Bitter Melon: Kitchen Basics


You can eat the bitter melon thinly sliced raw, but chances are you’ll prefer it, cooked. How about deep fried, stir-fried, parboiled, or stuffed?

Season bitter melon slices with salt, turmeric, and a little chili and then deep fry or remove the central pith and stuff this gourd with seasoned minced pork, shrimp and chopped onion, or fish paste before baking.

The bitter melon picked at maturity will be bitter. The younger, thinner, shorter and bright green bitter melon will be less bitter tasting.

Bitter melon is most popular in Asian cookery. There is a long-standing belief in Asia that anything bitter tasting is good for you and may even have healing power. Perhaps that’s so. Truly, in the Occident, bitter melon is a bit of an acquired taste.

To draw the bitterness from the bitter melon, slice and liberally salt it and set aside for 30 minutes. You can then press or squeeze the slices, and press again, and pat dry before using. If the bitter melon is still too bitter blanch the slices in boiling water until they turn a bright emerald color, plunge them in cold water, and drain before cooking.

Bitter melon is also called bitter gourd, bitter cucumber, or balsam pear. This fruit-vegetable is related to the gourd, melon, and cucumber. Growing bitter melon requires all the same conditions required for growing cucumbers and melons.

Bitter melons grow from 3 to 12 inches (7-30 cm) long on vines with tendrils that grow between 22 and 32 feet (6.7-9.7 m) long.

The bitter melon is shaped like a cucumber with a deeply and unevenly furrowed and warty skin. It is pale yellow early on, becomes greener as it matures, and ripens finally to a yellow-orange-red color becoming more bitter and acrid as it matures.

The bitter melon has a thick, dry, pearly-colored flesh with numerous white seeds. The melon’s high quinine content gives it a bitter taste although some compare the taste of the bitter melon to citrus pith and consider the flavor cool and cleansing.

Bitter melons produce their first fruits about 2 months after sowing. The fruit follows a vanilla-scented flower. The first melons can be picked when they are as small as1-inch long. If left on the vine until fully ripe, the pulp will become blood-red and the fruit will split into three sections at the flower end.

The bitter melon harvest season runs from mid spring through late summer, April through September in the northern hemisphere.

Bitter melons are native to tropical India and Africa and have been in cultivation for thousands of years. The bitter melon is most popular in the cookery of India, Indonesia, Southeast Asia, and China.

Choose. Select bitter melons that are small, bright green, firm, and without blemish or mold. Bright dark green specimens will be less bitter tasting.

Store. Keep the bitter melon wrapped in a paper towel in a perforated plastic bag in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator for 4 to 5 days. Bitter melons do not freeze well.

Prepare. The bitter melon does not need to be peeled if sliced thinly. But you can trim and peel smooth the bitter melon. Seeds can be removed or not; they may bring an additional bitterness to a serving especially as the gourd matures. To remove the seeds, cut the gourd into slices and pop out both seeds and pith with your finger, leaving a green ring, or halve the gourd lengthwise and scoop out the seed. To stuff the gourd, halve crosswise and ream out the core of seeds and pith. Bitter melon can also be sliced crosswise into 1-inch or thinner rounds before cooking.

To remove some of the bitter taste, salt, drain, and blanch slices in baking soda; blanch with 1 teaspoon baking soda to 2 quarts water; the bitter melon will turn bright emerald.

Cook and serve. Unless very young, bitter melon is not served raw. You can deep-fry, stir-fry, sauté, braise, steam, and bake bitter melon. Serve diced in curries, stir-fries or pickles, or stuffed with meat, shrimp, spices, and onions.

  • Steam and serve with pork, onions, ginger, and black bean sauce, or in soups. Season with cumin and turmeric.
  • Parboil like zucchini and serve as a vegetable.
  • Young shoots and leaves can be cooked like spinach.

Flavor partners. Balance the bitterness with intense flavors such as chili, garlic, tamarind, ginger, sweet soy, miso, fermented black beans, fish sauce, dried shrimp, and curry paste. Match the bitter melon against sweet vegetables such as winter squash, sweet potatoes, and corn.

Nutrition. Bitter melon is a good source of iron and ascorbic acid and vitamin C.

The botanical name of the bitter melon is Momordica charantia.