As I've gotten older, I've come to deeply appreciate bitter flavors in both food and drink. Vegetables like broccoli rabe and mustard greens, dark chocolate, coffee and cocktails with bitters have become some of my favorites. But bitter melon really takes the cake in the bitterness department! Its super bitter flavor takes some getting used to, but combined with strong flavors, like Indian spices, or fatty meats, like pork, its bitterness becomes a delicious asset.
A Brief History
Little is known about the history of bitter melon, but sources place bitter melon's orgins in either India or Southern China. Either way, the plant has been in use all over Southeast Asia for hundreds of years, and is also widely used in parts of South America, the Caribbean and other tropical regions around the world.
- Other names for bitter melon include bitter gourd, bitter cucumber and balsam pear. Here's a fun list of bitter melon's other names around the globe.
- Bitter melon has become an invasive species in parts of Florida.
- The plants are pollinated by honeybees and other insect species.
- Bitter melons are bitter due to the presence of compounds called cucurbitacins, which are present in members of the cucumber family to deter herbivores.
- Bitter melon even inspires poetic writing, as in this description of the forthcoming "Better Living Through Bitter Melon: A Manual" to be produced by the National Bitter Melon Council: [the manual is] "a tool for exploring the flavor that is an emotion, leading a purposeful existence through process-oriented art, and sharing life perspectives on flavor, forgiveness, attachment, and regret - wisdom that the medium of Bitter Melon inspires." Deep.
Bitter melon is the fruit of Momordica charantia,a tropical plant in the Cucurbit (cucumber) family. The plants do best in hot and humid environments. Like other members of the Cucurbit family, bitter melon plants are vining in habit, and can grow up to 16 feet long. The fruit looks like a warty cucumber, some with tapered ends, and the leaves are large and deeply lobed. Like its cousins, cucumbers and melons, bitter melon does well on sturdy trellises (with the added bonus that trellising the plant makes the fruit easier to harvest).
As the fruit matures, it turns from light or dark green (depending on the variety) to deep yellow, and at full maturity will split from the bottom, revealing bright red, pulpy seeds (yes, it looks as weird as it sounds).
Bitter melon are tropical plants, and are generally in season in local markets in the warm summer months. You may be able to find them year-round in Asian and Indian markets (flown in from far-flung areas).
While grown extensively in India, Southern China and other parts of Southeast Asia, the environmental impact (and popularity) of bitter melon in the US is quite small. However, like most Curcurbits, bitter melons require a great deal of water to fruit well. The good news: the bitter compounds in the plant are natural pest-repellants.
There are two main types of bitter melons that you're likely to see in specialty markets in the US - the Chinese variety and the Indian variety. The Chinese type is lighter green, with bumpy, smooth skin (although still quite bumpy compared to a cucumber), while the Indian variety is darker green, much rougher in texture (even somewhat spiky) and with pronounced tapering ends. Other types of bitter melon can be white or ivory-colored. You're most likely to find bitter melons between four and six inches long, although some are harvested even larger (up to 12 inches!). You may also be able to find smaller (baby) bitter melons in your area. Bitter melon flesh is usually off-white, with large, dark seeds. Both the peel and the flesh are eaten.
What to Look for
Look for bitter melon that are firm (no floppy bitter melons, please!) without significant blemishes or blackened spots, especially at the delicate tips of the fruit (for Indian-types). The National Bitter Melon Council recommends buying green bitter melons if you prefer bitter flavor, and an orange-to-yellow bitter melons (if you can find them) for a milder flavor.
Nutrition and Effects on the Body
As Harold McGee notes in his book, On Food and Cooking, "[i]n many cultures, bitterness is thought to be a manifestation of medicinal value and therefore of healthfulness, and there may be some truth to this association." In the case of bitter melon, its purported disease-fighting powers have been touted by many cultures for hundreds of years, but the fruit has become more popular in the US in recent years for its reported use in combating an array of health problems, including diabetes, digestive issues, cancer and even hair loss. You can now find bitter melon tinctures, powders and pills in health food stores, and the internet abounds with recipes for bitter melon juices and smoothies that are said to be "diabetes-fighting" or that lower blood sugar. There is currently a great deal of real science being done on the various health claims for bitter melon, and I expect that its popularity will continue to increase as we learn more about bitter melon's benefits.
Bitter melon fruit is high in Vitamin C, folate, Vitamin A, is a good source of potassium, and even has some iron and calcium.
What to Do with It and Cooking
The flesh and peel of bitter melon, as you may have guessed, is extremely bitter. Like, really, really bitter. This is an acquired taste for many of us! You can reduce bitter melon's bitterness by blanching it first and then adding it to recipes, but some say that this affects the fruit's texture in a negative way. Salting it first (like with eggplant) can also reduce its bitter flavor. Look to Southeast Asian, Chinese, Japanse (especially Okinawan) and Indian cuisine for many, many bitter melon recipes, but in general, the fruit pairs well with strong flavors, like cumin, chiles and onion, and fatty foods, like pork and coconut.
Bitter melons can be stir fried, boiled, sautéed, steamed and baked. They're also frequently stuffed with meat or other delicious things, and then baked or braised.
An added bonus: bitter melon leaves are also edible!
Store bitter melon in the refrigerator in the crisper drawer in a paper or plastic bag for three to five days.
Stir Fried Bitter Melon with Pork and Garlic
This is a super quick and easy stir fry that showcases bitter melon's delicious bitterness. Serve with steamed jasmine rice and plenty of sriracha.
1 medium bitter melon
3 tablespoons organic canola oil
6 cloves garlic, smashed into a paste with your knife
1 pound ground pork
5 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon roasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon water
¼ cup cilantro, chopped
- Prepare the bitter melon by slicing it in half lengthwise and scooping out the seeds (do not peel). If you like, you can salt the melon briefly to reduce its bitterness: add sliced bitter melon to a colander set over a bowl or in a sink. Sprinkle about 1 tablespoon salt over the slices and let sit for about 15 minutes (or up to a half and hour). Rinse and pat dry.
- Have all of your ingredients ready to go for the stir-fry before you start cooking.
- In a wok or a large frying pan set over high heat, add the canola oil. Heat until shimmering. Add the garlic cloves and sauté for 10 seconds, then immediately add the ground pork and a light sprinkle of salt. Stir fry until the pork is cooked through, then add the bitter melon and stir fry for about 2 minutes more. Add the soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar and water and stir to combine; cook until the sauce is slightly reduced, about 2 minutes more.
- Sprinkle with chopped cilantro and serve.
Image "La Margose / Momordica charantia" by Miwok on Flickr used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.