This Vietnamese bitter melon salad recipe with dried shrimp, roasted peanuts and fragrant mint makes goi khô qua tôm khô in Vietnamese, a salad with the flavours, textures and aromas that are so beloved in northern Southeast Asian cuisines. An ingredient favoured for its medicinal properties, bitter melon or bitter gourd is an acquired taste but the bitterness can be reduced by soaking.
Like the traditional savoury ground pork-stuffed bitter melon soup recipe for Cambodia’s sngao mreah that we recently shared, which is found in very similar forms in neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand, this Vietnamese bitter melon salad recipe with dried shrimp, roasted peanuts and fragrant mint also has cousins across its borders in Cambodia and Thailand.
However, unlike recipes for Vietnamese spring rolls, bánh mì, bánh xèo or, say, a Vietnamese chicken curry, which you’ll find in almost every Vietnamese cookbook, this Vietnamese bitter melon salad recipe with dried shrimp rarely features in Vietnamese cookbooks, and perhaps it’s because bitter melon is such an acquired taste.
I like Vietnamese-Australian chef Luke Nguyen’s Vietnamese bitter melon salad recipe with dried shrimp for Goi khô qua tôm khô from his beautiful Vietnamese cookbook The Songs of Sapa, Stories and Recipes from Vietnam – with a few tweaks. But before I tell you about this Vietnamese bitter melon salad recipe, I have a favour to ask.
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Vietnamese Bitter Melon Salad Recipe with Dried Shrimp, Roasted Peanuts and Fragrant Mint
As I mentioned in our Cambodian bitter melon soup recipe, there are records of bitter melons or bitter gourds, along with other gourds, such as the ivy gourd and wax gourd, on ancient pre-Angkorian and Khmer Empire temple inscriptions, so we know bitter melons have been eaten in the region for at least 1,500 years, maybe longer.
While the younger generations in Vietnam and Cambodia might not be lovers of the bitter, sour and pungent flavours that their ancestors obviously enjoyed so much, bitter melon salads and soups are eaten by today’s sweet-loving youths for their medicinal properties, which make them so healthy, plus they’re made more palatable by soaking the gourds in salt water to reduce the bitterness.
In the introduction to his recipe in, Luke Nguyen confesses to not being a fan of the dish as a child: “In Vietnamese culture and medicine, food is referred to as having ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ effects on the body. This doesn’t refer to the temperature of the body but rather the state of well-being. Fried food, for example, is ‘hot’ so you need to eat ‘cooling’ foods to balance the body.”
“As you can imagine, the ‘cooling’ foods are all the ones that kids hate to eat,” the chef elaborates. “Bitter melon, winter melon, and pennywort leaves are all cooling foods and are often used in soups that are particularly nourishing for the body. I always despised these dishes as a child, but now these foods are comforting for me.”
Other ingredients in this Vietnamese bitter melon salad recipe provide fragrance, textures and contrasting flavours, such as the funkiness from the fish sauce, sourness from the lime juice, the bite of heat from the chillies, and sweetness from sugar, so that the bitterness of the gourd is not the dominant flavour when everything is combined, but rather one flavour amongst many that combine to create complexity.
Another thing to note is that you’d never make this Vietnamese bitter melon salad recipe to eat the salad on its own. Rather, it would be eaten as part of a shared family meal, with steamed rice, and – depending on the size of your family or group of companions – there’d be at least two or three other dishes, including a soup, perhaps some stir-fry vegetables, maybe some sort of protein.
Rather than tuck into a big bowl of salad, you’d probably only eat a couple of spoons of the stuff. If I haven’t put you off – it really is delicious, trust me! – just a few tips to making this Vietnamese bitter melon salad recipe with dried shrimp, roasted peanuts and fragrant mint.
Tips to Making this Vietnamese Bitter Melon Salad Recipe with Dried Shrimp, Roasted Peanuts and Fragrant Mint
I only have a few tips for making this Vietnamese bitter melon salad recipe with dried shrimp, roasted peanuts and fragrant mint. Firstly, if you’re not a fan of bitter flavours, you’ll want to soak the bitter gourd in salt water for longer than the requisite 20 minutes or so that locals soak gourds in water for here in Southeast Asian.
