TheKitchenHand'sStories

Originally meant as a repository of sort for published manuscripts and articles, but reading amazing food blogs lately, I was encouraged to include topics on food and gardening and share other topics of interests to other women like me, who love to garden, fine foods and good cooking.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Quest for Bittermelons

When I feel like I am consuming too much of too rich foods, my body would crave for ampalaya (bittermelon), thinking this bitter veggie is some kind of a detoxifying agent that would rid the system of stored grease. I love this bitter veggie thinly sliced then sauteed in lots of tomatoes with cubed pork and shrimps, which we call "lagat apalya" in Pampango. A simpler version of this, "guisang apalya", is sauteed in tomatoes and then lightly beaten eggs are added to it. On special occasions, we would prepare "relyenong apalya", which is blanched whole bittermelons, seeds removed and then stuffed with cooked pork mince, coated in light batter then shallow fried. Served sliced with tomato ketchup and steaming white rice.

Too bad, the bittermelons I planted last summer did not do well, struggling to even sustain their leaves. Needless to say, not a single fruit was produced this year. Now, I am hoping against hope that they would survive the cold this winter in the hothouse so I've been trying to keep them alive by keeping them watered and protected as best as I could from the cold.

Bitter melons can be bought thinly sliced, vacuum packed and frozen in an Asian store in Petone (a 35-minute drive from our place). But no thanks, because frozen veggies turn very soggy when cooked, not to mention watery, and therefore, have lost most of their nutrients and taste.

So when a friend mentioned that ampalaya are on sale at a flea market in Lower Hutt every Saturday, I eagerly looked forward to visiting that place. The Riverside Market in Lower Hutt is quite far from where we live, so we have to have another purpose for going to that place. We had the opportunity last Saturday, when another friend from Porirua, invited us over for her housewarming party.

It was the first time I had been to the Riverside Market in Lower Hutt where all sorts of freshly-harvested fruits and veggies were on sale. Veggies were in green and yellow plastic crates loaded from big trucks. Vendors were mostly Chinese market gardeners, selling their produce. Noticeably, a lot of buyers were Asians, some were Maoris, a few Pakehas and the rest were Pacific Islanders.

Looking around, I was amazed at the sizes and shapes of fresh greens on sale--familiar veggies and ones that I only know by name through books and magazine. I have never seen white radishes so biggg, each one weighed at least two to two and a half kilos! Or potatoes as big as an infants head! There were the more common veggies like cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, squash in different varieties, watercress, spinach, carrots, big pechays they call "pak choys" here, chinese cabbages (ones we call pechay Baguio back home), and just any other leafy greens you may want to find.

BUT not a single bittermelon in sight!

Wandering around a bit disappointed for not finding bittermelons, my face lightened up seeing freshly-cut lemon grass being sold by a Chinese gardener! Just recently, I bought a jar of lemon grass in a jar but was not so pleased with the preserved herb. I have actually given up hope of finding fresh lemon grass here, and now! I did not have second thoughts about buying a bunch--five roots with a few leaves in them--for two dollars!

Last summer we harvested sweet corn from our garden, and since then have been thinking of "Guisang Sale Manok", a chicken soup my mother would always cook when there were freshly-harvested corn. But then I was not confident about using the lemon grass in a jar, so I did not bother. Then too, I found sayote, which they call chocos here. Most of the days now are wet and cold, so what could be more comforting than steaming chicken tinola?

I took advantage of that trip to go and visit a new store that sells Asian foodstuff. I felt a bit sad to find a bag of rice labeled "Thai Jasmine Rice" and below it in open and close parenthesis, Milagrosa, mabango, clearly, a Philippine rice variety, that is now being exported by Thailand to other countries. Back then, our neighboring ASEAN countries learned how to properly cultivate and propagate rice from us through oour Rice Research Institute. Now they have become self-sufficient and are even producing export quality rice while we are now importing low-quality rice from them.

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