Unseasonal Goya Champloo (Sautéed Bitter Melon)

Recipe inspired by: Lucky byproduct of my complete negligence

goya champloo

Nothing says summer like goya, “bitter melon” which is one of typical ingredients used in cuisines from Okinawa, the most Southern and hottest island in Japan.

So imagine my surprise when I finally stepped out to the yard to check up on my vegetables this past weekend after a particularly busy month, and found a bunch of shiny bitter melons hanging behind the thick, green vines in a plot (where they self-seeded themselves from the previous year) that I haven’t even watered after summer squashes were all gone.

Amazed, both by my own obliviousness and the resilience of the plant, I decided to pay unseasonal respect to these survivors that they deserve with probably the most well-known Okinawa dish. After all, I feel strange affinity towards this relatively unknown vegetable – Seriously tough, seriously Asian and, seriously and unforgivingly, bitter. It’s basically like all the old people in my family (and I suppose I’m on my way to get there – Mean, crazy cat lady who never takes sick days. Wait. I kind of AM there already). 

Champloo, also and perhaps more commonly as “champuru,” means “mixed” in Okinawa dialect, and it is a home dish that has as many variations as households on the island in terms of combination of ingredients as well as seasonings.  My adaptation is a simpler version with just goya, tofu and eggs with sesame oil, a pinch of salt here and there and a handful of katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes) thrown into the pan at the end. It is one of the easiest and quickest dishes I make, yet so addictive – Bitterness of goya is balanced by mellow tofu and eggs while the simple flavor of sesame oil and salt is elevated by umami from dried bonito flakes (they are what makes typical Japanese broth, and THE umami itself).

I will be honest, if you have never eaten bitter melon, it will take some getting used to. The name is no joke, it will quite possibly be the bitterest food you would ever have tasted. But I hope you will eventually find its bitterness fascinatingly delicious and versatile, as people from many Asian countries do.

RECIPE (2 servings)

Ingredients:

  • 1 large (or 2 small) goya (bitter melon)*
  • 1/2 tablespoon salt, plus a couple of pinches to taste
  • 1 teaspoon canola oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 1/2 package firm tofu, drained and patted dry, then cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • A handful of katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes), and some more for the last step**

* You can find bitter melons at various ethnic markets (I have seen them at Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Filipino, and Indian markets).

** You can find katsuobushi at Asian markets (probably better chance with Japanese or Korean ones) or amazon either in a big bag or divided into small packages. If using one with small packages, use one package but reserve some for the last step.

Method:

  1. Cut the ends off bitter melon and cut in half lengthwise and scrape seeds and white pith with a spoon (this is the bitter part so make sure to get rid of as much white as possible – unless you want it bitter like I do, then it’s OK to do a lousy job here). Cut them into 1/4-inch slices.
  2. Place the slices into a shallow bowl and gently massage 1/2 tablespoon salt into them. Leave them for 5-10 minute.
  3. While waiting for bitter melon, heat canola oil in a large non-stick pan. Beat 2 eggs in a bowl and add a pinch of salt.  Pour eggs into the heated pan and make soft scrambled egg, then slide it back to the bowl immediately to prevent it from being overcooked.
  4. Boil water in a medium sauce pan.  Rinse salt and water off bitter melon slices and cook them in boiling water for 2 to 3 minutes. Drain and put them in cold water. Drain again, and gently squeeze water out of them. Parboiling bitter melon mitigates the bitterness to a certain extent.
  5. Heat sesame oil in the pan you used for egg and add tofu cubes.  Sprinke a pinch of salt and cook until both sides are lightly brown (they don’t have to be crispy), approximately 4 minutes per side.
  6. Add bitter melon slices to the pan and mix gently. Once they are heated through, after 2 or 3 minutes, add bonito flakes and mix well.
  7. Fold in scrambled eggs and remove from heat.  Sprinkle reserved bonito flakes.

NOTE: When I’m in hurry, I would skip step #3 and just add beaten eggs directly into the pan after I’m done with step #6 – Just push everything to one side to make room and add a bit of oil, then stir them into soft scrambled eggs, then remove from the heat and fold into the bitter melon mixture.  Eggs are not as bright yellow as they could be with this shortcut, but it will still taste delicious  🙂

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