[This post originally ran in September 2009, but I continue to get comments on it two years after it was published. Since bitter balls are available at local farmers markets now, I'm running it again.
When I first wrote this post, I was mystified about how to use bitter balls but since then readers have chimed in on the ingredient's origin and how to cook it properly - check out the Comments section for ideas. If you try it yourself, let me know what you think.]
First of all, what the heck is this vegetable, and, second, how can someone eat a whole bin of these things??
When I was interviewed on the Minneapolis Farmers Market’s Fresh and Local radio show on September 19, host Susan Berkson challenged me to find a recipe for preparing bitter balls. (Get your mind out of the gutter, people, this is a type of tiny eggplant. I think.)
This is a pretty esoteric ingredient for most people, which of course intrigued me. I had to try this out.
The first leg of my bitter ball journey began with some Internet research on this vegetable.
My understanding was that they are a variety of eggplant named pea eggplant, with a bitter flavor. I wanted to know more, so I did some Internet sleuthing. Instead of clarifying things, my search raised more questions.
When I did a search on Wikipedia for pea eggplant, it re-directed me to information about Solanum Torvum.
Solanum torvum (Turkey Berry), is a bushy, erect and spiny perennial plant used horticulturally as a rootstock for eggplant. Grafted plants are very vigorous and tolerate diseases affecting the root system, thus allowing the crop to continue for a second year. It is also known as Devil’s Fig, Prickly Nightshade, Shoo-shoo Bush, Wild Eggplant, Pea Eggplant, susumba, boo, terongan, tekokak, berenjena cimarrona, berenjena de gallina, berenjena silvestre, tabacón, pendejera, tomatillo, bâtard balengène, zamorette, friega-platos, sundaikkai (Tamil: சுண்டைக்கா), makhua phuang (Thai: มะเขือพวง), and many other names.
The fruits are berries that grow in clusters of tiny green spheres (ca. 1 cm in diameter) that look like green peas. They become yellow when fully ripe. They are thin-fleshed and contain numerous flat, round, brown seeds.
The green fresh fruits are edible and used in Thai cuisine, being one of the essential elements of the Thai green curry. They are also used in Lao cuisine.The fruits are incorporated into soups and sauces in the Ivory Coast.
Another Thai foods website, Thai Table, had a photo of Thai pea eggplant, and it looked like a miniature version of the regular Thai eggplant, with white coloring and green markings.
I recalled that local food site Heavy Table did an article a while back about foods at the Minneapolis Farmers Market and included a photo of bitter balls. They looked a bit different than the Thai Table photo.
I also searched for recipes online, but found very few. This was going to be a tough challenge.
The second hoop jumped through was trying to find them at the Minneapolis Farmers Market. The last time I was there a month ago, they were everywhere. This time, it was difficult to find them.
When I started asking around for Thai pea eggplant, the vendors had no idea what I was talking about. One vendor said they they were only available when the eggplant was very young (were the ones that I had seen before just baby Thai eggplant??).
When I asked for bitter balls, though, a grower directed me to the bin of tiny orbs shown in the photo at the beginning of my post. There was no way that I was going to buy a whole bucket of these things, so instead I asked if I could just get a small container.
A complicated discussion about my request commenced between the English speaking young woman and another older woman. They were obviously not used to a request like mine.
I asked the vendor how she prepared this vegetable and she said that she put it into stir fries. With what else?, I pressed. She gestured weakly to the other items at their stand – eggplant, potatoes and the like.
(I asked around about this at the market and couldn’t glean any specific recipes for preparing this beyond “put it in a soup or a stir fry”. I guess I should have learned Hmong in school rather than French, it would have been more useful.)
Part three of my bitter ball odyssey involved cooking the little buggers. Oh boy, another culinary challenge…
I’d found a recipe online for Chicken Curry with Potatoes and Thai Pea Eggplant and thought that would be the perfect vehicle. I mean, it had coconut milk, Thai curry paste, red peppers – some of my favorite things. When I’ve had a vegetable in the past that I haven’t liked, it’s helped to pair it with ingredients I do like.
I started to have misgivings about the recipes as I prepped the ingredients. The quantity of ingredients seemed like WAY too much relative to the amount of coconut milk. The cooking instructions were also pretty vague – simply “cook until done”. Was this going to take 15 minutes? 30 minutes?
And wouldn’t you know it, when I threw all of the ingredients into the wok, there was too much for the amount of liquid. I had to quickly improvise by adding in more coconut milk, curry paste and chili paste. Then, the potatoes were nowhere near done at 15 minutes, or 20 minutes.
As it cooked…and cooked…and cooked, I grew more and more exasperated. I began to feel bitter about the whole enterprise, so I flounced onto the couch and in a petulant tone told my husband I wasn’t going to do any more work; he would have to finish the meal. Which, like a trooper, he did. What a husband!
Finally, the potatoes were done enough to eat. The finished dish didn’t look half-bad. Maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as I thought?
My husband could like them more than me, though…
His reactions? “This tastes FOUL!!!” and “It’s like something you would serve in a prison camp.” He didn’t even want the bitter balls to remain on his plate, and piled them up on the place mat instead.
So I’ve finally met a vegetable that I do not like and will not even try to like. Put this one on top of the I Hate This Vegetable and Will Never, Ever Eat It Again list. Me and bitter balls, we’re bitter enemies.
I’m left to wonder,
Were these really bitter balls that we tried?
Are bitter balls and Thai pea eggplant the same thing??
And who in their right mind really enjoys eating this stuff???