This savoury minced pork stuffed bitter melon soup recipe for Cambodia’s sngao mreah makes a traditional Cambodian dish also found in neighbouring Vietnam. Bitter melon, also called bitter gourd, is stuffed with seasoned ground pork and served in a light soup. A nutritious superfood eaten for its medicinal properties, bitter melon is delicious with the bitterness reduced by soaking in salt water.
Sokin, my dear Cambodian friend, tour guide-extraordinaire and translator working with us on our Cambodian cookbook, recently did the three-hour drive from her hometown of Battambang to Siem Reap, with her uncle at the wheel of a car brimming with boxes and bags of market- and farm-fresh produce.
We had all just surfaced from a hard lockdown here in Siem Reap, which meant that those of us in red zones couldn’t leave home for any reason, unless there was an emergency. We were lucky in that our neighbourhood changed from a red to orange zone mid-way, so we were able to leave our building for exercise and shopping a few times a week.
Sokin, who had just sent us a box of organic oranges from her uncle’s farm a few days before their road trip, was helping her uncle deliver the fresh fruit and veg to a handful of households of family members – and these two writers.
Sokin hadn’t seen what her uncle packed for us and screwed up her face when she spotted the giant bitter melon amongst the bananas, eggplants, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, and massive pieces of young ginger. “I don’t know what you’ll do with that,” she said. I knew exactly what to do with it.
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Pork Stuffed Bitter Melon Soup Recipe for Cambodia’s Sngao Mreah
As soon as I saw the enormous pale green bitter melon, also called a bitter gourd, I knew it was time to make this Cambodian ground pork stuffed bitter melon soup recipe for sngao mreah. I’d been thinking about how I might tweak this classic recipe for some time and was just waiting for the opportunity.
This ground pork stuffed bitter melon soup is most likely an ancient Khmer dish. During my Cambodia culinary history research, I spotted bitter melons mentioned in ancient stone temple inscriptions, along with other gourds, such as the ivy gourd and wax gourd.
It’s also one of those very traditional Cambodian dishes that is cooked exactly the same, wherever you eat it, and while it has long remained the same, that’s not necessarily because it’s loved, especially by the younger generation for whom it’s way too bitter.
While the older generations prefer bitter, sour and pungent when it comes to flavours, the younger generation favours sweet, salty and spicy, and have been known to smother this dish with white sugar, salt and chilli sauce.
My aim was therefore to remove as much of the bitterness out of the gourd as I could, and then add a little salt, a little sugar, and touch of spice. I’ll tell you what I did as I share a few tips to making this ground pork stuffed bitter melon soup recipe for Cambodia’s sngao mreah.
Tips for Making this Cambodian Pork Stuffed Bitter Melon Soup Recipe
As usual, just a few tips to making this Cambodian minced pork stuffed bitter melon soup recipe for sngao mreah. Most traditional bitter melon soup recipes call for a quick soak of the bitter melon in salt water to reduce some bitterness.
I experimented with soaking times and found that the longer you soak the bitter gourd, the less bitter it is, so I recommend soaking it for at least an hour. It will still have some bitterness, as you don’t want to remove the very essence of the bitter melon.
I also increased both the saltiness and sweetness and added a little chilli, which doesn’t normally feature in traditional bitter melon soup recipes. Those tweaks gave the pork mince stuffing more savouriness and more flavour and made the pork, which can often be overwhelmed by the bitterness of the melon, more pronounced.
When it comes to fish sauce, we often get asked what fish sauce we recommend. We use local Cambodian fish sauces for Cambodian recipes, but if you’re living outside Southeast Asia and don’t have access to Cambodian fish sauces, we recommend Thailand’s Megachef for a quality fish sauce for most Southeast Asian recipes, as its sodium levels are always consistent.
Megachef is easy to find in Australia, however, our American friends often recommend Red Boat Fish Sauce, which they say is more readily available, although we haven’t tried it as we’ve never seen it in Southeast Asia. If you’ve used it with Cambodian food, please let us know what you think.
I strongly recommend popping a little of the raw pork mince into the microwave or a fry pan and cooking it and tasting it, then adjusting the seasoning to suit your palate. If birds eye chillies are too spicy for you, use medium sized red chillies or even chilli flakes.
You could also add more garlic, more pepper, more salt, and even a tad more sugar. Fresh herbs are not usually added into the pork mix, but I think they add another level of flavour, and add a freshness to the pork filling. More coriander worked for me, too.
If you don’t have a husband who keeps stocks in zip-lock bags in the freezer, you could always use a quality store-bought pork stock or use pork bouillon cubes. The broth should be clear and super light, almost like a consommé, so dilute with water. The star of the show is the stuffed bitter melon, not the soup.
One big bitter melon made six pieces, which make two serves of three pieces, as pictured, which is probably more than enough bitter melon for one person. But if you’re cooking up a Cambodian feast for friends, you could serve small single portions as starters for six people.
Cambodian Pork Stuffed Bitter Melon Soup Recipe
- 1 large bitter melon sliced into 6 pieces
- 400 g minced pork
- 2 garlic cloves finely chopped
- 20 g dried shrimp soaked in water and drained
- 2 birds eye chillies or medium sized red chillies sliced, de-seeded
- 2 tbsp fish sauce to taste
- 1 tbsp light soy sauce
- 1 tsp black pepper
- ½ tsp sugar
- 4 cups light pork stock
- 1 tbsp spring onions/scallions finely sliced
- 1 tbsp spring onions/scallions sliced 1 cm width
- 1 tbsp fresh coriander finely chopped
- 1 tbsp fresh coriander roughly chopped
- At least one hour before you plan to start cooking, slice one large bitter melon into six even pieces (three pieces per person/per bowl), remove the seeds, then completely immerse in a pot of salt water (one teaspoon of salt is enough) for at least one hour, to reduce the bitterness. The longer you let the melon soak, the less bitter it will be.
- In a mixing bowl, combine the minced pork with the finely chopped garlic cloves, sliced chillies, drained dried shrimp, fish sauce, light soy sauce, salt, black pepper, sugar, and a tablespoon each of finely sliced spring onions and coriander.
- Roll a little of the minced pork mixture into a tiny ball and either microwave it or pop it in a fry pan, taste, and then adjust the seasoning to your liking.
- Bring a light pork stock to boil in a pot on the stove.
- Drain the bitter melon slices and use a tea spoon to stuff the savoury pork mixture tightly into each bitter melon slice, pushing it down so that it fills each piece completely.
- Place the six slices of stuffed bitter melon into another cooking pot so that each piece of stuffed melon sits on the bottom of the pot. Gently pour in the stock so that it just covers the tops of the bitter melon, then turn the heat onto low and simmer for 10 minutes or so until cooked.
- Divide the pieces between two bowls, then pour the broth in and garnish with the remaining slices of spring onions and coriander.
Please do let us know in the comments below if you make this Cambodian pork stuffed bitter melon soup recipe as we’d love to know how it turns out for you.