Okinawan Stir-Fry with Bitter Melon, Sweet Potatoes and Turmeric Poached Eggs

If you’ve been losing sleep over the question When, oh when, will I ever learn to cook bitter melon?  then fret no more, relief is at hand, the stars have finally aligned for you.  This week  we’re offering our take on champuru, an Okinawan Stir-Fry with Bitter Melon, Sweet Potatoes and Tumeric Poached Eggs.  By the time you finish this recipe you’ll be a bitter melon whiz, and when people ask about that cool new flavor you’ve introduced into your stir fries you can say, Nothing, really, just a little goya.  Oh, you might know it as bitter melon.   

Welcome to our third post from one of Dan Buettner’s Blue Zones*, the Japanese island of Okinawa.  

Okinawa is famous for its long-lived inhabitants, whose unusual lifespan the Japanese popularly attribute to the island’s “longevity cuisine.”  If the question is How do you live to be 100?  the Okinawan answer might be Eat a lot of red sweet potatoes with turmeric.  Although bread and rice have become popular in recent years, the starchy diet of Okinawans still relies heavily on red sweet potatoes, complimented with tofu, vegetables , konbu seaweed and pork.  The diet is something of an antioxidant bomb – sweet potatoes are high in polyphenols and anthocyanins, and the favorite local seasoning is turmeric. All three are powerful antioxidants.  Extracts from bitter melon and its seeds have been involved in many studies regarding cancer suppression and the prevention of heart attacks.  Interestingly, although Okinawans also consume pork, the subcutaneous fat is often removed, and pork or its offal is usually but one component in a  larger complicated dish like a soup, salad or stir fry.

Champuru translates as “something mixed,” a little-of-this-little-of-that stir fry to which everyone adds his own twist.  Okinawan cuisine is itself “something mixed,” incorporating aspects of Chinese, Japanese and southeast Asian influences.  Traditionally champuru is organized around one of three ingredients – tofu, goya (bitter melon) and somen, a thin wheat noodle.  Pork and sweet potatoes enliven the mix.

As any experienced stir-fry artist will tell you, the “bitter” in bitter melon is something of an understatement.  While the melon’s initial flavor and texture recall cucumber, it concludes with a spectacular jolt of bitterness.  If, like me, you once purchased the intriguingly named bitter melon, and stir-fried it with a little ginger and peanut oil, you learned a lesson never to be repeated.  But the real lesson is this: bitter melon, unlike, say, broccoli rabe, makes a better side-kick than a solitary lead.  You add bitter melon to other ingredients to increase their depth and complexity.  It’s dynamite with the sweet potatoes in this recipe, and I can’t wait to try adding it to our next taro stir-fry.  (That last sentence sounds dangerously close to parody.)  Then again, I’m planning on living to be 200.  You’ll have to use your own judgment.  Enjoy.   Ken

*For the month of January–and a little beyond–we’re writing posts about the food of the Blue Zones, a term coined by Dan Buettner and his partners, Dr. Gianni Pes of the University of Sassari in Italy and Dr. Michel Poulain, a Belgian demographer.  Blue Zones are five specific regions in the world where people live exceptionally long, healthy lives.  The Blue Zones include The Greek Island of Ikaria; Okinawa, Japan; the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; Sardinia, Italy and Loma Linda, California.  For additional information you can check out our previous posts about Blue Zones food here and here.  You can find Dan Buettner’s article in the New York Times Magazine that aroused our interest here; and you can find additional information at the Blue Zones® website.

Tofu Stir-Fry with Bitter Melon, Sweet Potatoes and Turmeric Poached Eggs TGF-2

Okinawan Stir-Fry with Bitter Melon, Sweet Potatoes and Turmeric Poached Eggs

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients:

  • 1 goya–bitter melon, about ½ pound
  • Kosher salt
  •  2 tablespoons freshly grated turmeric root, or 1 tablespoon ground dried turmeric
  • 2-3 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 3-4 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2-3 tablespoons peanut oil
  • ½ pound firm tofu, cut into large pieces
  • 12 ounces Japanese purple or other sweet potato, peeled and diced into ½-inch cubes, soaked in water if done ahead
  • 2 tablespoons sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon julienned ginger
  • 1 large bunch scallions, sliced into ½-inch rounds–use both white and green parts
  • 16 garlic chives, trimmed of tough ends an cut into ½-inch lengths, optional
  • 1 bunch watercress, end trimmed, wilted leaves removed
  • Bonito flakes, optional

Directions:

