Thank you to all of my dedicated readers for tolerating what felt like an intolerably long absence from blogging (and from real food, too). In these last couple of weeks, the major players in my life got massively shuffled. I lost a couple of my dearest friends (at least temporarily – I’m expecting to see them at my wedding in California next spring). Simultaneously, I gained a neighbor, a new ALT who hails from the same part of the world as me. Days later, students and teachers in a small fishing community in Hokkaido stood at the train station to say goodbye to the tall American who had taught them English for the last year. Exhausted and laden with gifts, my fiancé arrived in Ishikawa last week, just in time for the life-sapping heat of midsummer.
For veteran JETs, maybe the mind-numbing chaos, painful goodbyes and high temperatures of July and August are old hat. Next year, I vow to be more thoroughly prepared.
Last week, I took the new member of Team Tsubata (as we have affectionately labeled ourselves) grocery shopping. While in the produce section, said new member mentioned that she’d heard how good Japanese cucumbers are (it’s true, they’re delicious) and that she would like to try one. She disappeared for a moment, then returned with something that was long, green and bumpy, but decidedly not a cucumber. I identified the vegetable immediately, and thought to correct her before she made a grave mistake.
“That’s not a cucumber,” I explained. “That’s a goya. It’s very bitter.”
Judging from her innocent facial expression, this wasn’t a strong enough warning.
I expanded hurriedly, “In fact, it’s one of the bitterest foods in the entire world! ”
She looked somewhat surprised, but made no move to remove the vile thing from her shopping basket. “Is there any way to make it less bitter?”
Not wanting to give her false hope – and slightly reluctant to admit that I had never actually cooked one myself – I attempted to say something dissuasive, but she smiled just the same. “I’ll just have to give it a try, then.”
So it was that I allowed Emily to pass through checkout with the goya, feeling a strange combination of failure and admiration.
A bit more about goya (a.k.a. bitter melon): common in tropical and sub-tropical climates all around the world, this astringent vegetable is available almost anywhere in Japan (particularly during the summer). They are most popular in Okinawa, where they play an important role in regional dishes like chanpuru. While they do look something like a warty cucumber, do not be fooled – the truly are one of the bitterest edible things out there. However, they are extremely high in Vitamin C, and are said to fight off the fatigue endemic to high summer temperatures.
Back to our story: The next day, my department chief brought me a present. It was a plastic grocery bag full of vegetables from his garden at home: cherry tomatoes, eggplants and cucumbers. Wait, that’s no cucumber…
Was someone trying to tell me that it was time to overcome my fear of failure and try cooking a damned goya? It’s hard to say. But I’m grateful to the new member of Team Tsubata for inspiring me to keep testing out new things. Her determination kept me from sending that bitter melon straight into the burnable trash. And you know what? The result was actually something I would make again. The salt definitely saps out some of the bitterness, and the egg and fu are mild enough to make up for what remains.
Goya Fu Champuru
- 1 goya (the fresher and younger they are, the less bitter)
- 2 Tablespoons salt
- 1 Tablespoon sesame oil
- 2 eggs, whisked
- kuruma fu (one could substitute meat or tofu here)
- 1 Tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 Tablespoon sake
- salt and pepper to taste
- Soak kuruma fu in water for 10-15 minutes, or until softened.
- While fu is soaking, prepare goya. Remove ends from goya and halve. Using a spoon, remove seeds and pulp, then cut into thin slices.
- Add salt (all of it) and massage it into the goya. Allow to sit for 10-15 minutes. Rinse thoroughly, squeezing out any excess water.
- Remove kuruma fu from water and squeeze until all water is removed. Cut into bite-sized pieces.
- In a frying pan on medium heat, heat sesame oil. Add goya and sautee until softened, about five minutes. Add fu and sautee quickly until slightly browned.
- Add sake, and cook until most of the liquid disappears. Turn stove to low and add soy sauce.
- On low heat, add egg. Stir with a spatula until just cooked.
- Season with salt and pepper to taste.