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The Bitter Melon Truth

“Why so blue, Red?” Spinach asked ironically.

“They called me a vegetable wannabe,” replied a less-than-cheery Cherry Tomato, pointing to a group of gourds nearby.

“Ignore them,” Rhubarb tartly advised. “They’re just Bitter Melons.”

You’ve probably come across them at the farmers’ market - strange produce that look like cucumbers with a bad case of warts. Perhaps you stopped to examine them, wondering how they would taste. Maybe you even asked the friendly vendor what they were, only to turn away at the word ‘bitter’, leaving behind those lonely knobby gourds for another curious shopper to find.

The unusual vegetable is known by various names, such as balsam pear, bittergurke, caraille, and goya, but none is more appropriate than bitter melon. Acrid and sharp on the tongue, Momordica charantia is the misfit in a plant family that counts watermelons and cantaloupes among its members. Unlike its sweeter cousins, however, it contains momordicines, some of the most bitter compounds found in food, which give it that characteristically astringent flavor. Of the five tastes, which include sweet, sour, salty, and savory (umami), bitter is the least appealing to many palates, and for good reason: it is Mother Nature’s warning signal to beware eating potentially poisonous plants. But thanks to intrepid early diners who managed to get past the harsh taste and confirm that it is indeed edible, we now know that bitter melon may be more elixir than poison.

This acerbic gourd is a common and very popular food throughout the world, particularly in Asia, where it is valued for its medicinal qualities as well as its bracing flavor. Karela, as it is known in India, is used in the ancient holistic healing science of Ayurveda to balance the body’s doshas, or constitution, and to treat a variety of ailments ranging from digestive upset to skin irritations to bacterial and viral infections. In the Philippines, bitter melon is called ampalaya and is touted as a diabetes treatment; a 2007 study by the Philippine Department of Health found that eating its leaves results in a hypoglycemic effect, or lowering of blood sugar, while results from a joint Australian/Chinese research showed that its compounds help improve glucose uptake. Currently, bitter melon extract is being studied for potential anti-cancer properties. However, the same compounds that relieve illness in some people may cause complications in others – they can exacerbate hypoglycemia in diabetics already taking blood sugar-lowering medications, while pregnant women are strongly advised not to consume bitter melon as it may cause bleeding and premature contractions.

Still, bitter melon is full of vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A and C, iron, calcium, and beta carotene, to rival the amounts found in such healthful vegetables as broccoli and spinach . . . if you can get past the mouth-puckering taste. To untrained taste buds, bitter melon is nearly inedible in its raw state, but its pungent flavor can be softened with some simple tips on choosing and preparing the gourds.

 Choosing Bitter Melon

  • You may see two kinds of bitter melon at the market: the ‘Chinese’ variety is long with a light green, pebbled texture, while the ‘Indian’ type is shorter, darker green and covered with spiky knobs. Any difference in bitterness between these types may be negligible to anyone not used to its flavor, so feel free to use either. However, the Chinese variety may be more common in American markets.
  • Bitter melon is a subtropical vegetable that grows best in hot, humid weather, so watch out for it at the farmers’ market in July and August.
  • Choose specimens that are firm and light green - the darker the color, the younger and more bitter it is.

Preparing Bitter Melon

  • Bitter melon does not have to be peeled. Just rinse well to remove any dirt and pat dry.
  • Cut in half lengthwise, then use a spoon to scoop out the seeds and scrape off the inner white pith.
  • Slice crosswise at a slight angle to ¼-inch thickness, then place in a bowl. Cover with fresh water and add 2-3 tablespoons of salt (rock salt, preferably). Let sit for about 15 to 20 minutes and drain just before cooking.

 

Bitter Melon with Egg and Tomatoes

When I polled friends and family in Manila about how best to extract the bitterness from ampalaya, I received a different answer each time. From squeezing the slices after soaking, to not stirring while cooking, each method was declared the best. Honestly, there is no way to extract the astringent flavor entirely, but don’t let that deter you. Though it may be an acquired taste, you just might find its assertiveness to be a pleasant change from more mild-mannered vegetables. This recipe is a favored preparation in the Philippines and is a quick, simple showcase for bitter melon at its tastiest.

Ingredients

2 bitter melons, prepared as above

1 small onion, sliced thinly

3-4 cloves of garlic, minced

2 plum or Roma tomatoes, chopped

1 egg, lightly beaten

Water

Salt (preferably rock salt)

Cooking oil

  • Drain the bitter melon slices, place in a wok or large sauté pan and add fresh water to cover. Over medium high heat, bring to a gentle boil and cook for about 1-2 minutes. Drain slices in a colander and set aside.
  • Return wok or pan to the burner and heat a generous tablespoon of cooking oil. Add onion and garlic, and stir-fry until they just begin to brown. Add chopped tomatoes and continue stir-frying until they begin to break down. Pour one cup of water and add a tablespoon of salt to the pan, then bring to a low simmer.
  • Add bitter melon slices and stir well until liquid comes back to a gentle simmer. Pour beaten egg over the vegetables and quickly mix in so that the egg cooks in fluffy bits throughout. Cook until the bitter melon slices are tender but still a bit firm to the bite. Serve with steamed rice.

