Real Food Encyclopedia | Bitter Melon

Bitter melon, also sometimes called bitter gourd or bitter cucumber (and by countless other names in other languages from Malay to Tamil to Tagalog) is an extremely bitter fruit found throughout Asia, South Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. It can also be found in the Hawaiian Islands. It is a member of the Cucurbitaceae family which includes squash and gourds and has a distinct “warty” exterior, similar in shape to a cucumber but with tons of ridges and bumps.

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Fun Facts about Bitter Melon:

  • Bitter melon has become an invasive species in parts of Florida.
  • Bitter melons are bitter due to the presence of compounds called cucurbitacins, which are present in members of the cucumber family to deter herbivores.

What to Look for When Buying Bitter Melon

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.

Look for fruit that are firm, 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 ones if you prefer bitter flavor, and an orange-to-yellow ones (if you can find them) for a milder flavor. 

Sustainability

While grown extensively in India, Southern China and other parts of Southeast Asia, the environmental impact (and popularity) of bitter melon in the United States is quite small. However, like most Curcurbits, they require a great deal of water to fruit well. The good news: the bitter compounds in the plant are natural pest-repellants.

Seasonality

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).

Cultivation

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, the 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, it 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 dramatic as it sounds).

Eating Bitter Melon

Storing

Store the fruit in the refrigerator in the crisper drawer in a paper or plastic bag for three to five days.

Cooking

The flesh and peel, as you may have guessed, is extremely bitter. Some recipes call for removing the peel (which can be somewhat waxy in certain varieties and also may hold onto pesticide residue). You can reduce bitter melon’s bitterness by blanching it first and then cooking with it, 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, Japanese (especially Okinawan) and Indian cuisine for recipes, including this Ayurvedic sabzi with okra, or this Okinawan stirfy. 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, sauteed, steamed and baked. They’re also frequently stuffed with meat or other delicious things, and then baked or braised.

An added bonus: the leaves are also edible.

Preserving

Bitter melon can be dried and pickled (or try this quick pickle) or frozen (although some of its crunchy texture will be lost).

Nutrition

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  juices and smoothies that are said to be “diabetes-fighting” or that lower blood sugar.

Bitter melon fruit is high in Vitamin C, folate, Vitamin A, is a good source of potassium, and even has some iron and calcium.