Pinakbet

by on July 10, 2006
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When I first started this blog, I vowed that I was going to write about the failures as well as the successes. I’ve been lucky. There have been some recipes that I would tweak here and there to improve them, but I haven’t had any out and out failures–recipes that I just couldn’t recommend. Until now.

Which is sad because I’d been thinking of making Pinakbet, a vegetable stew from the Philippines, for weeks. I’d found the recipe when I’d bought okra, fresh lima beans, and eggplant and searched all my cookbooks for a recipe that used all three. The only trouble was that the characteristic flavor of Pinakbet came from the one ingredient I didn’t have, bitter melon. So I decided that the recipe wasn’t worth making if I didn’t have the main ingredient, and I set it aside.

Then this weekend, I saw bitter melons at the Mississippi Farmer’s Market. I never would have guessed that anyone was growing them here, but there they were, along with long beans (for which I’ve always had to substitute regular green beans) and Japanese eggplants. I was so happy to see the bitter melons that I bought four, forgetting that the recipe called for only half of one.

Bitter melon and other veggies
Bitter melon with Japanese and white eggplants and long beans

So I used one of the small bitter melons, some of the long beans, and all of the Japanese eggplant and made Pinakbet last night. I followed the recipe in Madhur Jaffrey’s World of the East Vegetarian Cooking almost exactly–I left out the oil, of course, and used a little more eggplant just because I didn’t want to have one lone eggplant left over. Then we sat down to eat it and . . . yuck! Even though the bitter melon makes up only a small part of the dish, the taste is overwhelming. I couldn’t taste the garlic or the ginger, only the bitterness. I forced myself to take a second and then a third bite, and I have to admit it got more tolerable as I ate it. I was actually able to eat most of the bowl, though I didn’t eat the bitter melon itself. I felt I had to make the effort because I just didn’t want to waste all the lovely eggplant, fresh tomatoes, and other vegetables that I’d put into this stew.

My daughter gave up after one bite, and my husband managed to choke down maybe half a bowl. The rest, I’m afraid to say, is going into the compost pile. I’ll bet bitter melons are good for the soil!

I’ll give you the recipe, but be sure to take a look at the suggestions for cooking bitter melon in the comments below. I’m sure that it was my cooking that was to blame for this failed meal, so please don’t make the mistakes I did!

Pinakbet

Pinakbet

3 oz. bitter melon (seeds removed and cut into 1/2-inch by 2-inch strips, then salted, set aside for 20 minutes, and rinsed)
1 lb. long eggplants, cut into 2-inch sections
salt
10 whole okra, trimmed
5 oz. long beans, trimmed, cut into 3-inch lengths
5 quarter-sized pieces ginger
3 cloves garlic, slivered
1 med. onion, chopped
1 1/2 lbs. ripe tomatoes, chopped
4 tsp. Japanese soy sauce
1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen Lima beans

Brown the ginger, garlic, and onion. Add the tomatoes and cook for a few minutes. Add two cups of water and the remaining ingredients. Simmer vigorously for 20 minutes, stirring often. It’s done when the liquid is thick and the vegetables are tender. Add salt if necessary, remove the ginger, and serve. Good luck!

Oh, here’s a coincidence: check out what’s over at Albion Cooks!

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Anonymous November 1, 2009 at 4:10 pm

To appreciate bitter melons, one has to acquire the taste. I never appreciated the taste until I was in my late 20s. I love pinakbet (the vegan version). Cheers!

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2 Rodrigo November 17, 2009 at 6:33 pm

Hi there…you're right, the way you cooked it was wrong…that's not just the way to cook it…

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3 james February 26, 2010 at 9:21 pm

Growing up as children, me,my brothers and sister couldn't stand it. Then when there is nothing else to eat, after time you get used to it. It is a unique taste! One thing you forgot, however, you did right excluding the oil, you need to steam all in a sauce pan using a couple of table spoons of Fish Sauce or 'Tiparos'. Then, I don't know if vegans use Tiparos as a seasoning…

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4 dqa June 19, 2010 at 10:42 pm

Hello.. I absolutely LOVE your blog… THANK YOU for posting all the yummy recipes.. I couldn’t wait to try them all…

