Bitter Melon, Sweet Victory

Sang Lee renews its commitment to healthy living and Asian greens.

bitter melon_dorothy homWill Lee with bitter melon in Sang Lee’s greenhouse.

Visiting the Westhampton Beach Farmers Market is like taking antidepressants. A spillage of corn resembles a happy jackpot in Vegas, while Day-Glo-bright cherry tomatoes at the Sang Lee stand beckon like a dispensary of feel-good drugs. Add jaunty live music and frolicking kids, and I can’t help but smile. As a Chinese-American and an East End foodie, I’ve always enjoyed browsing Sang Lee’s weekly bounty of greens. Yet this past summer, tucked between their crisp heads of lettuce was an unexpected sight. Stacked high in a plastic bin were piles of foo gwa, a bumpy, bright-green squash about 8 to 14 inches long. While other shoppers eyed these strange vegetables slack-jawed, I recognized them as bitter melon. My parents had grown them in our Brooklyn backyard. Delighted and curious, I sought out Will Lee, a friendly, enlightened third-generation farmer who manages his family stall with breezy assurance. “What’s it like introducing obscure Asian edibles to your customers?” I asked him. For many, their palate for exotic greens usually ends at bok choy. “Why don’t you visit us in the North Fork?” he replied. My field trip was planned.

On a quiet, rainy Tumbleweed Tuesday after the Labor Day exodus of vacationers, Lee and I toured Sang Lee’s many greenhouses in Peconic. We began at the dense rows of ong choy, a semiaquatic plant with hollow shoots also known as water spinach. “I use drip lines to base-water these,” he said. Typically sautéed with garlic or chilies, ong choy leaves taste tender, almost sprightly. Nearby, reedy stalks of ginger poked up waist-high, nurtured from Hawaiian-sourced seeds. Stopping at the tallest plant, Lee dug out a pale-yellow rhizome. Hefting it in my palm, the fleshy, fat knuckles felt moist and firm; its fragrance hinted mouthwateringly of spice. “This is the second year we’ve tried growing it,” he said excitedly as he rinsed off the dirt. “No one ever sees fresh ginger!”

Spotting the foo gwa was a déjà-vu moment; my mom raised them exactly the same way. Housed in a tight succession of black plastic pots was a rainforest of bitter melon plants thick with snowflake-shape leaves, self-pollinating tiny pale-yellow flowers, twisty vines and delicate tendrils trained eight feet high to a trellis overhead. Foo gwa gourds hung in all shapes and sizes or dropped at our feet like hand grenades. When small, the distinctive knobby bumps on their skin grow in lengthwise rows. As they age, rind and flesh transform from celery-green to taxi-cab yellow and the bumps scatter, making the fruit look leprous. The seeds, which are edible when young, turn a bright cherry-red. The older the foo gwa, the more bitter it tastes.

When fully ripe, the fruit splits open like a Ridley Scott alien oozing bloody pulp. In some Southeast Asian countries, this uncooked pith is favored for its intense, sweet taste and can be added to salads. I prefer foo gwa in its waxy, hard green-yellow stage, ideally stir-fried with beef and black bean.

Many of Lee’s customers have never seen a foo gwa before. “It’s super anti-cancerous and helps with longevity if you eat it on a consistent basis. One of my best foo gwa customers is Jamaican,” he said. “She knows its health benefits. She buys six or seven at a time.”

Carol Nakamoto, a Quogue native, buys foo gwa for her parents, who both have had strokes. “It’s so hard to find,” she said. “Whole Foods doesn’t have it. Here, they’re organic. My dad used to juice it with apples or garlic and lemon. They drink bitter melon every day. He says it almost reversed his type 2 diabetes. His doctor asked, ‘What are you doing?’ My dad told him, ‘Juicing bitter melon.’”

bitter melon_01_Dorothy HomThe older the foo gwa, the more bitter it tastes.

Said Lee, “People know Asian vegetables are a cornerstone of what we do. Foo gwa has amazing nutritional value. From a farmer’s perspective, you can tell it’s got longevity cells. The plant just keeps growing and growing.”

Sang Lee approaches its 75th anniversary as a well-loved purveyor of specialty produce. But back when they supplied Asian vegetables to restaurants up and down the East Coast, like other farmers in the 1940s, they applied pesticides to their crops. One reason they converted to organic is because Lee’s grandfather George, a founder of Sang Lee, died of cancer. “For years, he sprayed with no mask, no eye protection and no shirt,” said Lee. “He knew the dangers of breathing it in.”

At age 12, Lee asked his father, Fred, if they could sell watermelon to passersby. If he watered and weeded and trained the curlicues, Fred replied, he could keep the profits from the sales. “Making 24 dollars a day was a big deal,” said Lee. “That was the first time we sold directly to customers.” His roadside effort foreshadowed Sang Lee’s now thriving farm stand. His mother, Karen, has kept his homemade, hand-painted sign safely in storage.

Recently, Lee applied for a permit to build an outdoor kitchen to educate children and adults about sustainable and ecologically friendly methods to grow food. “If you know how to grow it and how to cook it,” he said, “you’re going to be healthier, more aware and a better consumer.”

Back at the farmers market, I examined recipes such as foo gwa with chicken wings and foo gwa with eggs displayed by Lee in plastic sleeves to better entice prospective gourmands. Customers offer ideas, too. Nakamoto’s sister makes bitter melon salad by cutting thin slices into lemon water and sesame oil to take away the bitterness. Will it catch on? Danny Bowien currently serves foo gwa in his thrice-cooked bacon dish at Chinese Mission Food restaurant in Manhattan. Who knows?

The familiar toots and ships’ bells of “Yellow Submarine” sounded in the background. “Captain Will,” our local guitarist joked, “Do you have your pilot’s license yet?” He may not need a license to prescribe the medicinal advantages attributed to foo gwa. Nonetheless, with Lee at the helm, we’d be glad to come aboard anytime. 

COOK: For bitter melon recipes from Dorothy Hom, click here.