As a child I was prone to “heatiness”, which the Chinese believe results from an imbalance of yin and yang within the body. Indications of this would include a sore throat when I ate chilli and mouth ulcers when I ate durians, and falling sick when I ate mutton stew.
However, I loved these heat-trap foods, and would indulge myself without the slightest concern for the consequences. My dad was naturally protective of me as I was his one and only child; and while he couldn’t stop me eating those foods (nobody could, or dared!) he would ensure there were plenty of remedies at hand for me.
Somehow, bitter gourd was found to be effective in “cooling” my system, so it frequently graced our dinner table. Incidentally, bitter gourd is known in Chinese as “cooling gourd”. We cooked our bitter gourd in a number of ways -- stewed, fried, boiled. It wasn’t called “bitter” for nothing, and so, I initially hated the vegetable, however it was prepared.
There was, perhaps, only one bitter gourd dish I actually looked forward to: bitter gourd stewed in black bean paste with chicken wings. The dish was extremely popular in the 70s and 80s, and was a staple of restaurants and roadside food stalls. When eating it, I’d skip the bitter gourd and poke around for the chicken, which was extremely tasty bathed in the bean sauce. This dish was one of those that tasted better if kept overnight.
The more often I ate the dish, curiosity and plain old greed got the better of me, and I began taking tiny nibbles of bitter gourd. Before I knew it, I was not just converted…I was hooked. It dawned on me that the bitter flavor was the whole point: it woke up jaded palates and was wonderfully stimulating to the digestion. These days, I like my gourds the bitterer the better!
Bitter gourd’s cooling effects make it a great vegetable for summer cooking. It supposedly improves the body’s immune system too, and is an anti-cancer agent. The Chinese have a nickname for it as well: “the gentleman vegetable”, because it is believed the vegetable gamely retains its bitter tang within itself and avoids tainting the other ingredients it is cooked with!
Stewed Bitter Gourd in Black Bean Paste
Chicken wings 3, cut into halves
Bitter gourd 500 g, cut into wedges
Oil 1 tbsp
Water/chicken stock 1 cup
Sugar ½ tbsp
Salt ⅛ tsp
Dark soy sauce ½ tsp
Black bean paste
Preserved black bean 25 g, minced
Garlic 15 g, minced
Chilli 50 g, minced
Oil ½ tbsp
Oil ½ tbsp
Sugar 1 tsp
Water ½ tsp
Water ½ tsp
- Heat wok in moderate heat, add ½ tbsp oil and fry black bean paste for 2 minutes. Add ½ tsp of water if the paste begins to get burnt. Add sugar and 2 tsp of water and simmer for 5 minutes. The water should evaporate and the paste should be thick by now.
- Increase the heat to maximum; add 1 tbsp of oil, chicken and bitter gourd, and quick-fry until the chicken is slightly brown. Add water/chicken stock and simmer for 30 minutes.
- Season with sugar, salt, and dark soy sauce.
There are several ways to prepare bitter gourd for cooking, which are believed to reduce its bitterness:
Method 1: Marinate with salt for 20 minutes. Squeeze the water out from the gourd and rinse it with water.
Method 2: Par-boil the gourd in boiling water for 1 minute. Remove and drain.
I usually cook the bitter gourd directly without going through the above 2 methods, as I like my vegetable bitter.