With regards to bitter melon I think the one you got pictured is an Indian variety called KARELA (aka: Phils. native ampalaya)… my family/mum cooks pinakbet with the “Filipino” bitter melon (ampalaya)… it looks different as it is lighter in colour; almost mint green and the “bubbles/bumps” are a bit bigger and rounder as opposed to karela… and kinda shinny/smooth… in terms of size and appearance-they are a bit rounder and plumper… my mum says its not as bitter as the karela… you don’t have to add the bittermelon to make it authentic pinakbet… I’m actually not sure what region of Phils. your recipe is from as every region has their own version…

My mums version does not have lima beans nor soy sauce, but she adds butternut squash and portobello mushrooms… though I think the lima beans is a very good idea… try it without the bittermelon… and maybe some tofu or wheat meat? Bon apetit!

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5 ed June 20, 2010 at 10:52 pm

Hi Susan,

How brave of you to try this having not had exposure to it before.

Honestly, I think the bitterness needs a strong savory or umami flavor with which to pair. In filipino food, that flavor comes from fish or shrimp. Perhaps you could try miso, shiitake or other strong umami ingredient?

As a sidenote, I’ve had some vegan fat-free alternatives to dishes with bitter components, specifically southern greens — collards, mustard and turnip greens — wherein the pork (strong umami) is substituted with ginger (resulting in “gingered greens”). I was surprisingly pleased and puzzled when trying a pork-free alternative to braised greens, but it worked! Perhaps the same substitution can be done with bittermelon. My family has always left out ginger in Pinakbet, but in some areas, my mom says, it is done. Perhaps the ginger may counteract and soften the bitterness while remaining vegan.

To eliminate bitterness altogether, coat the melon in salt and let it sit for a while. Or find ripe melons that start to turn red (starting from the inside). A riper melon lends a sweetness to the dish. That said, a non-bitter dish is not ‘the-same’ in my opinion, as bitterness is desired: like a rapini or mustard dish, it’s kind of expected (but again, the bitterness must be paired with a flavor that complements it).

Yeah, that photo definately isn’t ampalaya. I’ve seen the specimens you have in the market, and though I don’t know if they’re more bitter, they certainly look rather aggressive, no? Beautiful photography, by the way.

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6 Noli of MyFilipinoRecipes August 30, 2010 at 4:41 pm

I’m from the Philippines and this recipe is one of our favorites. I love pinakbet and always like to try different variation. Your pinakbet look so, so good…I will definitely try your recipe. Thank you for sharing.

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7 Marisa December 6, 2010 at 7:42 pm

Try soaking and washing the bitter melon with salt first.

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8 Hannah January 16, 2011 at 11:04 pm

I am vegan and Filipino. I make this traditionally with fish sauce from the asian market and I do not add bittermelon because of the taste. I do not add ginger because it changes the taste for me. I add squash, eggplant, tomatoes, onion,garlic and salt.

This dish is originally made with shrimp paste called bagoong and stir fried pork which I do not eat.

I have been seeing all kinds of vegan version and I wanted to share with you the way it is suppose to be made.

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9 JoAnne April 26, 2012 at 10:32 pm

You won’t use shrimp paste, but you used fish sauce? I’m confused.

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10 thomas cappiello February 6, 2011 at 4:19 pm

Bitter melon I think is one of those ‘acquired’ tastes. Growing up close to a Filipino family, lolo use to always say “just because its bitter, doesn’t mean its bad”. Philosophically easy to grip, but the taste was always hard to handle. Like other commenters as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that I have bitter melon cravings. Unfortunately for you I guess, is that it goes really well with chicken and chicken stock. Okra and lima beans with bitter melon are also not really good companions, too alike. Try the the other variety of bitter melon (as dga suggests), again perhaps, cut into smaller pieces, with onion eggplant, long beans, celery maybe, and try tomatoes, it is very good for you.

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11 Jescel April 2, 2011 at 8:30 pm

It seems like you used the wrong variety of bitter melon. The traditional kind that Filipinos use are lighter in color and the grooves are bigger. Anyhow, I agree that it is an acquired taste, and unless you grow up eating it, I ‘d imagine it would take sometime to get used to the taste. This is the first time that I’d seen lima beans in a pinakbet dish. Anyhow, your pic looks good tho’. I might try your recipe, though I admit, I won’t be using ginger as I never use it when I cook mine.

