pass and hope for a new positive beginning. Furthermore, bitter melon soup happens to have a delicious yet light taste which will lift up our spirit after savoring other heavy Tet dishes. Meaning and taste asides, bitter melon soup is too healthy a dish to not incorporate it into the food fest.
About bitter melon: You may have heard about the many benefits of bitter melon (or bitter squash/gourd/cucumber). It is not a vegetable but a fruit actually. The ripper it is the more bitter the taste and the less crunchy the texture, thus people often eat bitter melon when it’s still young. Bitter melon is quite nutritious with lots of vitamin C (much more than cucumber), A, K and dietary fiber. Not to mention Magnesium, Potassium, Zinc and Manganese. It is anti-inflammatory (yoohoo!), antioxidant (yoohoo bis!) and antibacterial. Among the many benefits of bitter melon, it is best known to lower blood sugar level and thus is good to treat diabetes. It strengthens the liver, aids the body in releasing toxins. That of course leads to glowing, beautiful skin. Not only that, it is especially beneficial for people who have skin conditions like acne, eczema and psoriasis. The only caution when consuming bitter melon is for pregnant ladies: it can cause bleeding so consult with doctor first. Also, the laxative component in bitter melon can cause headache and diarrhea if you’re not used to it. I’ve never known anyone who suffered from these effects but everyone’s different, so if you try bitter melon for the first time, consume a small portion just to be sure then gradually grow the portion. Once you get used to it, you can consume 2 bitter melons a day without any problem.
Now that we know how beneficial bitter melon is, let’s incorporate it into our meals. It won’t be a chore, really, as bitter melon is quite delicious once you get used to it. How does it taste like? When eaten fresh, bitter melon is a bit bitter but also watery and crunchy. When cooked, the bitter taste is more highlighted and the texture turns soft, like squash, but not mushy. Bitter melon is the kind of food that grows on you. You may not like it at first, but over time you get addicted to it.
If you try bitter melon for the first time, I recommend you to make this stuffing meatballs bitter melon soup. This is a great way to get children to try bitter melon too. Here’s a way: The stuffing meatballs are just too delicious for children to turn away from, so when they are busy munching on those meatballs, just gobble down the bitter melon and tell them how delicious and nutritious it is. Make it really convincing. If they ask for a taste, give them a spoonful of meatball with a small chunk of bitter melon. Do you get the gist of it? Over time the taste will grow on you and your children. You may then want to try other recipes with bitter melon. It can be made into salad or it can be stir-fried. I once tried wild bitter melon pickled and it’s one of the best pickles I’ve ever tasted. I digressed a bit here but just so you know, bitter melon is not intimidating.
Back to the traditional soup, stuffed bitter melon soup has the sweetness from meatballs, the fresh and slightly bitter taste of bitter melon. Unlike other squash soup, this one really needs the garnish herbs which are spring onion and cilantro to be complete. The soup is meant to be eaten with rice and a main dish. Here is pork cutlets recipe and lemongrass chili chicken as ideas for your main dish. Now let’s get to the recipe, shall we?
Ingredients: (for 3 servings)
200 gr ground pork
1,2 l water or chicken stock
2 bitter melons of 250 gr (fresh or frozen)
50 gr Vietnamese glass noodle/vermicelli (soaked in warm water for 10 minutes then minced)
20 gr dried wood ear mushrooms (soaked in warm water for 10 minutes then minced)
2 tsps of salt
1 pinch of ground black pepper
4 spring onions (heads and green parts separated, heads are minced while the green parts are then sliced thinly)
1 shallot (minced)
10 gr or a handful of cilantro (sliced thinly)
For the bitter melons, if you use the frozen ones, they’re already well prepared so just defrost, wash and dry then cut them into portions of 3 cm long.
If you use fresh bitter melons, remove both ends then cut them into portions of 3 cm long. Next use a spoon to scoop out all the white parts along with the seeds. Keep only the green portions/cylinders.
To prepare the stuffing, mix the ground pork with minced wood ear mushrooms and vermicelli, minced spring onion heads, minced shallot, ½ tsp of salt, 1 pinch of ground black pepper. Mix them well by hand. When it’s done, stuff the bitter melon cylinders with this mixture. Push the stuffing tightly, make sure to leave no air in the stuffing. When you finish stuffing the bitter melons, you will still have stuffing left, make them into meatballs and set aside.
In a pot, pour in 1,2 l of water or chicken stock, add 1 1/2 tsp of salt and bring to a boil. Lightly drop the stuffed bitter melons into the boiling water, set the heat to medium-high. Cook for 10 minutes then drop the meatballs into the boiling soup and cook for another 10 minutes. During this cooking process, the nutrition from the stuffed melon is infused into the soup. The liquid soup will eventually turn a slight brown color too. You can then turn off the heat and add spring onion and cilantro garnish directly into the pot or put the soup into serving bowls and sprinkle garnish on top.
There are versions where people use whole bitter melon without cutting it into cylinders. The whole bitter melon looks great but you will of course need to cut it once served. I also see versions where people use fish sauce instead of salt to cook the soup. I don’t use fish sauce to cook this soup because then the bitter melons have a sour taste.
The point of making more stuffing than bitter melons is to make the soup sweeter and to prevent the case where children eat all the stuffing meatballs and you’re left with all the hollow bitter melons :D. When you make more stuffing than bitter melons, everyone gets their fill, yay!
To bring the soup to another level, serve it with dipping fish sauce. If you cook bitter melon soup with fish sauce, the bitter melon turns a bit sour but dipping fish sauce, on the other hand, elevates the dish. Nothing is as satisfying as dipping those meatballs into the sweet and sour fish sauce. So make the dipping fish sauce with the ratio of 1 fish sauce : 1 sugar : 4 water : ¾ lemon juice, add minced garlic and chili to your taste. Now enjoy the soup that is as healthy as it is delicious!
A melting pot experience, in more than one way. Welcome to our Epicurean adventure!