There are a lot of foods that remind me of my childhood in the Philippines. There are all the comforting soups and stews the house cook made with Lola’s (Grandma’s) recipes, and the variety of cooked vegetables that showed up on the table. In college, my sister and I would often try to recreate these dishes with what could be found at the local grocery store. Needless to say, the selection was slim. The “Asian” section was woefully limited to noodles, rice, and basic sauces.
When I moved to San Francisco, I was fortunate enough to find an apartment a short walk from Chinatown. When I saw the variety of vegetables familiar to me from my childhood days, I nearly cried with happiness. I was now able to make all those veggie recipes I missed—pinakbet (vegetables like squash, string beans and okra cooked with pork and shrimp paste), adobong kang-kong (water spinach adobo), and relyenong talong (stuffed eggplant). Note that many Filipino vegetable dishes are not strictly vegetarian and definitely not vegan. They usually have meat or fish or are cooked with shrimp paste. But of all these dishes, nothing brings out cravings for home like ginisang ampalaya, or sauteed bitter melon.
Bitter is not a word we like to hear often. Whether it’s used to describe people, food, situations, or weather, it’s a word that instantly puts us on the defensive. There’s a reason why that old tongue map we learned as kids (which we now know to be wrong) has bitter at the very back of the tongue. As a little girl, I wasn’t such a big fan. But, as I grew up, I found that there is something oddly satisfying about this dish, which combines the sweetness of shrimp or pork and the richness of egg to give your taste buds a good runaround.
In Filipino culture, ampalaya, or bitter melon, has been favored not just for its flavor, but for its health benefits as well. It’s been said to help with Type II diabetes, liver diseases, increased immunity, even improving the look and health of your skin. It’s also high in Vitamin K and dietary fiber. While I wouldn’t depend on it to cure any disease (consulting your doctor if you’re planning to incorporate it regularly into your diet), it’s still a healthy, tasty addition to any meal.
I cooked the recipe below after perusing the veggie aisle at 99 Ranch. Right now I’m the only one who eats ampalaya (Mr. D is not a fan), so I enjoy making little batches for myself as a quick lunch. It’s a variation on this recipe from Panlasang Pinoy, using ground pork instead of shrimp, but it definitely tasted like home.
1 medium bitter melon, cut in half lengthwise, cored, and sliced into thin pieces
1/4 lb ground pork, or 8-10 pieces of shrimp
2 eggs, beaten
1 medium tomato, cubed
1 small onion, sliced
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
3 tbsp vegetable oil
Salt and pepper to taste
- To cut some of the bitterness, mix the ampalaya and 1 tbsp of salt in a bowl. Leave for 15 minutes before rinsing with water.
- Heat the oil in a cooking pan and sautee the onion.
- Add the pork, browning it for a few minutes.
- Stir in the garlic and tomato, cooking until softened.
- Stir in the ampalaya, cooking for another 3-5 minutes.
- Push the mixture to the side of the pan and pour in the beaten eggs so they begin to cook.
- Mix the cooked egg with the rest of the ingredients, stirring for another minute.
- Serve while hot with steamed rice. Yum!