Oh what we would do for a regular supply of luscious IPA or hoppy pils here in Malaysia! But look at the bright side. We have—bitter melon!
We might be craving those IPAs for a reason, too. Hops, bitter melon, dandelion, and other bitter things are good for the body. Traditional Chinese medicine extols the virtues of bitter herbs. Recent research reveals the effects of bitter melon on reducing breast cancer cell growth and also on Type II diabetes.
Time to pick on Americans
Americans really don’t like to think to think too hard about anything, let alone what they eat. All that gray matter gets in the way of a good gullet-stuffing, and dumbed-down foods are the answer. Americans have lost their taste to the extent that they no longer know that their tongue has specific receptors for bitterness:
As an underused organ, the American tongue prefers tasteless and homogenized flavors like iceberg lettuce. On the other hand, the Italian and French tongues prefer the punch of bitter greens like dandelion, escarole, and endive.
Even the English, who have a horrible taste in food, know bitterness. When I was a child, we went to London and at the pubs my go-to drink was a bottle of Bitter Lemon. I remember how it used to come in this adorable child-sized bottle. What kind of year-old drinks that stuff? I should have been quaffing a pint of English bitter!
My mom, who is from Mumbai, introduced me to the weird flavors present in Indian pickles (sour-bitter-spicy), Campari (stark bitterness), and European salad greens (earthy bitterness). Like the French and Italians, Asians also appreciate the whole tongue–bitter, sour, and all. Which is why IPA and lambic should be sold everywhere in Asia…
In Southeast Asian cuisine all flavors (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, spicy) are ideally present in each meal. Bitterness can come in assertive form such as in bitter melon, aka bitter gourd.
Bitter melon is provocative and aggressive. In Vietnam once we inadvertently ordered a salad made from bitter melon. It was misspelled on the menu as “bitter lemon.” When the salad arrived, the bitter melon was thinly sliced and had dried shredded pork on top of it. The sweet-n-salty pork complemented the bitterness of the gourd, and of course being Vietnamese they rounded out all the five flavors by adding chili and lime. An orchestra of flavors to entertain the tongue.
In Malaysia, bitter gourd is on the ulam table which also has raw herbs, random leaves, banana flower, and other veggie condiments. One of the common ulam-ulam is bitter gourd, boiled plain, deseeded, and simply halved. Like this, its flavor really shines. The first time I took one I didn’t realize what it was until I bit in. I rode out an initial aversion as a personal challenge and now I take a bitter melon piece whenever I feel like filling my mouth with a sensation that does not come from any other food. Why can’t Asian beer be this much fun?