Ahead of Lunar New Year (Vietnamese Tết), and as part of my 2023 resolution to cook / document at least one Vietnamese recipe per month, I’m excited to share the recipe for one of my favourite Vietnamese soups:
Recipe: Vietnamese Canh Khổ Qua
(Stuffed Bitter Melon Soup)
Revelation: Growing up, I hated this soup. It was just so bitter! Ha. But as an adult, I love the bitter taste, derived of course from the Bitter Melon or Khổ Qua that’s the star of the soup. Or maybe I just love the comfort and nostalgic feelings it gives me when I have it. You just don’t realize the impact these dishes and smells have on you growing up until you’re, well, grown up!
Actually it was probably more of a love-hate relationship with this soup for me because I’ve always loved the pork stuffing inside the melon, but as a kid I just couldn’t get past the bitter taste of the melon and broth itself. I would say this soup is probably not for all adults either, because I’d probably classify the bitterness as an acquired taste (my husband Mike for instance, does not like this soup lol and if you don’t like bitter tastes you might not like it either!)
As with most of my mom’s Vietnamese dishes I grew up eating though, now I regularly crave them and I’m lucky I can still invite my mom over, or call her up, and ask her to walk me through how she cooks some of her classics, like this one.
Below is my mom’s recipe for Vietnamese Canh Khổ Qua (Stuffed Bitter Melon Soup)
Please note: when my mom teaches me her recipes, she does not really give me firm measurements. It’s that classic mom “eyeball it” style of cooking (that I also utilize now too lol). I remember rolling my eyes (lovingly lol) when I asked her some timing questions for this recipe and she said “I don’t know you just have to look at it and decide” lol—so, I’ve tried to make measurement / timing suggestions based on my cooking experience, but good luck! lol
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- 2 or 3 bitter melons
- A sprig of green onions
- Ground pork
- Fish sauce
Optional: there are versions of this soup where you mix mushrooms and onions or even mung bean / bean thread noodles with the pork stuffing, but my mom’s version is very simple!
Note: we get most of our Asian ingredients from Lucky 97 in Edmonton’s Chinatown.
You can get pre-mixed stuffing from Vien Dong Oriental Food & Fresh Meat Market Ltd.
- Wash then cut bitter melons in half (you can cut them even further if you want smaller stuffed melons but we my mom usually does big long chunks)
- Place bitter melon in warm water to let sit and soak (this slightly reduces the bitter taste so it’s not overwhelmingly bitter)
- Get a mixing bowl together to combine your stuffing ingredients—for us that’s ground pork, half of the green onion (chopped), and black pepper). You might also choose to add wood ear mushrooms, onions, mung bean noodles. My mom also chooses not to add any additional seasoning into the ground pork mixture, and rather, adds seasoning into the soup broth itself afterwards, but some people may give the pork mixture a splash of fish sauce or other seasoning if you wish. To be honest she usually picks up the ground pork mixture we use from a store in Chinatown (Vien Dong Oriental Food & Fresh Meat Market) so I think they already season it anyway lol, so if you’re doing the mixture from scratch it may be worth adding some more seasoning, ha.
- My mom puts a bit of oil on a spoon so the the stuffing mixture is less sticky.
- Drain the warm water the bitter melons were sitting in then get a knife to hollow out the melon. You want to make sure you’re gentle so you don’t cut through the walls of the melon, but make sure you go deep enough so there’s room for stuffing, and also that you’re getting out all the bitter melon seeds
- Once the melons are hollowed, use the spoon to scoop stuffing into the melons
- Once melons are stuffed, you may find you have leftover stuffing. My mom actually loves having leftover stuffing so she can just cook them a separate balls of pork to eat, but if you buy an extra melon or two then you can use up all the stuffing.
- Bring a pot of water to boil. My mom said the water should be “double the height of the bitter melons” but the bitter melons will float to the top when you put them in so they won’t really be double the height from floating lol. You just want to make sure there’s enough water to mostly cover the floating the bitter melon (and if you want a lot of soup or not!)
- Anyway, bring water to boil! Once boiled, place bitter melons in with heat at high / still boiling for a few minutes (I do this for around 5 minutes). Then lower the heat to medium-high and let bitter melon cook for about 30 minutes. It should stay on a steady boil.
- You want to make sure you’re moving the bitter melon around regularly throughout the 30 minutes so that each side of the bitter melon is getting evenly boiled.
- The bitter melon will lose its bright, vibrant green colour during the boiling process / once it’s cooked and start to look kind of faded, pale green by the time it’s done. (To be honest it’s not a very appealing colour lol).
- After about a half hour, you can check if the bitter melon is done cooking when you put a fork into the melon and it goes in and shakes out easily / smoothly. If it gets stuck or isn’t a smooth pierce, then it needs more time.
- At this point my mom would scoop balls of the extra ground pork stuffing into the boiling water to cook it as additional meat for your soup (if the water stops boiling as you add extra pork in, pop the heat back up for a bit).
- You may also notice the water will get sucked up during the cooking process so you may want to top up your water before the next few steps (including seasoning). This is why my mom waits to add the seasoning because she usually needs to top up more water for more broth first.
- After a few minutes cooking the extra pork (if you do this step, or if you used up all your pork in the bitter melon then skip that step), now you would add seasoning.
- My mom’s seasoning for this canh is a little MSG, a little salt, a little sugar, and a little fish sauce, let it mix with the broth, take a sip and see what you think, then adjust flavours depending on what you you’d like more of. This is where my mom’s no-measurement cooking might not help you, but basically try pinches and splashes of the above mentioned items and eventually you’ll get to a taste that you like, lol (or maybe not, because the bitterness of the melon does seep into the broth as well and that may be not be a taste you have acquired yet!)
- Make sure you’re mixing the melons and pork and broth around after you season so everything soaks up.
- Once you’re happy with the flavour, you can add the remaining chopped green onion into the broth pot and serve!
- Most times I end up cutting up the bitter melon once it’s done cooking so the chunks are more manageable to eat (some people also just do this in the beginning steps so you have smaller stuffer bitter melons from the very start lol up to you!) Enjoy!!
And that’s how you make Vietnamese Canh Khổ Qua (Stuffed Bitter Melon Soup)
This is a popular soup for Lunar New Year Vietnamese Tết meals, but my mom says this is also a common canh that’s on regular rotation for her cooking. You would eat it with your rice, meat, and vegetables but I am also happy to slurp this all on its own as leftovers too. You can get fancy with your stuffing mixture or keep it pretty simple like mom does too.
Like most Vietnamese recipes, I think this is really simple and straight-forward to make, with not a whole lot of ingredients, that delivers a delicious result.
And if you want to learn a bit more about bitter melons, they’re also known as bitter gourds, are a staple in Asian cuisine, and are loaded with health benefits, packed with nutrients, lowers cholesterol and blood sugars, apparently helps with immunity, and more. It gets more bitter as it ripens and you can also eat it raw (but usually cooking it is preferred).
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