With some types of produce, their names are a bit of a mystery (we’re looking at you Jerusalem artichokes and sea beans), but bitter melon is a straight shooter. Bitter gourd, as it also commonly known, is a member of the Cucurbitacae family (along with cucumbers, squash, and yes, melons and gourds) and it is bitter. Very bitter.
… if you haven't had it, it's almost like one of nature's cruel jokes. There's this really piercing bitterness, not bitter like coffee or chocolate, but like cancer medicine.
If this sounds scary, it's because is a little scary, and yet bitter things can be delicious (coffee! Campari! broccoli rabe! chocolate!). Plus, bitter melon is popular in a number of different cuisines— they're on to something, give bitter melon a shot.
What to look for
Bitter melon is most often eaten before it’s ripe, when it’s green, or just beginning to turn yellow. The flesh turns yellow as it ripens, at which point it becomes even more bitter. (Imagine.)
There are a number of different cultivars, but they’re generally lumped into one of two types: Chinese or Indian. The Chinese type (1, above) is longer, similar in color to a green apple, and furrowed. The Indian type (2, above) is smaller, deeper green, and very bumpy.
Where to buy
You should be able to find bitter melon year round at international markets, especially Asian or Indian. You also might find bitter melon at your local farmers market, most likely in the heat of the summer.
Keep in mind, though, it could be labeled as something other than bitter melon or bitter gourd. In Elizabeth Schneider’s Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, she notes that it’s known by many different names: “balsam pear, foo gua and variations (Chinese), kerela and kaveli (Indian), kho-qua (Vietnamese), ampalaya (Philippine), and balsamina (Spanish Caribbean),” all of which she encountered in markets around New York City.
How to store and prep
Schneider recommends wrapping each one individually in paper towels and then in plastic bags (or an air-tight container). This will buy you 4 to 5 days; kept any other way, she ominously warns, “they’re dead in a day or two.”
Bitter melon doesn’t need to peeled, though you can if you’d like—Schneider does:
>To trim, run a swivel peeler along the ridges to smooth them just slightly (they have a crunchy texture and make a nice presentation); or scrape lightly to remove the dark skin only, not the ridges.
The seeds are edible, like all cucurbit seeds, though many preparations call for them to be discarded. In most cases, you’ll want to slice the bitter melon in half lengthwise, then scoop out the white pith and seeds (3, below). From there it’s often kept in halves for stuffing, or sliced crosswise into half moons. If you’d like round rings, slice it crosswise, then scoop the middle out from each ring.
How to use
Cooking with an unfamiliar ingredient can be intimidating, but Schneider helpful reassures us, “you can do just about anything with bitter gourd that you can with zucchini: deep-fry, sauté, stir-fry, braise, steam, bake.”
Bitter melon showed up every so often in my CSA box while living in Japan (a little more often than I might have liked). My favorite way to eat it was stir-fried in a popular Okinawa preparation, goya chanpuru (bitter melon with tofu). Although "favorite" is used quite loosely—I enjoy bitter foods and beverages, but bitter melon is in a class of its own.
Panfusine has commented on a handful of bitter melon questions on the Hotline over the years. She’s noted that the bitterness level varies from pod to pod, but to reduce the bitterness to acceptable levels, she recommends thinly slicing it, sprinkling with salt, letting it sit for 15 minutes, then squeezing out the liquid, rising off the excess salt, and patting it dry. From there you can use it in a recipe, like her Pan-Fried Potato and Bitter Melon with Za’atar and Dried Pomegranate, or follow her suggestion to spread the slices on a baking sheet, drizzle them with oil, and bake them into chips at 400° F.
Gingerroot has also had success reducing bitterness by soaking sliced pieces in lime juice before cooking, saying, “It is delicious cooked with chorizo and egg (scrambled all together).”
One final option for reducing bitterness comes from Rani Parker from the Montgomery County Master Gardeners program, who had taste testers try bitter melon that had either been salted and rinsed, steamed in lemon juice, or steamed with lemon juice and then served in a dish with caramelized onions—the last one was far and away the most preferred.
Tell us: Do you like bitter melon? What's your favorite way to cook it?