When life gives you lemons, eat them–pith, seeds and all. That is the traditional Chinese way. But these days, I much prefer this: when life presents you a bitter melon, make a tasty stir-fry out of it and indulge.
“Eating bitter” or 吃苦 is a frequently-used Chinese idiom and a widely-accepted Confucian approach to enduring whatever crappy circumstances life hands you. While researching this, I stumbled upon a message board thread on the topic with a commenter’s funny theory:
“‘People from Sichuan Province are thought to be the ablest to ‘eat bitter.’ Few days ago in a foreign newsletter says that it was the spirit of “eat bitterness” help Sichuan People go through the earthquakes.”
If what the commenter says is true, then given my Sichuanese heritage, I’m genetically predisposed to handle a tremendous amount of suffering. Whoopee.
This might explain the pre-college torment I unhappily weathered. which included SAT class-filled weekends, summers of endless academia, and the occasional community service work for college credit. (Apparently, giving tours of an old train station while listening to the Strokes on my cd player was considered community service.) After all, my parents wanted me to live the American dream. With a 4.0 GPA and a killer SAT score, I'd be financially secure for life. For this, I chose to eat bitter. I knew of no other way.
But all this “suffering” I experienced, teeth-gritting my way through hours of Calculus homework, is diner coffee compared to the dark mucky stuff of nightmares Po-Po had faced in her lifetime. By thirty years old, she was already a displaced refugee of war, rolling four children deep, and making a home out of abysmal living conditions. Po-Po was given the choice to eat bitter, or to not eat bitter and die. It was a non-choice, really. Like the Sichuanese badass she was, she toughed it out and ended up doing remarkable things with her life.
The summer before my sophomore year of college, I picked up an internship at an online dating company in Inglewood called Click2Asia. During the day I’d edit member profile photos, 50% of which were dick pics. Big surprise. By night, I’d stand in for the middle-aged female professionals who ditched our poorly-organized speed dating events. At the height of my misery, sitting across from a 45-year-old accountant literally drooling at the sight of my perky college-aged bosoms, I thought of all the bitterness Po-Po ate so the rest of my family and I wouldn’t have to. So I quit.
Embarrassingly, the worst of my problems now is my self-created existential crisis, perpetuated by hashtag privilege and hashtag entitlement. Sometimes, I complain with intense frown lines about how tough it is to shop at Trader Joe’s on a Sunday night. On occasion, I'll still find myself toiling away at job I hate. And I’ll still hang out with people who drive me insane. While some of my woes are justified–Trader Joe’s does get excruciatingly crowded– a little perspective helps me see that unlike Po-Po, I don’t have to eat bitter because...well...I don’t have to. If I do, then like Po-Po, I can try to make the bitterness as delicious as possible
RECIPE BELOW .
Bitter Melon Cooked with Pork 苦瓜烧肉
Bitter melon or bitter gourd is aptly named because it is in fact, very bitter. Removing the seeds and cooking it down helps decrease the bitterness. It’s an acquired taste but all of the amazing health benefits makes eating it worthwhile.
1 large or 2 medium bitter melons
1 lb. ground pork or or pork butt thinly sliced
½ Tablespoon soy sauce
1 Tablespoon cornstarch, divided
1.5 Tablespoons minced ginger
1.5 Tablespoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon sugar
3 Tablespoons fermented black soy beans aka Douchi 豆豉, lightly crushed with the back of a knife
2 Tablespoons Shaoxing wine
1 splash of sesame oil
Salt and ground Sichuan peppercorns to taste
Slice bitter melon crosswise and scoop out seeds with spoon and discard seeds. Thinly slice the melon and set aside.
In a small bowl, mix pork with ½ tablespoon cornstarch and set the rest aside for later. Mix in soy sauce. Set aside. With remaining cornstarch, make a slurry by blending with tablespoon of water. Set aside.
Heat oil in wok. Add pork and cook until thoroughly cooked, with no pink remaining. Remove from wok and set aside. Heat oil in clean wok. Add ginger and garlic. Cook until softened and fragrant. Add sliced melon and cook until tender. Then, add sugar, fermented black beans, wine, and cooked pork. Stir together and slowly add the cornstarch slurry. Season with salt, Sichuan pepper, and a splash of the sesame oil. Serve!