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.
Okinawan Stir-Fry with Bitter Melon, Sweet Potatoes and Turmeric Poached Eggs
Makes 4 servings
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- Add 3 tablespoons soy sauce to the tumeric water and reduce by a third.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Distribute among 4 warm bowls, top with an egg and some bonito flakes.
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.
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