The best Goya
Mits Higa's simple soup recipe for bittermelon takes first place in the Taste of Okinawa
NEVER, EVER accuse the Okinawans of taking themselves too seriously.
Where other cultures might choose to duck their stereotypes, Okinawans flaunt theirs. For example, their reputation for copious body hair is a point of pride at the Okinawan Festival's Hairiest Chest Contest. Their predilection for pig is celebrated in the festival's signature dish, the Oki-Dog (hot dog and shoyu pork, wrapped in a tortilla).
And so it was that at last week's Taste of Okinawa, where the best in traditional food and drink filled the menu, organizers chose to host a cooking contest featuring that dubious food substance: bittermelon. Goya, in the native tongue.
Contest motto: "Goya, the secret to the Okinawan's hairy chest."
The bronze-toned trophy was crowned with a bright green, bumpy, plastic goya. The emcee wore a lei studded with more goya.
The dishes had names such as Oya-Goya (an ahi poke studded with bittermelon) and Goya-Imoya (a lobster mixture). They ranged from traditional champuru (a stir-fry with pork and tofu) to the fusion of Ma Po Bittermelon (a take on Chinese Ma Po Tofu).
The grand prize went to a simple, traditional dish of pickled bittermelon, Mits Higa's Goya Nu-a-Mu.
Judge Grant Sato, a chef-instructor at Kapiolani Community College, said he was looking for a dish that was proud of its heritage and didn't try to "de-goya" itself by overcompensating with other ingredients.
He also said the goya needed to be properly handled to tame its bitterness.
For Sato, that means blanching it whole, at a gentle simmer, not a boil.
"Boiling brings out the bitterness," he said. "My grandma always taught me: Blanch it whole, never let it boil, put it in an ice bath."
MANY OF those who entered the competition are not true believers. Candace Sombrero said that when her mother makes champuru, "I eat around the goya."
But she was game to compete and was among the innovators with her aforementioned lobster-plus-goya dish that won her a semifinalist's prize for presentation.
"Our first idea was goya chips," she said. "It didn't really work out. The goya refused to fry. It just shriveled up and died."
Sato said that is expected goya behavior. It doesn't have enough starch to be fryable, he said, so the only way to get it crisp is to dehydrate very thin slices.
He's seen goya chips in health food stores and in Chinatown, but describes them as "extremely rancid-bitter."
Actually, goya exploration knows no bounds. The National Bitter Melon Council (motto: "Better Living through Bitter Melon") offers on its Web site recipes for goya sorbet and ice cream.
But award-winner Higa relied on tradition for his recipe: "My mother taught me. She was born and raised in Okinawa."
He doesn't use Sato's blanching technique, but rather the alternate way of curbing bitterness, a saltwater bath.
The dish is pretty much as his mother made it, except that he's reduced the sugar. "We're kinda into health now," Higa said. "So we don't die so quick."
His wife, May, is not a goya fan, he added. "But she's slowly getting used to it. After 40 years."
2 medium bittermelon, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup rice vinegar
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon sliced wakame (seaweed)
2 tablespoons sliced fishcake
1 teaspoon sliced fresh ginger
Lemon slices, to garnish
Soak bittermelon in water and add salt. Let sit 30 minutes; drain.
Toss with remaining ingredients and refrigerate until ready to serve. Garnish with lemon slices.
Raspberry Bittermelon Ice Cream
National Bitter Melon Council
1 pint fresh raspberries
1-3/4 cup sugar
1/2 bittermelon (4 inches)
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 large eggs
2 cups heavy or whipping cream
1 cup milk
Toss raspberries, 1/2 cup of the sugar and lemon juice together in a bowl.
Core bittermelon, cut into strips and blanch. Purée with 1/4 cup sugar and combine with raspberries mixture. Cover and refrigerate 2 hours, stirring every 30 minutes.
Whisk eggs until light and fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes. Whisk in remaining sugar, a little at a time, until completely blended. Add cream and milk; whisk to blend.
Drain juice from raspberries and bittermelon into cream mixture and blend.
Mash raspberries and bittermelon and stir into cream mixture.
Transfer mixture to an ice cream maker and freeze, following the manufacturer's instructions. Makes about 1 quart.
Nutritional information unavailable.
On the Net:
» The National Bitter Melon Council, www.bittermelon.org, offers recipes and health information.
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