I chanced upon some ampalaya (bitter melons) in one of the Chinese stalls at the Riverside Farmers' Market last Saturday and decided to buy a piece which cost me three dollars. I had given up hope of producing my own ampalaya this year because to this day, the bitter melon vine I planted last October (which I kept well-watered and well-fed under the hothouse), hasn't produced any single fruit. It was a well-looked after plant, maybe even "spoiling" it with organic fertilizer once a week and making sure it is protected from any predator insects. In return, it grew lush, healthy leaves and the vine has almost filled the length of the hothouse. I was excited seeing its first bud burst in January, although it was quite late considering that it's been four months since I planted it. I anticipated to pick the first bitter melon fruit in February, but to my dismay, the first bud which was just about an inch long, turned yellow just as February was about to start. There were lots of buds that sprouted since then, but the same thing happened - they wilted just as soon as their flowers dried. Not a single fruit survived. And autum has set in, meaning colder temperature which the ampalaya wouldn't like. So last week, I picked all the young leaves and cooked them into a bitter soup with lots of tomatoes in it.
Anyway, I decided to use the bitter melon I bought in a recipe called, "Pancit Bihon with Bittermelon and sardines" or "Pancit Bihon Maki Apalya at Sardinas" in Pampango. You probably have not heard of this dish, but this is one pancit recipe from our barrio whose main produce back then was bitter melon. It's a farmer's recipe. It's something my mother would prepare as soon as the first few fruits of our bitter melon plants are ready for picking. These first few fruits, which develop near the base of the vine are called "bungang pun" in Pampango or first fruits. These are plump and short and are not too bitter. For farmers back then, the sardines is the most readily available ingredient, especially if you live far from the market place. Toiling in the farm from sunrise to sundown gave little time for us then to do our shopping (which would have to be in the next town) as vegetables are a very demanding crops. Sardines and bihon can be bought from the neighborhood sari-sari store at a very cheap price, whereas, if you wanted shrimps and pork to go with your bittermelon, you have to go to the next town's producer's market.
To cook this dish you will need:
1/4 kg bihon
1/2 kg ampalaya sliced thinly
1 tin of sardines
2 cloves garlic crushed
1 cup chopped tomatoes (optional)
1 medium sized onion thinly sliced
2 tbsp cooking oil
salt to taste
1 cup water
Soak bihon in tap water until soft. Heat oil in a wok. Add garlic, onion and tomatoes. Pour the sardines then add water. Simmer for 5 minutes. Add the bitter melon. Boil until bitter melon has turned a nice green color. Remove from the pan. Add more water if needed, then add the bihon. Cover the pot until bihon is cooked. Return the sardines and tomato mixute into the pan and mix well. Serve warm.