  1. Cut the melon in half lengthwise and remove the seeds.  Slice into ¼-inch half-moon slices.  Put into a colander, toss with 1 teaspoon salt and allow to drain for 30 minutes.  Rinse well and pat dry.  This will draw out some of the bitterness.
  2. Combine the turmeric and  vinegar with 2 cups water, the sugar and  and ½ teaspoon salt in a small saucepan over medium heat.  Simmer 3 minutes.  Crack each egg into a teacup and lower into the tumeric water.  Baste with the water and cook until the egg whites are set and the yolk is still runny, about 3 minutes.   Scoop out the eggs with a slotted spoon onto a plate.   Keep warm.
  3. Add 3 tablespoons soy sauce to the tumeric water and reduce by a third.   
  4. Heat 1 tablespoon peanut oil  in a wok over high heat.  Add the bitter melon and stir fry until browned on one side, 5-7 minutes.  Transfer to a plate.
  5. Add half the remaining peanut oil and when it is hot, add the tofu and sear until toasty on 2 sides.  Transfer to a plate.
  6. Add the remaining peanut oil to the pan, add the sweet potato and 2 tablespoons water.  Cover, cook until the water has been absorbed and the potatoes are tender, about 3 minutes.  Remove the lid, add the sesame oil, ginger, scallions and garlic chives and stir fry for 2 minutes.  Return the bitter melon and tofu to the pan, with the tumeric water.  Cook until everything is heated through.  Add the watercress and cook until wilted.
  7. Distribute among 4 warm bowls, top with an egg and some bonito flakes.

Tofu Stir-Fry with Bitter Melon, Sweet Potatoes and Turmeric Poached Eggs TGF-3 Tofu Stir-Fry with Bitter Melon, Sweet Potatoes and Turmeric Poached Eggs TGF-4 Tofu Stir-Fry with Bitter Melon, Sweet Potatoes and Turmeric Poached Eggs TGF-5 Tofu Stir-Fry with Bitter Melon, Sweet Potatoes and Turmeric Poached Eggs TGF-6 Tofu Stir-Fry with Bitter Melon, Sweet Potatoes and Turmeric Poached Eggs TGF-7 Tofu Stir-Fry with Bitter Melon, Sweet Potatoes and Turmeric Poached Eggs TGF-8 Tofu Stir-Fry with Bitter Melon, Sweet Potatoes and Turmeric Poached Eggs TGF-9 Tofu Stir-Fry with Bitter Melon, Sweet Potatoes and Turmeric Poached Eggs TGF-10 Tofu Stir-Fry with Bitter Melon, Sweet Potatoes and Turmeric Poached Eggs TGF-11 Tofu Stir-Fry with Bitter Melon, Sweet Potatoes and Tutmeric Poached Eggs TGF-13

Jody Notes:  

You may wonder why I’d make something with obscure ingredients like fresh turmeric and bitter melon.  Partly because I had no choce – we are writing about the cuisine of Okinawa, after all – and partly because a trip to Market Basket or the Hong Kong Supermarket inevitably results in unfamiliar and unusual ingredients in my shopping cart.  We’re learning together.  I’d never cooked with them before developing this recipe either. 

Champuru is the dish I came across again and again  in my research, and that led to both turmeric and bitter melon.  Although champuru often includes pork, I wanted to stick to our vegetarian (or semi-vegetarian) theme.  I allowed myself to deviate from the scrambled eggs that are the usual ingredient in champuru, imagining a bright turmeric poached egg  on top of the stir fry.  Turmeric aches for something sweet so I added a little sugar to the egg-poaching water.  The vinegar in the water helps the whites coagulate. 

As Roxanne said about this dish, “Everything tastes healthy.”  It does, but it’s also really yummy.

Tofu Stir-Fry with Bitter Melon, Sweet Potatoes and Turmeric Poached Eggs TGF-14

Go ahead; click on something to see it with a little more detail.  Left and right arrow keys will move you through the photos.

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18 thoughts

  1. My nephew and his wife live in Okinawa and, judging from their Facebook postings documenting what they eat and how much they work out, they will live to be 200. I’ll have to ask them about champuru. Looking forward to confronting the bitter melon phobia I didn’t know I had until Ken put it into words for me. Thanks for helping us keep our resolutions with food that we’d actually enjoy eating for the next 100 years.

    • Hi, Alison–This post was a bit of a trial. Not enough space for too much info. There’s a raft of fascinating material about Okinawan cuisine, about their food-as-medicine approach, and about, sadly, the depredations of modern cooking on traditional diet. Bitter melon, as I suggested, has become an object of interest to researchers in several fields. It’s certainly been my take-away from this post. Once you learn how to work with it, it turns into one of those I-can’t-believe-I-never-used-this ingredients that you just want to start throwing at everything to see what sticks. On another note, I just ordered your book, after reading the excerpt on Diplopundit (http://wp.me/p2a9Eh-2K7). What an interesting life you have! Ken

      • Imagine the lives we could lead and write about if we start eating bitter melon on a regular basis! Thanks for the information, which has made me find my Oct. edition of the NY Times magazine to re-read the story that inspired you. And thanks for buying the book!