The Vietnamese salad dressing also helps! Luke Nguyen uses his Aunty Nine’s Salad Dressing, which is pretty much a standard Vietnamese dressing (recipe within the recipe, below), except his aunty uses lemon juice instead of lime juice, which is typically used.
I’ve used lime juice, partly because lime juice is used more in Vietnamese cooking and we have an abundance of affordable limes here, whereas lemons are rare and expensive. Feel free to use whatever you can get hold of, whether lemons or limes. Nguyen uses four tablespoons of lemon juice, which I think results in a dressing that’s too sour, but he also uses two tablespoons of sugar to counteract that, which I think is too much sweetness.
Nguyen also uses pickled carrot and daikon in the salad, which is a quick pickle that you’ll be familiar with from banh mi and skewers, which it often accompanies, however, I use fresh carrot and either daikon or cucumber, as I don’t think even more sour flavours are needed plus I prefer the added crunch from the fresh veg rather than soft pickles. Instead I sometimes garnish the salad with pickled shallots.
By the same token, the chef also serves nước mắm chấm, a fish sauce-based dipping sauce that’s also found in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand on the side of the salad. Made from fish sauce, rice vinegar, sugar, garlic cloves, bird’s eye chilli, and lime juice, it’s one of our favourite condiments in the world and we eat it with absolutely everything.
However, with a very similar salad dressing used on what’s already a bitter and sour salad, it seems redundant or even overkill, depending on how you look at things. If you’re making a Vietnamese feast, you’ll probably make some nước mắm chấm for the table anyway. But I don’t believe you need it as an accompaniment to this Vietnamese bitter melon salad.
When it comes to fish sauce, we often get asked what fish sauce we recommend. As we are Southeast Asia based and have access to fish sauces from across the region, we try to use Cambodian fish sauce for Cambodian recipes, Thai fish sauce for Thai recipes, and Vietnamese fish sauce for Vietnamese recipes.
But for readers living outside Southeast Asia who don’t have access to a lot of fish sauces, we tend to recommend Thailand’s Megachef for a quality fish sauce for most Southeast Asian recipes, as its sodium levels are consistent.
However, our American friends often recommend the American brand Red Boat Fish Sauce, which is produced in Vietnam, yet not actually available in Southeast Asia, so I haven’t used it and therefore find it hard to recommend, but by all means give it a try if you see it.
Vietnamese Bitter Melon Salad Recipe
- 1 bitter melon around 350-400 g, washed, de-seeded, thinly sliced
- 2 tsp salt
- 50 g dried shrimp
- 4 tbsp lime juice
- 1 tbsp caster sugar
- 2 tbsp fish sauce
- 4 garlic cloves crushed, finely chopped
- 1 bird’s eye chilli finely sliced
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 medium carrot peeled, julienned
- 1 medium daikon or cucumber peeled, julienned
- 1 tbsp Vietnamese mint leaves, roughly chopped
- 2 tbsp fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped
- 2 tbsp roasted peanuts
- One hour before you begin to make this salad, immerse the bitter melon slices in a bowl of salt water (water and two teaspoons of salt) for a minimum of one hour although several hours will remove more bitterness, and in a small separate dish soak the dried shrimp in water.
- In a glass jar with a screw-cap, make the Vietnamese salad dressing by combining the lime juice, caster sugar, fish sauce, two finely chopped garlic cloves, and finely sliced bird’s eye chilli, screwing the lid on tight, and shaking the dressing well to dissolve the sugar, then set aside.
- Drain the dried shrimp, pat dry and set aside, then heat the cooking oil in a small frying pan, fry the shrimp for five minutes or so until crisp, add two finely chopped cloves of garlic, combine, and fry for another few minutes or so. Stir continuously so that the garlic browns and is fragrant, but doesn’t burn, then transfer to a small cold dish and set aside.
- Drain the bitter melon slices and pat dry, then transfer to a large mixing bowl with the julienned carrot and cucumber/daikon, fried shrimp and garlic mixture, salad dressing, half the fresh mint, and one tablespoon of roasted peanuts, and combine well.
- Transfer to a serving bowl or plate and garnish with the remaining peanuts and fresh mint.
Please do let us know in the comments below if you make this Vietnamese bitter melon salad recipe with dried shrimp, roasted peanuts and fragrant mint, as we’d love to know how it turns out for you.