Bitter melon is so much of a world traveler that we do not know exactly where the plant originated. Some scholars suggest that Asian farmers first cultivated the vegetable, but the plant pops up in India and Africa as well. We’re pretty sure that it made its way over to the Americas during the slave trade, landing somewhere around Brazil, and then migrated northward from that point. The plant in the southern United States is considered somewhat of a minor weed, competing with agricultural plants. Up here in the north, some grow it in gardens with no fear of outgrowing our native plants, because the melon doesn’t like our cold.
Of course, there are many in the states who have never heard of the bitter melon. But because it’s such a rambling vine and because it does well anywhere it doesn’t get below freezing, the plant has taken on many names along the way. In the southern US they call it Balsam-Pear, in Jamaica they call it Cerasee, in China they call it Goya and in Japan Pakal. As we are a country of immigrants and this is an immigrant plant, we also use many of these foreign words in the US to refer to the vegetable.
The shape of the bitter melon is as just as varied as its names: from short and squat to much longer and slender, the melon takes on a variety of forms. But whatever its shape, and whatever its name, it always remains very, very bitter.
We just ate bitter melon last week in a fish stir-fry. That recipe is below. For our kids, I think this was the first time they had tasted it. As we have intentionally increased the diversity in our diet this year, our kids have been willing to try just about anything we serve them. But when they tasted it, they didn’t really like the melon. Our youngest is one of the most adventurous eaters of the bunch, eating things that her older siblings immediately turn their noses up at. But even she adamantly refused to eat the bitter melon after her first bite.
Ways exist to dull some of that bitter taste. Some people soak the melon in salt prior to cooking it. This not only results in a less bitter flavor but could perhaps inspire someone to try pickling it. But other techniques exist as well that cure the melon of some of its bitter. Mixing the melon with yogurt or spices that cut the taste is one strategy. I’ve even read that draining the melon of its juice is supposed to work.
Certainly bitter melon is bitter, but personally I don’t mind the flavor much. I’ve had it on several occasions and its something I’ve gotten used to. Still for some, like my kids, the flavor is too strong.
The bitter melon plant is in the curcubit family, the family of cucumbers, squash, and melons. It is a vining plant with deeply lobed leaves. The unripe fruit, which is the part that is eaten, is long green and wrinkly. It looks like this:
And here is an up close of the leaves:
The internal white pulp and seeds are discarded before cooking. The fruit is not be eaten when fully ripe, as it is said to be poisonous.
Here’s a picture of the ripe fruit and its seeds:
Culture and Use
The melon is primarily used in Asia and Africa, but also gets some love from South America. North America not so much. Unlike the Bengali in the quote above, we Americans tend to focus more on the sweet and salty spectrum of our taste buds while sometimes migrating into the sour. We’ve been trying to weed the bitters out ever since we stopped eating the dandelions.
So what kind of dishes is the melon used in? In Asia, they stir fry it mostly. In the Chinese dish that we made below, we mixed it with fish, tofu, and sesame oil and then served it with rice. But the bitter melon can also be baked, deep fried, or even made into a dessert. Interesting enough the Bengali dish, shukto, mentioned in the quote at the beginning of this post is actually a result of the influence of the Portugese culture in Bengali during the period of British colonization. This, according to Smi’s Bengali Recipe, a website that specializes in recipes from Bengali. Here is Smi’s take on the bengali dish shukto. It’s definitely something we are going to try out in the future.
Traditionally cultures have used bitter melon medicinally to help lower blood sugar. Science has shown that bitter melon contains a variety of compounds that lead to this affect. Whether or not this lowering affect could help diabetics maintain control over their sugar is still an open question as studies show conflicting results. But for the rest of us who might be concerned about the occasional sugar fluctuations after a high carb meal, bitter melon just might help moderate the swings.
As the Bengali quote above shows there is also a tradition that bitters such as this melon are good for digestion. This is actually, a tradition among many cultures in the world. Most notably, the French have an apertif before a meal, which is an alcoholic drink traditionally infused with bitter herbs (gentian and others).
According to the French-Canadian herbalist Daniel Gagnon in this Prevention Magazine article, “Many apéritifs contain angostura bitters. The bitter taste gets the salivary glands going. It helps the stomach start secreting juices. The bitterness sends the signal to the brain to get the whole digestive tract—the liver, the pancreas, and the intestines—on the lookout for incoming food. It’s like a sneak preview.”
So that’s the tradition, but in my research, I couldn’t find any science to validate this.
The Science of bitters?
Scientists once thought the bitter taste evolved so that humans could distinguish poisonous from non-poisonous plants. The bitters were the things we didn’t want to eat. The thought was humans eventually evolved to relax their bitter taste revulsion and some of these non-poisonous bitters were adopted as food. But now, new research is indicating this is not the case. In a NPR article on why humans have the ability to taste bitter written a few years back, Biologist Sarah Tishkoff readily admits that scientists don’t know the reason humans can taste bitter.
No one is really sure yet, Tishkoff says.
“These genes could be detecting a compound we don’t know anything about,” she says. Or they could be performing a task that’s completely unrelated to taste all together.
In the past few years, scientists have started to realize that bitter taste receptors are all over the body, Tishkoff says. These receptors have turned up in cells in the gut,lungs and even the testes.
“So the receptors are not only altering how we perceive food,” she says, “but probably also our physiology, in ways we have no idea about.”
It will be interesting to see if science proves tradition right.
Bitter Melon Diversity
Bitter melon is a great plant to eat when cultivating a diverse diet. It certainly fills a need in the western palate for increasing bitters in the diet, something that has been lost through the desire in our culture to have less bitter and overemphasize sweet and salty foods. Many cultures, including our own, once had bitters as common themes in their diet for health and it could be that these bitter flavors fulfill some unknown role in helping our physiology, such as helping us digest better. Bitter Melon could also be an excellent compliment to any high carb meal, as it is known to help reduce blood sugar. The fruit does take some getting used to for the uninitiated, but as there are so many ways to prep the food and compliment the bitter taste, it’s definitely something worth trying.
Below is the recipe we used when eating our bitter melon meal. Try it out.
If you’ve eaten bitter melon, before, let us know how have you eaten it. Share a recipe in the comments below.
- 3 garlic cloves finely chopped
- 1 lb tofu cubed
- 2 bitter melons with seed and pulp removed
- 1 lb fish skinned and boned
- 1 cup water
- 1 Tbs ginger peeled and diced
- 1/2 tsp cayenne powder (optional)
- salt and sesame seed to taste
To prepare: Fry onions and garlic in a little oil, until onions become translucent. Add tofu and let brown on all sides. After the tofu is lightly browned, add bitter melon, fish, and other ingredients. Cover and let simmer until fish and bitter melon are both cooked. Serve over rice, with soy or tamari sauce.
inspired by Flavor and Fortune
Walker, Harlan, editor. Fish: Food from the Water. Allaleigh House, Prospect Books, 1997, p. 255. google books. Accessed 16 Feb. 2017.
If you liked this, check out the rest of our Asian fruit and vegetable posts.