Ampalaya – bitter-melon or amargoso in Spanish – has to be one of the most loathed vegetables in this part of the world. It’s green (obviously), rather wrinkled in appearance whilst still on the vine, and is just atrociously bitter. Small wonder, then, that it never made its way into the litany of vegetables mentioned in the Philippine nursery rhyme Bahay Kubo.
However, if and when prepared properly, ampalaya becomes a delicacy worthy of even the most sophisticated palates. The trick is to drain out all the bitterness from the vegetable-fruit. If that sounds rather daunting, it’s actually a simple process. All you need to do is peel, seed, and julienne the bitter-melon. Place the veg strips in a non-reactive bowl and toss them with rock salt. Leave them be for about half-an-hour or so, then squeeze out the liquid and rinse the squeezed veg under running water. Once patted dry with paper towels, the julienned bitter-melon is ready for use in stir-fries or for making pickles.
For most Filipino families, particularly those with Ilocano blood, ampalaya is a canon vegetable for classic pinakbet where its bitter flavor and crisp texture play off the tastes and textures of pumpkin, eggplant, okra, and sitaw (snake beans). Other families opt to cook bitter-melons with sauteed beef strips and tausi (fermented salted black beans) for ampalaya con carne.
At our house, one of the best side dishes to go with savory adobo is a simple amargoso con huevos. Influenced by a Chinese dish made by stir-frying tomatoes with chives and scrambled eggs, this dish involves sauteeing the salted and rinsed ampalaya with a sofrito of chopped onions, minced garlic, and diced tomatoes. Beaten eggs are added as the bitter-melon becomes crisp-tender and are cooked just till large, soft curds form. Best served immediately after cooking, the bitter-melon gains a bit of sweetness and the dish is just delicious with plain rice.
And, while market- / grocery-bought ampalaya works, bitter-melons you grow in your own yard taste much fresher, crisper, and tastier. 😉