Eating Bitter, Part One: An Introduction to the Bitter Melon

Still life with bitter melon, Thai chiles and a branch of redbud.

Bitter melon( Momordica charantia) is an extremely popular vegetable in all parts of Asia. Though it is eaten with great delight in India, China, Thailand and Japan, it looks rather like a diseased cucumber with its warty, gnarled skin. Indeed, it is a member of the cucurbita family from whence comes cucumbers, squash, melons and gourds.

Also known as bitter gourd, balsam pear, fu gua, and ku gua, the bitter melon is not well liked or known in Europe or the United States, probably because it lives up well to its name.

It is bitter.

However, bitterness is not the only flavor inherent to the vegetable. It has a very cooling astringency to it, and there is the slightest hint of sweetness to it, particularly when you are eating one of the lighter yellow-green specimins which is more mature than the very young darker green ones.

The bitter melon is grown in tropical areas, as it likes long, hot, humid summers. A very juicy vegetable, in the very complex system of Chinese medicine which is based in Taoist beliefs on the subject of life energy as well as scientific experimentation and observation, the bitter melon is seen as having a cooling effect on the body’s chi, or energy system, and so is consumed in great quantity in the summer. In tropical Asia, it is prized not only for its cooling juices, but also for its less mystical medicinal qualities: the compound which makes it bitter is quinine, and so the vegetable is used in many countries to fight malaria. It has also been used successfully to cure adult onset diabetes, and scientists have found that an unknown compound present in the fruit will kill the HIV virus.

A nutritional powerhouse, bitter melon has high levels of iron, potassium, beta carotine, calcium and vitamin C; the vitamin C content is probably part of why it is used as remedy for the common cold in Chinese traditional medicine. It is also rich in phytochemicals and antioxidants, many of which have been found to have antibiotic and antimutagenic properties. Three compounds present in the plant have been found to be useful to lower blood sugar levels in patients suffering from non-insulin dependant diabetes.

So, in short, it may be funny-looking, and to some it may be bitter medicine indeed, but it is good for you.

However, just because something is good for you doesn’t mean people will eat it.

It also has to taste good.

Bitter melon is an aquired taste. According to Kasma Loha Unchit, author of the wonderful Thai cookbooks, It Rains Fishes and Dancing Shrimp, while it is true that Asian people love bitter melon, it, too, is an aquired taste for them. Just as Thai children learn to love chile heat by trying it bit by bit, so too, is the taste for bitter melons learned over time.

Bitter melons are sold fresh in most large Asian markets. Choose one that is firm and shows no sogginess or bruised spots. The darker the green color of the skin, the more immature and thus more bitter the fruit will be. A paler, more yellowish green indicates a more mature fruit which will be less bitter. The fruits ripen to yellow with reddish streaks; some more mature fruits show reddish areas around and on the seeds.

In order to prepare them for eating, slice them in half longitudinally, and scrape out the seeds along with the spongy interior flesh. This is easily done with a regular teaspoon.

The interior of bitter melon is packed with large seeds suspended in spongy material. These need to be scraped away before the fruit is eaten.

The hollowed out halves can be stuffed with minced seasoned pork or lamb and steamed. Or, slice the fruits in whatever shape you wish.

The edible flesh is that which is left after the spongy matter and seeds are scraped out and discarded.

In order to remove some of the bitterness, they can be blanched for about a minute and a half in boiling salted water, then drained and put into ice water. Or they can be degorged by salting them and allowing the excess juice to drain away just as one does for eggplant; however, if you do choose this method be certain to rinse the fruit well before continuing your preparation, or they will be too salty in flavor.

Look for Eating Bitter, Part Two: Bitter Melon and Me, tomorrow for my favorite recipe using my new favorite vegetable.


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  1. I *hate* that stuff…it’s never grown on me like so many other foods have. My mother tells me it is because I grew up in America and so have not had a bitter enough of a life to appreciate the taste of bitter melon.

    Comment by etherbish — April 18, 2005 #

  2. That is interesting, Ladi–I chose the title, “Eating Bitter” because that is a phrase in Chinese that is used to describe having sorrows in life. That is the phrase that Mei used to describe how I felt during my divorce.

    Maybe I have had enough bitterness, even growing up American to appreciate it?

    Or maybe some folks just like bitter things–I like bitter greens, too, and when I was pregnant, I would eat orange skins along with the fruit, because the bitterness of the orange oil appealed to me.

    I wouldn’t feel bad for not liking bitter things; humans are evolutionarily predisposed to liking sweet things rather than bitter because it keeps us from ingesting poisons. Most harmful alkaloids are bitter, so we have an aversion to that flavor.

    Sound evolutionary policy.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — April 18, 2005 #

  3. That is gorgeous! I’m going to have to be brave and try cooking it soon. I’ve liked it in restaurants but I can’t really imagine cooking with it.

    Comment by molly — April 19, 2005 #

  4. Molly, there is nothing to fear in cooking the bitter melon. It is no harder than cooking a zucchini or a cucumber, really. And it is very rewarding to taste it fresh from your wok, full of flavor and crispness.

    It is a wonderful vegetable to work with. I only hope I can get more folks to appreciate it.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — April 19, 2005 #

  5. *shudder* My fiance eats oranges like apples – rind and all. We haven’t tried bitter melon on him yet because my parents know better than to put that on the table when I’m home…

    Comment by etherbish — April 20, 2005 #

  6. I love bitter melon, especially stir fried with sliced beef and black beans. My mum also like to make a soup with pork butt and dried oysters and bitter melon. Very good for you. Very cooling.

    Comment by stef — April 26, 2005 #

  7. I want to try it with beef and black beans; we are so fond of it with chicken with black beans, that I cannot imagine that the beef would be bad.

    Maybe I could use bison. Hrm….

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — April 26, 2005 #

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