  2. This is great to see a recipe using bitter melon (or korola as it is known in Bengal). It definitely is an acquired taste but I really like it. It is SO good for as well – both turmeric and bitter melon are anti-carcinogenic as well. I normally just fry the bitter melon with a bit of salt and sometimes a pinch of turmeric – see one of my first blog posts and rather dodgy photos http://chilliandmint.com/2011/05/21/want-to-join-the-obscure-vegetable-movement/ I love the ingredients of your recipe, looks a very satisfying and wholesome meal. BTW have got my folks into reading about the ‘Blue Zone’ and your blog posts now. They too are finding it all fascinating. Keep them coming. Best Torie

    • Hmmm… now you’ve got me wondering if we just ran into a particularly bitter batch, although I generally like bitter flavors–broccoli rabe, strong IPAs, black coffee/espresso, radicchio, etc.–this was really beyond my experience. I have read that levels of bitterness can be affected by where they’re grown, what the climate was like that year, etc. as well as by variety. By the way, ALL of us have have blog posts with dodgy photos! :-) Ken

  3. Very interesting. The only Okinawan dish I ever had was pig’s ears (marinated in soy sauce and roasted if I remember well). I did not like the texture at all. I have never eaten bitter melon, and am curious to find out whether I would like it or not. I have no idea where I would be able to get it though…

    • Hi, Darya–Okinawans are tail to snout pork consumers, so pig’s ears are part of the cuisine. I tried cooked pig’s ears shaved into very thin strips and served with a salad awhile back. The only thing I can think to compare them with would be very skinny bacon. I didn’t find the texture any stranger than many of the cured meats I’ve eaten. Regarding bitter melon, I encourage you to try it–I’m sure it’s available in Paris, wherever you find Asian produce. Once you’ve had it pointed out to you it seems available everywhere. Keep me posted on how it goes. Ken

  4. This is a fascinating series, Ken, one that I’m really enjoying. I hadn’t thought that I’d seen bitter melon until I saw the photo. I have seen them in the Asian markets, though, I thought they were some sort of cucumber or squash. Now, that would have been some surprise had I bought one! You’ve really tempted me to buy one the next time I come across them and give it a try. At least I’ll have a better idea of what to expect and how to prepare them. Thanks!

    • Hi, John–Don’t just take my word for it. Check out the link from Torie at Chilli and Mint above, who likes them cooked all by their lonesome (almost ;-) ). Bitter melon is, by the way, a distant relation to a cucumber–your instincts were right. Glad you’re enjoying the series. I’ve learned a ton in researching it. Ken

  5. Can I live to, say, 95 if I make this without the bitter melon? :) Steve likes it, but I have to say my (admittedly few) experiences with it haven’t really thrilled me. Beautiful photos, and the rest of it sounds great!

    • Michelle–There are some things in life (e.g. Scotch) that you have to start out determined to like, or at least go through several of what we call at house no-thank-you-helpings. (If you eat a small amount, you get the cred for a full portion.) Then one day the culinary light bulb goes off and you say, “I get it!” I suspect bitter melon may be like that for some people. I’m going to try Torie’s version (see above) and see how I feel. If it’s still too bitter for me, I’ll just use it as an add-in. You, on the other hand, may choose to just live to be 95 (ha!). Glad you liked the photos. Ken

  6. I have yet to visit Okinawa or cook goya!!

    My father used to visit the village of Yomitan to research why people there lived so long. I understand it has something to do with the diet but also how they live in big, multiple-generation families and how the elderly is respected.

    • Ayako–Despite their differences in diet, all of the Blue Zones populations seem to share active, interconnected social lives in one form or another, whether they live together, dance and drink together, or work as a community. The social component seems at least as important as the dietary one. As the father of a teenage daughter, I could go for a little more elder respect myself. :-) Ken

  7. It’s interesting how important bitter flavors are in so many cuisines (but not so popular in America)–I really love them now but it does take time. I’ve never had bitter melon (or I”ve probably thought it was one of those decorative gourds!). Great photos, interesting post, thanks!

    • Hi, Sara–You’re right. I remember my introduction to broccoli rabe–BLECH! YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME! NO WONDER THEY WANT TO MIX THIS STUFF WITH PINE NUTS AND RAISINS! Now, I wonder at broccoli rabe when it isn’t bitter enough, and I skip the raisins because I don’t want to mask the flavor. Give bitter melon a try. (Funny–decorative gourds! Hahaha!). Ken

  8. Hello – I LOVE bitter melon and make champuru quite often but never thought about poaching an egg or combine it with purple yam, what a great idea. Will definitely try. Thank you for the recipe!

    • I started out feeling somewhat wary of bitter melon. Now it’s my new favorite vegetable, and champuru is definitely a keeper for us. I’m honored that you liked our version enough to think of trying it. Thanks. Ken

  9. Pingback: Orecchiette with Escarole and Bread Crumbs | Three Clever SistersThree Clever Sisters

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