Relatively unknown in the United States with a flavor that is generally unloved by most Americans, bitter melon is a popular vegetable throughout much of the rest of the world. Many ethnic cuisines savor bitter flavors, and bitter melon, a.k.a. “bitter gourd” (plus many other names) is a go-to vegetable to fill that craving. The bitterness in this relative of the cucumber comes from a compound similar to quinine, so it is good to think of the quinine flavor in tonic water when thinking about the flavor of bitter melon, but stronger.
There are several types of bitter melon, but for the most part we see two types at markets. The Indian type (where bitter melon originated) is a darker green with tapered ends and is covered with pebbling and ridges and sharp looking bumps. The Chinese type is paler green and larger, looking like a Kirby cucumber with rounded ends, with a smooth skin that has long wavy furrows in it. Of the two, the Indian type is bitterer. When selecting bitter melon, remember darker, less ripe specimens will be less bitter than those that are pale or starting to turn yellow. The melon should feel heavy for its size and be firm, and without blemish. They do not last long, so wrap in paper towels and plastic bags and keep cold and they will keep 4-5 days.
How to Remove Bitterness
There are a couple of methods used for removing the bitterness from the melons — using salt or blanching. For salting, cut the melon into the shape you wish to use and salt liberally. After 10 minutes or so, rinse and squeeze out excess moisture before proceeding with the recipe. For blanching, put the melon into boiling water for a couple minutes and then put in ice water to chill it before carrying on. The Chinese almost always blanch the melon first, while the rest of the world tends to go straight at it, although in India it is sometimes rubbed with a turmeric, lemon, and salt mix.
How to Cook Bitter Melon
For cooking, there are many ethnic recipes for stir fries, braises, steaming, and curries. Coconut milk is a frequent companion. Bitter melon pairs well with big flavors such as fermented black beans, ginger, chilis, garlic, and is a foil for milder, sweeter flavors such as potatoes, winter squash, noodles, etc. The bitterness is a good contrast for rich items such as coconut and pork. Interestingly, acidic items such as lemon juice and rice vinegar are frequently used to finish dishes with bitter melon as the acid seems to tame the bitter flavor. Along with the “melon” the leaves and shoots of bitter melon are also eaten.
You can find bitter melon (sometimes both Indian and Chinese) and their greens at KT Farms booth at the Aptos Farmers Market. If you don’t see it, ask for it and Ku may harvest it for you the following week.