Since I changed to a gluten- and lactose-free diet a week or two ago, I’ve been feeling adventurous in the kitchen. So when I went to the supermarket on Saturday, I came home with some okra and bitter melon to experiment with. Why these two vegetables you wonder? No reason other than I hadn’t had them before and they looked interesting. Since they were both new, I had to figure out what to do with them.
Though I’ve never eaten okra, I’m familiar with it – I know it’s often used in gumbos and I know it can get slimy when cooked. I wanted to avoid sliminess, and be able to taste the okra on its own. Luckily I found a recipe suggesting to simply coat the okra with a bit of olive oil, throw in an oven, and bake until tender on the inside and a bit crispy on the outside, which is what I did, and was pleasantly surprised with the results. I kept expecting to dislike the slightly gelatinous okra at each bite, yet I didn’t mind the mild-tasting vegetable. Used as a thickener in a gumbo, I imagine it would do the trick and be a good background vegetable.
The bitter melon was a bit more challenging. Everything I read about it talked about its intense bitterness. Also called bitter gourd and karela, it’s often used in Indian, Chinese, and other Southeast Asian dishes. It’s also supposed to lower blood sugar and be good for diabetics. I found lots of recipes for bitter melon stuffed with pork and spices, stir-fried with black bean sauce, or mixed with other strong flavours. However, I didn’t want to ruin an entire dish with something I might not like the taste of. I settled on crispy oven-baked bitter melon, which involved first marinating it in salt, tumeric, and cayenne for a half an hour. Like eggplant, pre-treating thin slices of bitter gourd is supposed to remove some of the bitterness. If the salt did remove some bitterness, I can’t imagine what it was like before. This was the most bitter thing I’ve ever tasted. In fact, it tasted like the liquid that parents put on their kids’ thumbs to try to to get them to stop sucking them. Well, maybe it wasn’t quite that bad. Though it was bitter, it wasn’t unpalatable, just a very different flavour that we don’t encounter very often. Chris and I each ate a few slices of the melon. Weirdly, Chris found it less bitter the more pieces he ate, while I found it more bitter the more I ate.
Because we didn’t want just okra and bitter melon for the meal, I also made millet roti. I broke out my trusty Kitchen Aid grain mill (I’m always looking for an excuse to do that) and milled some millet. I made this flatbread the same way I make corn tortillas, except after some research I discovered that one should use boiling water to mix up the millet with so it sticks together better when you roll it out. I enjoyed the flatbread, though I think I would try dry roasting the millet next time before milling it to add more depth to the flavour.
Lastly, we had fried rice with shrimp marinated in a blackened spice mix to round it all off. Successful experiment, interesting meal. Okra, I’d like to try more of. Maybe I won’t ever buy bitter melon again, but I wouldn’t hesitate to try it in a dish made by someone who knows what they’re doing.