Yesterday I stopped by the Asia Market close to my home to pick up some fresh tofu and Chinese broccoli. I love to explore its floor-to-ceiling packed aisles and experiment with newly found ingredients. Finds that have found a home in my kitchen include black rice noodles, organic soba noodles (big packs of 12 bundles), fresh tofu (I never see this in the natural foods markets), and all kinds of greens, some of which I still don’t remember the names of. Outside the market was an overflowing crate of greens, bundled in bunches about 30 inches long. Not sure what these were, I selected one off the top and put it in my basket.
These greens were soon joined by 2 pounds of tofu, a package of dry sliced shitake mushrooms, a pack of soba noodles, ginger root, and green onions. At the checkout counter I saw a clerk next to a big pile of other greens so bright with energy I thought they might have just been picked.
I asked her what these were and how to cook them. “Kang Kong,” she replied. “Stir fry is best. Boil the stems first, then add with the leaves. They cook quick. Don’t cook too long.” Then she added, pointing to the big bunch of greens I’d already put in my basket, “Not bitter, not like those.” “Oh, what are these anyway?” I said. I had thought maybe they were some kind of pea vine or shoots. “Bitter melon,” she said, “Those are bitter melon leaves. Vine is too tough, just take the leaves and stems. We make a soup. Very good for you. Make the broth first, and then add the greens. Remember, don’t cook too long!” I took a few bites of a leaf from the bitter melon vine. Definitely bitter, but not nearly as strong as a mature bitter melon. I imagined this would make a terrific soup with some ginger, garlic, and maybe tofu. If I wanted to do it “Indian” style, maybe something a la Potent Potato Soup, adding a bunch of these greens at the end. I love the combo of potatoes and bitter greens.
About Bitter Melon
Bitter melon is one of Nature’s most healing foods. Yogi Bhajan once told me it would “heal anything.” It is widely recognized for its anti-diabetic properties.
“In addition to being a food ingredient, bitter melon has also been used as a herbal remedy for a range of ailments, including type 2 diabetes. The fruit contains at least three active substances with anti-diabetic properties, including charantin, which has been confirmed to have a blood glucose-lowering effect, vicine, and an insulin-like compound known as polypeptide-p. These substances either work individually or together to help reduce blood sugar levels… bitter melon contains a lectin that reduces blood glucose concentrations by acting on peripheral tissues and suppressing appetite – similar to the effects of insulin in the brain.” (Diabetes.co.uk)
I decided to go with something on the brothy side, sort of Chinese style. First off, I filled my sink half way with cold water and plunged all the greens in there to give them a good rinsing. Then I pulled all the stems and leaves off the vines, piling the greens into a colander. Among the vines some tender young stems had baby bitter melons! Most on the tiny side, and some as large as an inch long.
I munched on a few slender curly tendrils, not certain how they might cook up. Similar taste as the stems and leaves, but a bit too fibrous and tough. Closer to the tips the tendrils were more tender. I decided not to include the tendrils in the soup, but would definitely use all the baby bitter melons!
With the greens rinsed and draining in the colander, I selected a 2-inch piece of fresh ginger and peeled and sliced it into short thin matchsticks and chopped 5-6 cloves of garlic. Now I was ready to start my basic broth. I heated up a stainless steel pot with a tablespoon or two of oil. When hot, in went a pinch or two of crushed red chilies (you could also use 1 or 2 whole dry red chilies) and let them sizzle a few seconds to get toasted. Then added the ginger and garlic and sizzled a little longer. After adding water and bringing to a light boil, I added a half-pound of cubed tofu, and some tamari soy sauce, along with a long piece of the melon vine… just to see how it cooked up. I figured one could use the vine pieces for flavoring a broth, and then easily pull them out. I let this simmer a minute or two while I chopped the now-drained greens. Into the pot went the chopped greens.
I let this simmer just about 5 minutes, until the greens were tender. The baby bitter melons (most had gotten cut in half in the chopping process – revealing no seeds!) were also just the right amount of tender, and really pretty tasty. Last in the pot flew 5 chopped green onions and a dash or two of toasted sesame oil.
I served myself a small cup for tasting. The broth was flavorful and the greens were amazing, not too bitter. I thought this would be a fine soup as a first course or to complement a meal. But my heart (or perhaps my stomach) was thinking noodle bowl.
I pulled out a bundle of soba noodles, brought about 6 cups of salted water to a boil, and in another 3 minutes had soba noodles ready to go. Much better. With a garnish of chopped cilantro and raw green onions, I thought, “My goodness, this looks simply perfect.” Let me assure you, it was!
Bittermelon Greens & Tofu Soup or Soba Noodle Bowl
This brothy soup is great on its own. For a light and satisfying meal, include tofu and soba noodles.
1 large bunch bitter melon greens (about 1 pound)
2 tablespoons peanut or coconut oil (oil with high smoke point)
1/8 tsp crushed red chilies, or 1-2 whole dry red chilies
2-inches fresh ginger, peeled and chopped into short, thin matchsticks
2 quarts water
¼ cup tamari soy sauce
½ pound tofu, cut into bite-size cubes
½ bunch green onions, finely chopped
½ teaspoon toasted sesame oil
¼ cup finely chopped cilantro
2-3 tablespoons chopped green onions (for garnish)
Additional tamari or Bragg Liguid Aminos to taste
1 bundle soba noodles (for heartier meal, 1 bundle per serving)
Plunge greens in a sink full of cold water to rinse clean. Pull or snip off tender stems and leaves from the vines, including any blossoms or baby bitter melons. Avoid tough tendrils. Discard tough vine pieces (these may be used to give more flavor to broth and removed, or just chop up and add to the compost pile). Let greens drain in colander while you prep other ingredients.
Heat oil in bottom of gallon-size stainless steel pot over high heat. Add red chilies and sizzle about 30 seconds until toasted. Add chopped fresh ginger and sizzle another 30 seconds or so. Add water, bring to boiling point, and let simmer on medium/low while remaining ingredients are added. First add chopped garlic, cubed tofu, and chopped greens. Let simmer for 5 minutes. Add toasted sesame oil. Adjust taste with additional tamari or Braggs.
Ladle soup into serving bowl and garnish with cilantro and green onions.
For noodles (optional), cook them separately and add at end. To cook, bring lightly salted water to boil, add noodles, stir to break them apart, and boil for 3-4 minutes until done. Serve soup into bowls. Using tongs, add noodles to soup and garnish with chopped cilantro and green onions.