Friday, February 18, 2011

Bitter Melon

I was excited to try bitter melon when I saw it in a Philippino store in Koreatown. 
The name and the look exuded promise and Andrew told me it required special preparation before it could be eaten. I also knew it was one of the 1001 Foods You Must Eat Before You Die. It is shaped like a cucumber 
and is covered in warts, 
something that would fit in the kitchen of the Wicked Witch of the West, or perhaps be a part of her nose or some other part of her anatomy. It is picked and usually eaten when green. When it ripens it turns yellow and the flesh gets tougher and too bitter to eat. However, the pith then turns red and sweet and is used in salads in southeast Asia. 

The bitter melon is grown in India, China and Southeast Asia and there are many different varieties. Mine appears to be a Chinese variety. It is cooked in different ways. 1001 says that the "Vietnamese palates are hardy enough to consume slices raw," the Chinese "balance its taste with other sweet, sour, and salty flavors" such as black bean sauce, Sri Lankans use it with coconut milk and Malaysians slice it thinly and coat it with lime juice.

I found a technique for preparing it for Chinese cooking.  First, cut off the ends 
and cut it lengthwise. 
Remove the seeds and white pith from the middle with a spoon (I ended up using a knife for much of it which I thought was easier). 
Then cut it into thin quarter-inch slices. 
At this point I decided to try some raw, before going to the next step. It was not as bad as I expected. It was bitter, but not excessively so. I ate three or four slices. I didn't enjoy it, but it wasn't horrible. A non-ripe Manzanos banana I had the other day was much worse. Then I parboiled it for about three minutes, 
which only partially cooks the bitter melon and is supposed to reduce the bitter taste. 
Then you are supposed to add the bitter melon in the last stages of stir frying, for example to pork and black beans. The strong flavor of the black beans is supposed to counteract the bitter melon's strong taste. 

I was not making a dish, I was just trying to taste the bitter melon. We did not have any black-beans, so I decided to put the bitter melon in hoisin sauce, another of the 1001 Foods You Must Eat Before You Die. Hoisin sauce "is made from fermented soybeans, vinegar, salt, sugar, garlic, chile and five-spice powder, thickened with starch and colored with food colorings." It is usually served with Peking duck and I love the stuff. I put a spoonful of hoisin sauce into a bowl, added a number of strips of the parboiled bitter melon to it. 
But before eating it that way, I ate some of the parboiled bitter melon. If anything, I thought it enhanced the bitterness and made it more uniform and powerful. It did soften it up. But then eating it with the hoisin sauce revealed one of the geniuses of Asian cooking, the mixture of contrasting tastes. The hoisin sauce almost completely neutralized the bitterness of the bitter melon and reduced the sweetness of the hoisin sauce. The combination created a completely different flavor. I could eat the stuff without a problem. Now I may have to try salting some bitter melon, or putting lime on it and see how it interacts with the bitter flavor. 


  1. That totally reminds me of Goya Chanpuru (think stir fry with pork or tofu). I wonder if that melon would work with this recipe:


  3. Where can I buy whole bittermelon