However it’s prepared, bitter melon is more backup artist than lead vocalist, used to counterbalance the richness of the main ingredient rather than outshine it.
Bitter melon is a common ingredient in Indian stews and curries, Japanese and Chinese stir-fries, sauteed Filipino dishes and fried snacks. It also can be hollowed out and stuffed with ground meat and spices; it can also be steamed or pan-fried. Some even like to eat it raw or squeeze the fruit into juice.
Its astringent taste pairs especially well with chile peppers and fatty meats like pork.
To say bitter melon has a unique flavor profile is quite the understatement. Never has a fruit or vegetable been so aptly named. The first time you try it, in fact, it might prove so unpleasant on the palate that you may be tempted to spit it out.
“It’s definitely an acquired taste,” admits Jayashree Iyengar, who offers Indian cooking classes through her Pittsburg-based company Popping Mustard Seeds. Even though Iyengar grew up eating it, she never much liked bitter melon as a kid. It was only as an adult that she grew to love it. “As you get older, you like it more,” she says.
She particularly loves it in a stew, where the bitterness can be toned down with tamarind, coconut, chiles and salt. Her mother also fried it in rings dipped in chickpea flour and dusted it with chile powder and salt.
Leah Lizarondo, who was born and raised in the Philippines, can relate. As a child she, too, hated the way it burned on her tongue and only came to appreciate it as a grown-up. When she serves bitter melon to someone unfamiliar with it, Lizarondo will sometimes first soak the melon in lemon water to make it less acrid. But only rarely, because when you’re eating bitter melon, she says, the bitterness is the point.
Thought to have originated in India before making its way to China in the 14th century, bitter melon may be found in two varieties: Chinese (known as ku gua or lai gua) and Indian (known as pavakkai in Tamil or karela in Hindi). Now common to all tropical regions, it also is known as bitter gourd, bitter cucumber and balsam pear.
Bitter melon is loaded with key nutrients like folate and vitamin A, a fat-soluble vitamin that promotes skin health and proper vision. It’s especially rich in vitamin C, with a 3-ounce serving dishing up almost 100% of the recommended daily value. In addition, two compounds found in bitter melon — polypeptide-p and charantin — have been shown to play a role in lowering blood sugar.
Bitter melon might take some getting used to, says Iyengar, but in this multicultural world, where ethnic foods are commanding a bigger share of the limelight, that unfamiliarity doesn’t have to be a negative. It’s a big, wide food world out there.
“Try it to diversity your palate,” she says, “and try something good that’s new.”
This nutritious Filipino stir-fry, known as Ginisang Ampalaya at Hipon, can also be made with ground chicken or pork in place of shrimp. It can be served as is or on top of rice.
BITTER MELON WITH SHRIMP AND EGG
Adapted from kawalingpinoy.com
- 4 medium bitter melons
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 large onion, peeled and thinly sliced
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 2 large Roma tomatoes, chopped
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 1/2 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 1/2 cup water
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Halve bitter melons lengthwise and use a spoon to remove seeds and scrape off white pith. Slice into thin half-moons and place in a bowl of salted water to remove some bitterness.
In a wide skillet over medium, heat oil. Add onion, garlic and tomatoes. Cook, stirring regularly, until softened. Add fish sauce and cook 1 minute.
Add shrimp and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until shrimp starts to turn pink. Add water and bring to a boil.
Rinse bittter melon slices and drain well. Add to skillet; toss to combine. Cook 2 to 3 minutes, until most of the water has evaporated and melon is crisp-tender.
In a thin stream, add eggs and gently stir to distribute. Continue to cook about 1 minute, until eggs have set. Season with sugar, salt and pepper to taste; serve immediately. Serves 4.
THIS RECIPE is based on a traditional south Indian method. The ingredients can be found at an Indian market (in Honolulu go to India Market in Moiliili; 888-2277). This stew is typically eaten on top of plain cooked rice with papadam or sauteed vegetables.
BITTER MELON STEW
Adapted from Jayashree Iyengar, Popping Mustard Seeds
- 2 bitter melons
- 1/2 cup toor dal or channa dal, rinsed and drained
- 1/2 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
- 1/8 teaspoon asafoetida (a powdered herb)
- 6 to 8 curry leaves
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1 cup of water
- 1 tablespoon tamarind concentrate dissolved in 1 tablespoon water
- Salt, to taste
- >> Seasoning paste:
- 2 tablespoons urad dal
- 3 small red dried chiles
- 1/2 cup unsweetened frozen grated coconut, thawed
- 3/4 cup of water
Halve bitter melons lengthwise. Scoop out pulp and seeds. Cut into pieces about 1/2-inch thick. Set aside.
Place 3 cups water in medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Add toor dal; reduce heat to low. Cover, keeping lid slightly open as dal tends to foam and spill out. Cook 15 to 20 minutes, until dal is easy to mash. Add more water if needed. Mash into a paste; set aside.
In a small skillet, make seasoning paste: Dry-roast urad dal over medium heat until reddish brown with a nutty aroma. Add dried chiles and saute 30 seconds. Stir in coconut. Grind mixture in a blender to make a smooth paste, adding water. Set aside.
Heat vegetable oil in 2-quart saucepan over medium. Once oil is hot, add mustard seeds. When seeds begin to sizzle and pop, cover. Wait 10 seconds; turn off heat. When popping stops completely, add asafoetida and curry leaves (keep lid handy in case of more popping).
Add chopped bitter melon, turmeric and water. Cook on medium heat until melon is soft but firm (test with a fork), about 10 minutes. Add more water if needed,
Add tamarind. Add seasoning paste, and let simmer on low heat about 1 minute. Add cooked dal and season with salt. Simmer 2 minutes. Serve immediately. Serves 4.
BITTER MELON is often paired with fermented black beans in Chinese cuisine. You could easily swap out the pork for thinly sliced beef in this savory, spicy stir-fry.
BITTER MELON IN BLACK BEAN CHILI SAUCE
Adapted from Seriouseats.com
- 2 bitter melons
- 6 ounces ground pork
- 2 teaspoons rice wine vinegar
- 1 teaspoon minced ginger
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3 tablespoons oil, for stir-frying, divided
- 1/4 cup water mixed with 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- Rice, for serving
- >> Sauce:
- 2 medium cloves garlic, minced
- 1/4 cup bottled Chinese fermented black bean sauce with chiles, beans smashed
- 2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
- 1 tablespoon sugar
Halve melons lengthwise. Scoop out and discard pulp and seeds. Cut crosswise into 1/4-inch thick slices. Set aside.
In a small bowl, mix ground pork with rice vinegar, ginger, sugar and salt. Set aside.
Prepare sauce: Mix garlic, fermented black beans, fish sauce, rice wine vinegar, salt and sugar in bowl. Set aside.
Place wok over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon oil and heat until shimmering. Add pork mixture and cook, tossing until just cooked through. Remove to a plate.
Return wok to high heat. Add remaining 2 tablespoons oil; heat until shimmering. Add bitter melon slices. Stir-fry until considerably softened but still a bit crisp, about 5 minutes.
Add sauce and mix, then stir-fry 1 minute longer.
Turn off heat. Add cornstarch slurry. Stir rapidly to keep cornstarch from clumping. Add a few tablespoons more water if needed to thin sauce.
Return wok to low heat and simmer 20 seconds. Add pork mixture back to wok, stirring to combine. Serve immediately over rice. Serves 4 to 6.
Nutritional information unavailable.