The bitter truth about ageing

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As a kid, bitter gourd was one of my least favourite vegetables. Conversely, eggs were top on my list. So whenever my mum cooked stir-fried bitter gourd with eggs, it became a bittersweet dilemma for me. Should I eat or not eat? My young taste buds abhorred the taste that the astringent vegetable left in my mouth, yet on the other hand I craved for the egg bits.

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“Eat! Bitter gourd is a cooling food,” my mum would command. “We’ve been eating too much heaty food lately, bitter gourd will help to balance our system.”

In the end I would muster up the courage and pick out the smallest possible pieces of bitter gourd, quickly popping them into my mouth followed by a big spoonful of rice to lessen the bitter taste.

Some years later, I would read that women’s ability to taste bitterness diminishes with age—aha! So that’s why Mummy could take bitter food much better than I do, I thought.

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And interestingly, nowadays seeing the pale-green melons stewed with pork ribs at Teochew khaaotom (porridge) stores in my neighbourhood always make me crave for them. Thankfully, like the rest of Asia, bitter gourd is commonly found in fresh markets in Thailand, giving me the chance to bag one of these oblong beauties home for dinners. And hence I conclude that I’m indeed starting to go over the hill and down the slope to less sensitivity to bitterness.

After learning that dabbling salt on bitter gourd will reduce its bitterness, it has been a technique I will deploy each time I cook with this vegetable. If it’s bitter gourd stuffed with minced pork, I’ll rub salt on the exposed flesh for some 30 minutes; if it’s stir-fry eggs thar I’m cooking, I’ll soak the sliced bitter gourd pieces in a salty solution.

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One day, I told myself, I shall eat bitter gourd in its pure bitterness and be on my way to ‘吃得苦中苦方为人上人’ (chi de ku zhong gu, fang wei ren shang ren), a Chinese adage which means that one has to ‘eat bitterness’, i.e. endure adversities, to become a better person.

The ability to imbibe bitterness must be a prized trait, for Thai culture also has a proverb, หวานเป็นลม ขมเป็นยา (khwaan pen lom waan pen yaa), which literally translates as ‘sweetness leads to faintness and bitterness is a medicine’, but actually means praises make one happy but frank advice serves as a good reminder.

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[Recipe] Stuffed bitter gourd in clear soup | แกงจืดมะระยัดไส้

1. After cutting both ends of the bitter gourd, slice it into pieces of about 1.5 inches thick each. Scoop out the seeds in the middle. If you wish to reduce the bitterness, rub salt on the rinds and keep aside for 30 minutes before rinsing off the salt.

2. In a bowl of minced pork, add optional ingredients of diced carrots, mushrooms and vermicelli to season the meat. Usually I will also add some corn flour and soy sauce, plus a dash of sesame oil, Shaoxing wine and pepper to enhance the flavours. Mix well. Stuff the seasoned minced pork into the cavities of the sliced bitter gourds, ensure the meat fit the hollowness snugly.

3. Bring a pot of water/chicken stock to boil. Add the bitter gourd, sliced shiitake mushrooms and carrots into the water, turn down the fire and keep the pot simmering for at least 20 minutes until the melon turns yellowish-green and soft. Garnish with spring onions and cilantro. Serve with rice.

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