Story by Tran Hyunh, Summer 2018
Bitter melon is called khổ qua in Southern Vietnam. “Khổ” means suffering or distress and “qua” means pass; thus, the name is roughly translated to “suffering will pass.” I thought the fruit was named like this because eating a bitter melon is difficult due to its bitterness, and the suffering will soon pass while the person will gain its medicinal benefits. This is similar to how we gain life experience and lessons from an obstacle or challenge. However, after doing research, I learned that the name khổ qua did not originate from Vietnam. It is actually derived from the fruit’s name in Chinese, 苦瓜 (kǔguā), in which 苦 means bitter and 瓜 means gourd or melon; therefore, 苦瓜 or khổ qua literally means bitter gourd.
Bitter melon is a type of fruit-pod that grows from a vine. Similar to tomatoes, bitter melon is considered a vegetable. It is native to India and widely used in East Asian, South Asian, and Southeast Asian cuisine. Because of its bitterness, this fruit is consumed raw or cooked and used to make tea as well as medicine to prevent and treat diabetes, boost the immune system, detoxify the body, and regulate hypertension. The fruit is most often eaten green and has a texture similar to a cucumber or a bell pepper. Different from an unripe bitter melon, which has white seeds and crunchy green flesh, a ripe bitter melon has red seeds and tender yellow flesh.
Bitter melon is widely used in Vietnamese cuisine. There are two common ways to cook bitter melon. One way is to cut it into thin wedges and stir fry it with eggs or beef. Another way to prepare it is to make a stew. For the stew, the first step is to create a vertical slit on the bitter melon to open it up and take out the seeds. A mixture of ground pork, glass noodles, and rehydrated wood ear mushroom is then stuffed in the melon. Green onions or garlic chives are usually used to tie around the melon to close the cut. The stuffed melons are then cooked in water or broth. Both stir fried and stew bitter melon are served with rice. I am a fan of bitter melon stew but not its intense bitterness. I remember my mom used to boil the melons in water several times before stuffing them to remove some of the bitterness, because it was the only way she could get me to eat it. I also remember having bitter melon during Tết, or Vietnamese New Year. It was a reminder of all the unpleasant or painful experiences in the past and hope for all the obstacles and how suffering in the future will pass by smoothly.