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  1. If you’re Chinese, this is a familiar classic. Your mom made it for you once a week every summer from the time you were a tadpole until you finally went off to college. It was mandatory hot weather food. Bitter melon 苦瓜/kugua has myriad health virtues, chief among them is that it dispels excess internal heat. It’s loaded with vitamins and minerals, delivering them with relatively few calories. People striving to lose weight and adult-onset diabetics are always advised to eat plenty of it. For the rest of us it’s somewhat problematic; it seems foreigners either love it or hate it. Furthermore, you're not likely to find it at Panda Express. If you aren’t sure which camp you belong in, I would urge you to give it a try. Paired with beef like this and with the bite reduced through smart handling it has a lot going for it in the flavor department. You could try it first in a restaurant and if you think it’s a winner, then come back here for the “how to.” Ask for 苦瓜炒牛肉 (kugua chao niu rou) and you won't get any strange looks; the waiter might even think you're a local. Here's what this bad boy looks like in the wild, namely in the wilds of my neighborhood wet market. It will be less bitter if it's not too large and the bumps (called "teeth") are not too prominent. Light green is milder than dark green. After selecting a couple, head over to the beef lady with her sharp cleaver. Ask for a cut that's suitable to stir fry so you don't wind up with stew meat. Butchers in the local market are specialized: this one only purveys pork, that one only beef, and another one, flanked by woven bamboo coops, handles chicken, killing them to order right on the spot. (Remember, you can click these photos to enlarge them.) At home, you should start on the meat first, since it requires some time to marinate. Chinese beef can be tough, and restaurants all give it special handling. The Muslim restaurants 回族餐厅 are especially skilled at making it tender and delicious. But you can use some of their tricks in your own kitchen. First and foremost it needs to be properly cut. Sharpen your knife and work across the grain of the muscle 横着。When I remember in time, I put the meat in the freezer for 15 or 20 minutes to firm it up and make it easier to handle. What I had today was a 320 gram piece of eye of round, a relatively tough and lean cut from the rump of the cow ("黄瓜条“). The grain of the muscle fibers is not well seen when viewed from above (left photo) but you can see how they slant in the right photo. This meant my cuts needed to be on an angle, as shown, instead of straight down. I was slicing as thin as I could, being deliberate about it. If you are pressed for time, shortcuts are possible, but tday I wanted to be sure to get it right, so I took the long, careful road. Put the meat in a bowl and sprinkled in a half teaspoon of baking soda 苏打粉。Added enough water to barely moisten it and massaged it with a gloved hand for half a minute or so. Let it stand 10 to 15 minutes, then washed it clean with potable water. This gets it ready for the main marinade, composed of 2 tablespoons of oyster sauce 耗油, one tablespoon each of Shaoxing cooking wine 黄酒 and sesame oil 香油, a half tablespoon each of light soy sauce 生抽 and dark soy sauce 老抽。Resist the urge to go nuts with the soy sauce or you won't be able to taste the beef itself. Put on another disposable glove and give it the second massage of the day. Let it stand 20 minutes or so on the kitchen counter, or up to an hour in the fridge. (The two marinade steps can be combined, but use less baking soda if you do it that way.) Move on to the beautiful melon. Cut it in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Use your spoon to scrape away at least some of the white pith, since it has a very strong flavor. Cut it into uniform pieces that suit your fancy. If it's a small melon, I just cut straight across, but this one was larger so I cut on a rolling bias 切棍。 To reduce the bitterness, salt these cut melon pieces and let them stand about 10 minutes. Then blanch 焯 it all for a minute or so, straining it into an ice bath. If you prefer your dish to have more of a bite, like I do when I'm making it just for myself, omit either or both of these two steps. Strain the cooled melon and set it aside. Now it's time to quickly stir fry your marinated beef. But first add a teaspoon of the last-minute secret ingredient, 木薯粉/mushu fen/cassava powder. Mix well. Using high heat, preheat the wok and add two or three tablespoons of oil (beef tends to stick.) The meat needs to just barely cook, to still be slightly pink in the center in order to avoid becoming tough. This only takes a minute or so. Scoop it into a pan on the counter 备用 and rinse out your wok. Most people use a stiff bamboo brush for this step. A little more oil in the hot wok and quick fry part of an onion, some minced ginger and garlic. They don't need to brown; only need to begin releasing their aroma 爆香。 Add the bitter melon and fry quickly for a minute or two. You want the vegetable to become slightly soft but to still retain some of its crunch. Then add back the cooked meat. Cook it all together for a quick minute so the flavors can blend, adjust the seasoning. Shouldn't need much, if anything. Plate it up 装盘。 Serve with steamed rice. Some Chinese food can be made a few minutes ahead and served at close to room temperature without significant loss of its charm. This dish, however, really needs to be eaten hot from the wok. If I'm making several dishes for guests, this is the one I do last for that reason. Any discussion of bitter melon seems to include comments about how learning to "eat bitter" or 吃苦/chi ku early in life builds character and is essential to wisdom and virtue. I would certainly not want to argue with the sages, and simply present that as one more reason to try this fine dish without too much delay.
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