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12 nelsoen April 29, 2011 at 3:11 am

i commend you for cooking your own without even tasting it first from somewhere else!!
you used the wrong variety of bittermelon. dqa’s is the right one and you can also use smaller size. the version i grew up with (ilocano) never use ginger, garlic, onion and soy sauce (soy sauce and bittermelon do not mix). the most important ingredient is what we call bagoong (pronounced: bah-go-ong) -fermented fish sauce with anchovies – not the kind the chinese/thai/vietnamese uses.
the way we cook it is to put all the veggies in a pot of water (depends how much veggies, in volume, you have) and boil until they are cooked well (overcook is even better). while cooking, put some fish sauce with anchovies, if you wish, in a bowl add a few spoonfuls of boiling water from the pot and then stir/mix it with a spoon. while mixing it, mince on the anchovies to get the juice out. then pour the sauce through a strainer into the pot. simmer (stir once in a while so the bottom will not burn) until it’s almost out of liquid. sort of like ratatouille.
i prefer shrimps or fried fish with it.
great pics btw. thnx. nelsoen

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13 Katherine January 1, 2012 at 12:07 am

Unfortunately you can’t use shrimp paste in a vegan dish. Is there some other way to get that flavor, maybe with kelp granules or something?

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14 Susan Voisin January 1, 2012 at 12:44 am

Kelp or some other sea vegetable would be my suggestion.

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15 Victoria July 1, 2011 at 10:39 am

I absolutely love bittermelons and this recipe looks delicious. There are anti-cancer properties as well as many other benefits to bittermelons and its seeds. You can say I have acquired the taste! Bittermelons are a superfood and it is a shame that not many people appreciate their value. Thank you for sharing!

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16 Barbie July 24, 2011 at 10:41 pm

hope you don’t mind me commenting so late on your post. You really can’t make good pinakbet without bagoong. I prefer some meat in it, but it can be made almost vegan, too. Just… the bagoong really rounds out the flavor.

Also, don’t stir the pot. I think this post might help. Hope it hasn’t turned you off bitter melon for good. :)

http://burntlumpia.typepad.com/burnt_lumpia/2007/08/pinakbet.html

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17 Dodge February 23, 2012 at 9:32 am

Can one be truly a vegan if they use bagoong? Isn’t bagoong made with anchovies and or another sauce that uses shrimp. I believe today there are similar sauces that are made with sea kelp or other veggies which are amazing in taste and even has a milder aroma than the bagoong.

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18 jualo @ kuwait restaurants September 26, 2011 at 6:32 pm

I love Pinakbet! And every time I cook the said recipe, I’ll make sure to add more ripe tomatoes to make it a bit sweeter and counter the bitterness of the ‘ampalaya’. And about the eggplant, I always choose the circle instead of the long one, much taster. (imho) :P

btw, i’d found your site while searching for Pinakbet. =)

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19 LaVonne October 25, 2011 at 8:06 pm

We are trying to be vegetarian and so I googled for vegetarian pinakbet. Yours came out and I was surprised tO find non Asian trying bitter gourds. Some Asians doesn’t even like to eat it due to its really bitter taste. Some variety is less bitter though.
You can make pinakbet without the gourd I guess as I sometimes dO that (maybe it’s not Pinakbet anymore without the bitter gourd).
Thanks for sharing the recipe…

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20 John Lester December 21, 2011 at 3:58 am

Nice try on the famous Pinakbet.

You can exclude the bitter melon if you want. Or as many have suggested, try putting the bitter melon on a water with salt. Leave it for 15 minutes maximum.

5 stars for trying.

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21 Katherine January 1, 2012 at 12:04 am

I make pinak bet all the time and was trying to figure out how to veganize it. I was delighted to find it on your website. As for the bitter melon, we leave it out. I don’t even bother putting it in at all. It’s too much trouble to process something I don’t like in the first place. If you leave it out, it tastes so much better.

