The Healthiest Food You've Never Heard Of

[What I had for breakfast this morning: jasmine rice, an egg, sriracha, shoyu and bittermelon. What's bittermelon? Read up!] 

Isn't it pretty? 

Like a work of art, right? 

Bittermelon, a member of the cucumber family, is not very well known in the United States. But all over Asia, as well as South and Central America, it's a popular ingredient in stir-fries, soups, stews, curries and teas. 

The list of health benefits attributed to bittermelon is almost too long to type here. Probably the most researched benefit is the way that bittermelon can improve insulin resistance and thereby blood glucose levels, making it a terrific whole-food tool for people with diabetes. Other benefits include clearer skin, improved weight management (connected to that blood sugar balancing!), better digestion, and even fewer kidney stones. The only people that can't benefit from adding some bittermelon to their diets are pregnant women--bittermelon is contraindicated in pregnancy, as it can induce contractions. 

As its name indicates, it's incredibly bitter. More bitter, probably, than almost anything you've ever eaten. A lot of people don't like it for that reason--which is understandable. 

Consider, however, that in Chinese nutritional therapy and the Chinese culinary arts, each meal should present a balance of the five flavors: bland (or mildly sweet, as in rice or carrots), sour, salty, pungent, and bitter. The traditional Western diet features those first four flavors pretty regularly, but bitter? Not so much. 

We have coffee, and that's bitter. We have, well, bitters, and Campari, at every well-stocked bar. There's certainly a degree of bitterness in some dark leafy greens, like dandelion greens and older kale, but not a whole lot of it. 

What the bitter flavor does in a traditional Chinese medical context is tonify and clear heat from the heart and drain dampness from the entire system. The patient that would benefit from eating more bitter foods might manifest some of the following symptoms: anxiety, insomnia, hot flashes, trouble losing weight, a chronically stuffy or runny nose, and water retention.  Because of its strongly bitter flavor, bittermelon excels at treating all of those symptoms. 

So where can you get this miraculous food? Well, typically Asian markets will carry it year-round. Like cucumbers, bittermelons are harvested in the summer months, so if you have a local farm stand, you might want to ask in the early spring if the farmer could grow it. Or you could grow it yourself, if you have garden space for a vigorous, vining plant. I've had a hard time getting it started in the garden, but I know people who have grown it with no trouble at all.

The farmer that we buy our strawberries from in the summer grows bittermelon, so I buy a bunch in summer, pith and slice them, and freeze them in sealed packets to eat all year.  

Cooking bittermelon is a pretty simple process, very much like cooking a bell pepper: you slice the bittermelon in half lengthwise, scoop out the pith and seeds with a spoon, slice the remaining outer shell into lovely scalloped little half-moons, and sautee them till they're tender. I like to scramble them with eggs, soy sauce and sriracha. I've also appreciated them stuffed with pork and served in a gingery broth. 

sauteed bittermelon, egg, rice and sriracha


Below is one of my favorite-ever bittermelon recipes. (Note for those of you who avoid gluten: If you make it with tamari instead of soy sauce, it's gluten-free.) I hope you enjoy it. 

3 large bittermelons
1.5 lbs eye of round beef steak, thinly sliced
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 small onions, sliced
1 to 2 tbsp, or to taste, soy sauce or tamari
2 tbsp coconut oil
3 nests mung bean threads (also called glass noodles or cellophane noodles)

Put the mung bean thread nests in a bowl of water to soak. 

Wash and slice the bitter melon in half lengthways. Scoop out all the seeds and membranes with a spoon and discard.

-(optional step: to draw out some of the bitterness, coat the hollowed-out bittermelon halves with salt. Leave for 15 minutes, then thoroughly rinse off salt. I do think removing some of the bitter flavor negatively impacts the medicinal value, so skip this step if the bitterness doesn't bother you.)

-Slice the bittermelon thinly and set aside.

-Heat a heavy pan or wok on high, then place 1 tbsp of oil in the wok. When the oil gets hot, add beef and saute for one minute--it should sizzle. Remove the beef from the hot pan and set aside.

-Add 1 more tbsp of oil in the wok and briefly fry the garlic and then add the onions and continue frying for about 2 minutes.

-Add the beef back in the wok. Keep stirring for 1 minute.

-Add the bitter melon, stir fry for 2 minutes, then add the tamari and stir.

-Add water from the to cover about half an inch up the pan (approx 1/3 cup depending on the size of the pan or wok).

-When the liquid is simmering, make a little well in the mixture. Remove the mung bean threads from the water they've been soaking in and add them to the pan. Cook, stirring continuously, till the threads are soft and translucent.

I like to add a dash of sesame oil to my own serving. This what I call comfort food.