 

Tracey Paska lives, eats and writes in Manila, Philippines, where she revels in the fact that she can wear flip-flops outdoors in January. When she's not exploring Manila's foodscape, she freelances for a national food magazine and writes about the complex and fascinating connections between food, culture, and society on her blog Tangled Noodle.

Comments

Great article! Just a little suggestion: in India , bitter melon is called "karela" (as spelled above,"Kerala", it would seem to refer to a state in south India). Bitter melon juice is traditionally thought to be the best food to manage diabetes.A fun way to eat it is by making chips: slice thinly, sprinkle a little turmeric (optional) and salt and fry up in hot oil.Takes out some of the bitterness and yes, in the raw form karela definitely is the mother of all things bitter :)

Arpita,

Thanks for catching my spelling error! We'll have it corrected as soon as possible. I've never tried either bitter melon juice or chips before, but the latter sounds particularly intriguing, especially with turmeric. Please do share with us any more suggestions you may have on reducing the bitterness of this otherwise wonderful food!

I made the spelling change, thanks!

Tracey,
I am glad you liked the recipe! There is also a stuffed version where you scoop out the inside and fill it up etc but the medicinal effects are supposed to be best in the raw/boiled/juiced version! I am excited to try your recipe, love eggs so this is a good one for me.
Thanks!

Hey Guys

Yes it's called Karela, I have learnt from my mom, how to cook this... Just let you know when you Put indian or chinese karela/bitter melon in water, it gets more bitter, So make sure when you peel it off or not, wash it well before slicing it or chopping it.

Secondly, Unless you want a liquar version of it go for water, otherwise use standard procedure without water i.e Put a teaspoon oil, let it warm, add some Cumin seeds, little ginger and then add Onions with little chopped tomatoes, when you feel its all tender, add little salt according to your taste, little turnmeric, red pepper powder and little mango power (Optional).Then add Sliced/Chopped whatever the shape you like for Bitter Melon and stir it.

Now keep on low Simmer, make sure don't cover otherwise its taste again would get little more bitter because of steam. keep stiring every after 2-3 mins and let it cook until it all gets tender.. Approx 10-15 sometime I cook for atleast 30mins to gets little crunchy rather than soggy.

Enjoy your Bitter Melon vegetable with Pita bread/Nan or bread whatever you like.. there is also another version Stuffed one! let me know if you guys like this reciepe.

Cok guzel paylasim,tesekurler..

Wow! Thanks for the information. I'm so relieved I can eat this cooked or raw. I just moved to hong Kong and I'm trying to figure out what local vegtables I can eat, that I can trace back to where they're grown. Bitter melon is always present at the farmer market. Now I know what to do with it!!

For controlling diabetes, in the morning, make juice of 1 bitter melon, and mix it with yogert and a sprinkle of salt, and drink it first thing in the morning. In a few months, your sugar level will come down.

süper radyo kanalı tebrikler radyo spor

Thank You All for such wonderful ideas/recipes! I want to avoid diabetes.   I consume sugar on daily basis.  I am trying my best not to consume it as much but at the same time... Raw Karela Juice seems to prove itself extremely healthy...great blood cleanser

Question, eating it raw is ok, it does not have to be cooked?  Correct, does this go for both the 

Indian Bitter Melon and the Chinese bitter melon versions?

 

Hi,

Bitter melon and chinese cucumber (compound q)  are the same?

3/1 Anon: I've never tried it raw before. The biggest issue for many (including me) is the bitterness which is mitigrated by cooking it with other ingredients. Let us know if you try it raw!

4/27 Anon: From what I've read, Compound Q is derived from a Chinese wild cucumber that is used almost exclusively for medicinal purposes. It does not appear to be the same thing as the bitter melon described here which, notwithstanding its possible health benefits, is used primarily for culinary purposes.

Tracey, I appreciate all the great information on Bitter Melon, I was given the name Ampalaya by a Filipina friend here in Oakville, Ontario Canada, now I will search where I can purchase some. I'm a type 1 diabetic and look forward to trying it. Thank you.

 

Maynard

Hi Maynard - I'm glad this information is helpful to you! I hope you find bitter melon in your local markets. I'm not exaggerating when I say that the flavor is mouth-puckering, so make sure you follow some of these prep suggestions. ;-)

--Tracey

Interesting article. :) I love to eat vegetables, inclding ampalaya. Andrecently I just discovered from my officemate that it can be eaten raw, just like a salad with vinegar as its dressing, and i was surprise how it taste better than the sauted ampalaya or with egg version. I so love it! Plus more nutrients retained since it's raw. :)

I haven't eaten this veg in all my 47 years because I was put off by the stories of its bitterness.  I'm trying to eat more healthy meals so I now vary my menu to include the dreaded Caraillie, as we call it in Trinidad.  I prepared it for cooking by cutting into small pieces over which I sprinkled little salt and left it for 30 mins. Then I drained out all the liquid by squeezing.  The I heated about 1 tsp. veg. oil and sauted generous portion of onions and crushed garlic, sliced pimiento peppers and very firm, finely chopped tomatoes.  Just as the garlic began to turn brownish colour, I added caraillie pieces, with some pepper, for flavour and fried for about 10 mins.  In spite of what I've heard, I actually enjoyed this VERY much.  I've eaten it with roti, bread, rice; I've really 'mixed it up', and, I suggest you try it too. Don't knock it until you've tried it.  Believe me!!

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