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22 Mila Emilia January 5, 2012 at 3:56 pm

Hello,

I believe that the previous comment was right, you have the Indian version of the bitter melon, usually the chinese bittermelons are used. There is a picture here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bitter_melon

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23 Elizabeth Biggs February 1, 2012 at 4:25 am

Hi there,im sure with the way you cook the pakbet is a bit different on the way we cook it..someone has to show you how to cook it and im sure you and your family will enjoy it..youll have to find a Pilipina who lives in the northern part of the Philippines ,they are the expert of how to cook it without any oil ..But most of the Pilipinos can cook bitter melon,there are many more ways to make this beautiful vegie…

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24 Dodge February 23, 2012 at 9:26 am

Bitter melon is an acquired taste. Dousing with salt and let set for a bit then rinsing good does help. Also so as not to let the bitterness of the melon over power the entire dish use less of it. Something reassuring about the melon fruit is that it is loaded with medicinal values and even help lower blood glucose for diabetics and benefits people with high blood pressure as well, which we all know these two diseases are hitting record highs not only in the USA but globally as well. Check it out, the list will impress you. Here is one of the many websites pertaining to bitter melon … http://www.zhion.com/herb/Bitter_Melon_benefits.html

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25 Kathrina May 22, 2012 at 12:28 am

Hi Susan
I see this post is from six years ago. Well, it’s 2012 and there are lots more recipes for pinakbet on the internet. So many versions but it seems like you have the basic…except for two crucial ingredients. The first you have but it’s the wrong one. Your bittermelon is different from what we use. Ours is a much lighter, bumpy version. Not as bitter. I think yours in a sort of bittermelon from India. The other ingredient is the patis, or fish sauce. Use in moderation. For an even more authentic pinakbet, add a bit, a tiny bit coz it goes a long way, of shrimp paste. Good luck. I hope you try this again.

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26 Susan Voisin May 22, 2012 at 6:18 am

Thanks for your input, Katherina, but as a vegan (on a vegan website) I won’t be using fish paste or shrimp, which are both animal products. I will have to look for the lighter bittermelon, though.

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27 Ann Allchin June 24, 2012 at 7:52 am

Hi there! Funny, we have a few things in common! I first visited your blog because I found a gorgeous photo of a white eggplant you took that I used on my blog, cookingdangerously.com where I try to cook adventurous foods, and I wanted to thank you for it. Then I read this recipe and your experience with bitter melon, which is one of the adventurous foods I had also recently tried. At first I hated it, but then someone from India suggested I fry it longer until it browns (but not burns) and that would take much of the bitterness away. I liked it done this way! Not sure if it would help this particular recipe, but bitter melon is very healthy so may be worth a second try.

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28 Cisa August 18, 2012 at 6:24 pm

Shrimp paste and fish sauce are two different things – but shouldn’t be in a vegan recipe! Try to making pinakbet with a couple of tablespoons of miso as a substitute to get the saltiness into the dish. Also, looking at your photo, the bitter melons you picked are of the most bitter variety. There are other bitter melons that are less bitter. They are lighter in color and the ridges on the skin of the vegetable are more bumpy than jagged. To further reduce the bitterness, put the chopped bitter melon in a bowl and vigorously rub and massage a large handful of salt into the chopped slices of bitter melon. Then cover the salt and bitter melon with water and let it stand for a few minutes. Drain and rinse. This process draws the bitterness out of the melon, making it a bit more palatable. The process may be repeated, and then used as described in the recipe.

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29 Sheila May 2, 2013 at 10:24 pm

Veronica Grace at Low Fat Vegan Chef has a recipe for a vegan fish sauce you might like to try. I’m definitely going to try it and use it to make vegan versions of some of my family’s favorite Filipino dishes such as tabungao, dinengdeng and miki. My mother-in-law grows the bitter melon and upo squash on her property here in California but when they’re not in season, we use the Mexican squash (Calabacita) that we buy at our local grocery store. So glad I found your website!

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30 JAX January 14, 2014 at 1:23 pm

You forgot the squash….that’s a main ingredient that helps get the bitterness from the bittemelon away too…. Try again :) (*you don’t have to put in bittermelon*)

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