A Winter Melon Saga
This all began 2 1/2 weeks ago with a roommate outing to the local Asian grocery store. We were there to look for bamboo for a housewarming gift, and picked up a few fruits and veggies and some green tea since they were so cheap. As we were perusing the produce section, a tiny lady with a cart of the most gigantic melons we had ever seen rolled past us. Marie was immediately intriguied, “Oooh, I wonder what those are!” She followed the mystery melon and read the sign posted “Winter Melon, $0.12/lb”. We continued our bamboo hunt and made it all the way to the cashiers, but Marie couldn’t get the winter melon out of her mind. A steal at $0.12 a pound, she figured we would have fruit for a week even if we bought the smallest of them. Not to stand in the way of an adventurous spirit, I agreed to buying one. Smallest one? I could hardly carry this thing out to the car! It must have weighed at least 15 pounds!
We returned home and Marie, still beaming with adventure and excitement, immediately hopped on Google. To her dismay, she found out that the winter melon is the blandest of all melons and is most commonly used in traditional Chinese cooking to make soup. Soup that is flavored with chicken and ham hock and all sorts of other mystery ingredients to give the melon a bit of flavor. Too bad we are both vegetarian…
The melon then sat in our kitchen for 2 weeks. We finally decided to tackle it during our innagural roommate dinner. We would make soup, and we would find flavor in non-meat sources! Marie found a recipe for vegetarian noodle soup online and printed it out. (We heavily adapted it, and I don’t know the original source… Marie, maybe you could comment and fill us in!) Our adventurous spirit was again re-kindled.
We took a knife and split the melon, finding that the inside looked suspiciously like a gigantic cantaloupe. We scooped out the seeds and cut it into wedges. We cut the rind off each wedge, and then sliced them into smaller strips. Needless to say, that took a long time. Long enough to give us both hand cramps from clutching the knife. Long enough to once again dampen the flicker of adventure. We looked at the growing pile of winter melon slices and wondered aloud if the final product would be worth the work.
While Marie sliced the last of the melon, I cooked a few packs of rice sticks that I picked up at the Vietnamese grocery store near our house. I also got to work on the soup base – scallions and garlic with some green chiles for heat, sauteed in chili oil for even more heat. We used the water that the noodles cooked in and 2 cups of vegetable stock, and then added in our winter melon. We quickly realized that there was no where near enough liquid if we truly wanted a soup! We added water 2 cups at a time until we could at least see the water level, even though the melon was no where near covered after 10 cups! We salted the soup, covered the pot and then waited for it to boil…
Checked a few times…
Still not boiling…
After a good 20 minutes or so, it finally began to boil. We let it boil for a few minutes until the melon started to become translucent, and used this time to poach a few eggs to go on top.
We each filled a bowl with rice noodles, topped it with a generous serving of soup, added our poached egg and headed to the table with trepidation. After all that work, we hoped it would be good! First bite… mediocre.
We added some cilantro, some salt, some red chili flakes… and then magic happened. With a little extra seasoning, the soup took on a new life. The cilantro added a nice freshness, and the melon hung onto the spiciness of the broth to give a bit of kick. The best decision of the whole meal was to serve a poached egg on top! We both enjoyed the rest of our bowl, and I even went back for a bit more winter melon.
It better have been good because we made a lot! We could now feed an army with soup…
We filled all of those Tupperware with leftover soup. Guess we both have lunch for the week!
This meal was definitely an undertaking. The recipe for the soup is posted below, but it is not for the faint of heart! The winter melon took us a half hour to prepare, and the soup took another half hour to cook. But we had two sets of hands, and many hands make light work! If you are bold enough, or just plain crazy, to explore your Asian market and set out on a winter melon adventure, then give this soup a try! It is healthy, a fun experiment, and really cheap. (Marie and I estimated the total cost to be $7, and we have at least 14 servings!) It is worth the hard prep work if you are up for an adventure!
Spicy Vegetarian Winter Melon Soup
makes 14 servings
Large winter melon, seeded and cut into strips
2 cups of snap peas
Bunch of scallions, whites minced and green stems roughly chopped (keep separate)
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 jalapeno peppers, minced
2 tbsp chile oil
2 cups vegetable broth
10 cups water plus more for noodles
2 packs rice noodle sticks (or noodle of your choice)
salt to taste
freshly chopped cilantro
red chili flakes to taste
poached egg per serving
Seed and slice the winter melon. Rinse well in cold water. In the meantime, prepare noodles according to package instructions. Save the water that the noodles cooked in. In a large pot over medium heat, sautee scallion whites, garlic and chiles until aromatic. Add the noodle water (but keep the noodles separate), vegetable broth, and winter melon. Cover with 10 cups of water and add a generous pinch of salt. Add snap peas and carrot slices. Cover and allow to come to a boil. Once boiling, add the scallion greens and a pinch more salt. Stir well. Allow to boil for 5 minutes or until the winter melon is translucent. Place noodles in the bottom of a dish, and top with winter melon, veggies and broth. Serve with chopped cilantro, red chili flakes, and a poached egg. Soy sauce and other sauces may be good for added flavor as well.