Fruit

Is This the Bitterest Type of Produce (That People Willingly Eat)?

​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.

Jonathan Gold says of his first experience with bitter melon:

… 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.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

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.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

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?

11 Comments

Patrice May 16, 2016
I have come to love bitter melon (thanks to a stepfather from Trinidad) who added it to dishes as well as bitter melon tea. Great article!
 
Coco E. May 16, 2016
I grew up in Taiwan where bitter melon is as common as cucumbers. There are two preparations I particularly enjoy and both featuring ways to harness its bitterness. The first is stuffing hollowed-out rings of white bitter melon with a seasoned tofu and ground pork mixture, the rings are then braised in an aromatic soy sauce-based broth until the bitter melon is soft and translucent. The second is paper-thinly sliced green bitter melon that's first deep fried (without batter) very briefly in a wok, then stir-fried with salt-cured duck eggs.
 
Sandra May 15, 2016
I do love it and cook with it as often as I can. Sliced thinly and cooked with scrambled eggs make a good savory brekky. Another: sliced thinly, steamed and then mixed with chopped up tomatoes, cilantro, dressed with a mixture of lemon or lime and dash of fish sauce. I once made the mistake of buying a bunch of its leaves and cooking the whole bunch along with mung beans in a traditional Filipino dish called "munggo with dahon ng ampalaya" aka mung beans with bitter gourd leaves. I did not know I was only supposed to use a few leaves for flavor. It was totally inedible! And I CAN eat bitter gourd raw! That's how bad it was.
 
Panfuisine's salting method is what we use as well! Grew up eating bitter melon thinly sliced, deep fried and then sprinkled with my mom's homemade garam masala blend...a delicious Indian interpretation of chips!
 
Panfusine May 14, 2016
Thanks for the mentions. Just uploaded a recipe with bitter melon stuffed with sweet potatoes onto the site. Its by far one of the most decadent dishes I've tried out with this 'wierd' veggie.<br />https://food52.com/recipes/54706-sweet-potato-stuffed-bitter-melons-in-a-tomato-almond-gravy
 
Mimi May 14, 2016
Love both types of bitter melon! One staple take-out item at an Indian food store in West Phila (International House of Spice) is charred, whole bitter melon that's braised in a spicy sauce. The charring adds to the bitterness which is strangely addictive. Also love bitter melon sauteed with fermented black beans and beef that you can get in casual China Town eateries.
 
Nila May 14, 2016
This is one of my favorites! OK, I hated it when I was little, but it's deep nutty bitterness grew on me over the years. I love it sauteed with caramelized garlic, onions, and curry leaves (maybe some tomatoes for sweetness) and in a tamarind stew. It's also great fried crisp on the side of rice and other South Indian dishes. My mom would sprinkle a little sugar on top for us kids.
 
Linda K. May 14, 2016
I use the Indian gourd only. I will have to try the Panfusine recommendations. Must be more adventurous.
 
Sj D. May 14, 2016
bitter gourd is loved in South India..While the northern Indian cuisine faovours stuffing and frying it, I love the various manifestations of this veg in different south indian cuisines..from curries to stir fries to pickles..they are all yumm
 
Linda K. May 14, 2016
Found this article in my Junk email to day. Surprised on one commented. Bitter Gourd was recommended to me by a medical intuitive to take (eat) for reducing sugar levels (diabetes). I have been making raw juice with it adding a variety of fruits mostly pineapple. It is an acquired taste.<br />LOK
 
Panfusine May 14, 2016
Bittermelon has indeed been prescribed as a natural aidde to controlling diabetes and there have been studies at NYU (Prof. Sylvia Lee-Huangs lab) in the 90's that studied the effects of bittermelon compounds against HIV.<br /><br />