Bitter balls, bitter me

[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.

In a bulletin board discussion on Cooks Illustrated, What is a “bitter ball”, one reader referenced A Cook’s Thesaurus, which has photos about various types of eggplant, including pea eggplant.

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.

Hmmm.

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?

I sampled one of the bitter balls. The flavor was horribly, horribly bitter, one of the worst things that I have eaten in a long time, perhaps ever. I actually spit it out into the garbage.

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???

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21 thoughts on “Bitter balls, bitter me

  1. I've been seeing these a lot at the markets, too, and also wondered what exactly you would do with them. Apparently making stir fry is not the answer. Thanks for at least answering the what not part.

  2. Consider this my bitter balls PSA.

    I'm not typically a fan of bitter foods in general so maybe someone else would find a better use for them?? Let me know if you do. We tried to foist them off on one of my husband's co-workers but when she tried one, she spit it out in the garbage just like I did.

    At least this puts other unfamiliar foods in perspective, like the parsley root and celeriac I'm cooking with this afternoon. After bitter balls, these are definitely not bad; in fact, they're downright tasty.

  3. Thank you and your husband for taking one for the team! I've been so curious about 'bitter balls', too, but deliberately put it further down on my list of new produce to try. As Kris said, you've at least identified one preparation that DOESN'T work. Still, great research on trying to identify this vegetable!

    I'm going to quiz my mom and relatives in the Philippines to see if they're familiar with this . . .

  4. I'm afraid to try this again, honestly.

    Amy or Tracey, you boldly go forth and try to tame this wild flavor beast and let me know if it can be done. I mean, it must, because some people are buying this by the Big Bucket…

  5. Asian cuisine has a bitter element, apparently it must be an aquired taste. I have had bitter melon and bitter soup on the assumtion that "bitter" was a euphemism – it is not.

    I doubt these get any better no matter how you prepare them.

  6. I've never been one for bitter foods, I'm more of a sweet foods person. But still, someone must enjoy these if they're being grown; it just goes to show there are a wide range of tastes in this world.

  7. I too bought bitter balls at the Minneapolis farmers's market and I froze them and then take out a few and put into all kinds of soups. when the soup is done I strain them out. It gives soup a slight sour taste.

  8. Freezing them and throwing them into soups, that's an idea.

    I was at the Mpls market again last week and the bitter balls were still there, daring me to try them. This time I blinked.

  9. These Thai eggplants are called Kitterly in West Africa. My wife uses it to make a sauce (Kitterly Sauce) that is used as a side to rice-based dishes. The larger bitterballs can be dropped in soups. Additionally, the larger bitterballs can actually be cooked as a separate dish. It is delicious! It ends up being crushed and fried, not boiled. You just have to know the recipe and prepare it the right way.

  10. I can see that I'm the only one still interested in these balls. Kitterly is also used in preparing a local Liberian dish called Torborgee.

  11. I was given a small amount of these bitterballs today at the Mpls farmers market by a kind asian farmer. He told me to grind them with beef, that's all I understood. Thanks for posting info on them, they are so pretty….but horribly bitter raw. They do earn their name, I am still determined to find a recipie…so the search continues.

  12. I recently bought a prepared Thai meal from Costco, it was labeled as Green Curry Chicken. "Mmmm" I thought, "I love our local Thai place's version of this dish."
    Even if I had noticed this wolf in sheep's clothing I would have mistaken it for a pea. Little did I know I was about to be introduced to the most heinous tasting vegetable I had ever encountered. The idea that someone adds this monster to a dish on purpose is absurd. Much like the blog's author, I had no idea what it was. The next day while trying to make sense of it while it's poisonous taste still lingered in my mouth, I found this site by typing green "bitter balls" into Google's search bar. Maybe I could stomach it if I had to make a choice between let's say green bitter balls or oh, I don't know, earwax, maybe? But with so many good tasting things to choose from I don't plan on eating this abomination, on purpose, ever again.

  13. When cooking bitter balls, wash and boil it first and dispose of the water before cooking your sauce. The first water will remove the bitterness. Also, try blebding fresh tomatoes and onions to add to the sause and add sea salt and some spice. I am from Liberia and that is the only way I would eat it without it being bitter. Hope this helps.

  14. You have stumbled on a Jamaican delicacy called Susumba! Google it. It is usually prepared with dried salt cod fish, Baccalà. There are Jamaican recipes that my make it taste better for you, but yes, it is a bitter dish.

  15. This is also a west african dish. Very delicious with meat, fish chicken and shrimp added to it. You can either cook it with red palm oil or fry, and eat it over rice. I am looking for seeds to plant in my garden. If you know anyone whl sells the seeds please,please let me know. my email address is cstewart2866@fastmail.fm. thanks

  16. Young lady You messed up a very delicate Liberian Dish. That is a typical Liberian dish, we make a soup calle torboge out of it. It is prepared with red palm oil, fish, smoke meat, and shrimp. You must go to a Liberian Restaurant to get a good taste of it. After eating it you will love have it again and again, than you can ask for the recipe. What you good is not bitter balls, it is kittely. Have palatable day at the Liberian restaurant.

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