Go to the Vietnamese market

Published 1:54 am Saturday, May 21, 2016


I have recently subscribed to ‘Palate’ magazine and this month’s issue has an article on the New Orleans Vietnamese market. It has been around for 30 years or so but I had never been. I found myself in NOLA on a recent Saturday and decided to pay it a visit. It is only open from 6:00 am on Saturday mornings and they usually pack up and leave by 8:30. So get there early. It is about a 15-minute drive from the French Quarter on I-10 East on Chef Menteur Highway. This is the most closely packed Vietnamese population outside Vietnam. I like to visit the markets when I am in the 3rd world and in Europe too. This one could have been in Vietnam. Almost no westerners in sight. The prevalent language was Vietnamese (I guess because it was not English). The place is called by some the “squatters market” since the vendors often adopt that posture. Many of the ladies wore their traditional conical straw hats, non la. There are live chickens, rabbits, ducks. They put them in a bag for you to take home where you can kill and prepare them yourself. There were whole fish but not live ones as I have seen in Asia. I did see one vendor de-scaling a fish with an axe. Lots of vegetables, many of which I had no idea what they were. Nothing is labeled. And translation is sometimes lost.

bitter melonI did buy some shrimp spring rolls for lunch and a jar of pickled cabbage I bought for my son who likes pickled whatever. I also bought a bitter melon. I do know what they are.

Bitter melon or squash, a native of China, looks somewhat like a cucumber with a knobby skin. It is used mostly in Indian and Asian dishes and can be found in those ethnic markets. The melon is bitter (because of its quinine content) as the name implies but it can be salted or parboiled to decrease the bitterness.

They can be eaten raw in salads, stir-fried, used in curries, or stuffed.

mkt-chickensI googled bitter melon in Mexican cooking and noted it is grown in South America but Spanish recipes seem to stem from the Philippines, which of course is Asian. So if you do not grow them yourself the best place to find them would be in an Asian market.

Raw bitter melon may not be love at first bite but correctly cooked bitter melon can be. When cooked right you will be rewarded with a soft but not mushy texture and a perfect fish sauce aroma and taste balancing a delightful twang of bitterness.


Stir Fried Bitter Melon

4 servings

1 ½ lbs. sliced bitter melon

3 cloves chopped garlic

1 tablespoon fish sauce

3 tablespoons cooking oil

Wash the bitter melon and cut it lengthwise. Discard the seeds and pith. Slice the bitter melon cross sectionally, in ¼ of an inch slices. Even slices means even cooking, which is particularly important for this dish.

This is not a quick stir fry like some of the more delicate vegetables. Bitter melon is dense and takes longer to cook, about 10 minutes.

Add 3 tablespoons of oil. Add the bitter melon. Stir to coat the melon with oil. If the melon seems dry, drizzle some more oil. The oil should never pool, but coat all the pieces. Spread out all the pieces so that they get direct heat from the pan and cook in oil not steam. Stir every minute to get all the pieces on the heat directly. You don’t want to stir too often though because they will start to cook in steam and turn mushy. It is best to let some pieces brown and then turn them over.

After 5 minutes, drizzle oil in the center and add chopped garlic. Let the garlic cook in the oil for 15 seconds. Stir to mix everything together. Continue stirring as above for 5 minutes more.

In the 10th minute, add a tablespoon of fish sauce and stir around to get the fish sauce in the bitter melon. Taste to see if you like it. You may want to add a little bit more fish sauce.

Since finding the market for bitter melon is not easy I think I will try growing some—-maybe a bit late to get started this year.