Bitter Melon, Sweet Potential

bitter-melonAll summer I watched the vine with its delicate leaves and lovely little yellow flowers grow up the iron banister of my stairs at the rate of several inches a day. planted the seeds in June but had given up hope of any harvest. Then, this morning, I saw them, two little pale green ribbed cucumbers with warts: baby bitter melons. This weird-looking vegetable — called karela in Hindi and Bengali, fuk wa in Cantonese, ampalaya in the Philippines, nigai uri in Japanese, and bitter melon, bitter gourd, or balsam pear in English — is highly valued in many Asian cuisines for its interesting flavor, appetite-stimulating properties, and health benefits.

Bitter melon comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. The China version is 8 to 12 inches long and pale green in color, with a gently undulating, warty surface. The dark green Indian version is narrower with pointed ends and a surface covered with jagged triangular “teeth” and ridges. These and other varieties are available in ethnic grocery stores.

A member of the gourd family, bitter melon is a good source of Vitamin C, Vitamin A, phosphorous and iron. The bitterness is due to an alkaloid, morodicine, which makes it toxic to insects and animals (and to people if eaten in large quantities) and perhaps to infections as well. In traditional Chinese medicine, bitter melon is prescribed as a treatment for excess acidity and gastrointestinal infections. Indian Ayurvedic medicine values the vegetable as a “cooling” food that helps eliminate toxins from the system and long valued as a treatment for diabetes, which modern research has confirmed.

In Cantonese cuisine, bitter melon is often sautéed with garlic and black beans, which balance it in taste, appearance, and texture, and stir-fried with pork, beef or shrimp. Bitter melon stuffed with pork and shrimp is another popular Chinese dish. On the Indian subcontinent, bitter melon is coated with turmeric, salt, and chili powder and fried for a teatime snack. The traditional first course of a Bengali meal is shukto, a stew of bitter melon, potatoes, and other diced vegetables that is supposed to simulate the appetite. In the Philippines, bitter melon is sautéed with garlic, pork, and shrimp in a stew or used in pinakbet, a popular melange of vegetables.

Right now you can find locally grown bitter melon in ethnic grocery stores, In Chicago, bitter melon is sold year round in Chinese, Filipino, and Indian grocery stores. Most of the vegetables are imported from California, since bitter melon thrives in hot humid weather and is very sensitive to frost.

The following recipes offer an introduction to this unusual vegetable. If you want to mitigate the bitterness, before cooking blanch the slices for 3 minutes in a large pot of boiling water with 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda, rinse with cold water, and then drain well. But be aware that this will mean a loss of flavor and and some of the nutritional value.

Fried Bitter Gourd Appetizer or Teatime Snack

1 pound of bitter melon

3 tablespoons of vegetable oil

1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder

1/4 teaspoon chili powder (or to taste)

pinch of asafoetida (optional)

1/2 teaspoon sugar


Two tablespoons finely chopped cilantro

1. Cut vegetable into 1/4 inch thick slices. Rub 1 tablespoon of salt over the slices and set aside for 15 minutes, then drain any water secreted and squeeze excess water from the slices.

2. Heat the oil in a wok or frying pan over medium heat. Add the spices, and fry for 30 seconds.

3. Add vegetable and cook 15 minutes, stirring frequently. Drain excess fat, then add the sugar and salt to taste.

4. Just before serving add finely chopped cilantro.

Shukto (Bengali Mixed Vegetables and Bitter Gourd)

6 cups of mixed vegetables cut into one-inch cubes (potatoes, pumpkins, squash, beans, etc.)

1 cup of bitter melon, seeds removed and cut into 1-inch cubes

1 tablespoon of vegetable oil

1 1/2 tablespoon mustard seed

1 inch piece of fresh ginger root

1/4 cup of water

1/2 cup of milk

1. Heat the oil in a wok or large pot. Fry the bitter gourd and stir until slightly brown (around 3 minutes). Remove from pan.

2. Grind 1 tb of the mustard seed, the ginger (cut into chunks first), and water to make a paste.

3. Fry the rest of the mustard seed for a few seconds, add the other vegetables and fry for 5 minutes.

4. Add the paste together with one cup of water. Stir, add the bitter gourd and salt to taste, cover, and cook over slow heat for 15 minutes. The vegetables should be soft but retain their shape.

5. Turn off the heat and add 1/2 cup of milk. Serve with plain boiled rice.