Alhambra's Sunday Morning Farmer's Market
I take pride in my willingness to eat anything and everything that's put in front of me. After all, what may be considered culinary curiosities to some can also be a staple food source to many. Take the bitter melon. Known for its distinct appearance and acrid flavor as well as its health benefits, it initially hit me like culinary kryptonite. But while I can't say that I exactly enjoy the flavor now, I can say that I've consumed more bitter melon in the past month than I have in several years — and found that in combinations from scrambled eggs to Vietnamese soup to sangria — it can actually be tasty.
The bitter melon (aka bitter gourd, foo gwa) is the fruit of a tropical vine that grows widely in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. The fruit has a distinct oblong shape with a rough, blistery texture (this texture can range from relatively smooth to obscenely warty depending on the variety). The fruit is heralded for its health benefits, being high in iron, vitamins A and C, flavonoids and antioxidants. Bitter melon has been used in research for treating type-2 diabetes, as it contains compounds that can help in the reduction of blood sugar levels. While more research is being conducted, it is also purported to have antimalarial and even anticancer medicinal uses. Using these findings, I challenged myself to tolerate and come to terms with the bitter flavor.
Bitter melon is consumed while immature, typically while still green or in its early yellowing phase (a fully ripe bitter melon becomes practically inedible). If you want a less bitter of a melon, I've been told that a lighter yellow/ whitish green color is ideal (generally speaking, younger squash are almost always more bitter). And while one could presume that a harsher looking exterior makes for a more bitter experience, this has not been a consistent picking method for me.
When you are ready to cook them, cut off both ends of the melon and slice lengthwise so you can scoop out the seeds and fuzzy membrane. To truly embrace the raw vegetal bitterness, try it thinly sliced in a salad with sliced tomatoes, onions and dressed with balsamic vinegar. Another preferred preparation (with a different bitter profile) is a quick pan fry with scrambled eggs. The heat will bring out deeper flavors in the melon, which I feel help round out the bitterness. Bitter melon is typically paired with stronger flavors in Asian cuisine, such as a stir fry with pork and fermented black beans, or fried with coriander powder and chillies (video on the site automatically plays). A less bold approach to the ingredient is in a Vietnamese soup called Kho Qua Nhoi Thit, where bitter melon segments are stuffed with ground pork and wood ear fungus mushrooms. If at this point your tolerance for bitter melon hasn't been pushed too far, take a visit to the National Bitter Melon Council's site (yes, there really is one), where they have a page full of user submitted recipes to try, including bitter melon sorbet and citrus bitter melon sangria.
Have you tried bitter melon before? Do you have a favorite recipe, or do you absolutely despise and abhor it? Let us hear them in the comments, or send them our way at [email protected]!