Foodstuff: Bitter Melon

Bitter Melon will not be very familiar to most Canadians unless they happen to be of Chinese or Indian descent. I see it quite regularly in stores when I visit southern Canada but, up here in the far North, such things, when they make a rare appearance, most definitely fall under the category of the exotic. I first saw Bitter Melons in one of our two local stores about four months ago and I expected, as with many exotics, that it would make a brief appearance, never to be seen again. As it happens, though, they have been on the shelves four or five times now so I suppose that they must have sold relatively well. This is somewhat surprising actually, not just because we have such a small Asian community, but because Bitter Melon very much live up to their name and are *very* much an acquired taste.Bitter Melons come in two main varieties; the Chinese phenotype, which is pictured above, and the Indian, which is generally darker in color and has a very jagged, rather ‘warty’ exterior. Our store has also had the Indian variety a couple of times and as soon as it appears again I will feature it in another ‘Foodstuffs’ post.

The various varieties of Bitter melon are grown all over Asia, Africa and the Caribbean but they are most commonly associated with the cuisines of China, India and Japan. It has many names in India, but the Hindi word ‘karela’ is the one I most frequently come across and was the name on the label the last time I bought the Indian sort. The Chinese name is苦瓜 or, in pinyin: kǔguā. The 瓜 character is the generic one for all manner of melons, squashes and gourds. Hence, in English, it is often commonly translated as Bitter Squash and Bitter Gourd as well as Bitter Melon. Some other, less common names are balsam pear or balsam apple, but I have also seen it referred to a ‘leprosy gourd’ or bitter cucumber. I particularly like the latter as it seems particularly apt given the appearance.

The first bitter melon I sliced open had the appearance you see above. There is a thick rind (which is not generally peeled in most recipes), a thinner layer of flesh just inside the rind, and then a central pulp containing some brownish seeds. I expected the next one I opened to be just the same (since the exterior was not markedly different) but I was instead surprised by something else entirely …

As you can see, the pulp is almost absent in this melon. It has apparently withered away to little more than a covering around the seeds and has turned into a dark, quite pretty red color. This appearance, I gather, means that the melon is now further along in the ripening process and some sources I have read suggest that they are not as good at this stage as the flesh becomes even more unpalatably bitter.

The Taste Test

I first tasted a slice of the greener, less ripe melon.  The immediate sensation was a bit like biting into a thick slice of cucumber but considerably less succulent and crisp. The taste is briefly cucumber-like but within seconds the bitterness become very apparent. I think I can probably say that this is the bitterest vegetable I have tasted but not, I have to add,  by a very great margin. The best comparison I can make is with dandelion leaves once they have reached maturity… bitter, but not so bad you have to spit them out.

The seeds had a nice nutty taste, a little like pumpkin seeds perhaps, but there was also a little bitterness in the aftertaste as though they had been roasted and slightly burned. The pulp, on the other hand, while a little spongy, had no real bitterness at all to my taste, and it seems rather a shame that most recipes call for it to be discarded along with the seeds.

The riper of the two melons was quite a bit different indeed. The flesh had a little more bitterness than the less ripe variety (although not markedly so) but the red pulp that surrounds them was very sweet and reminded me of watermelon. The seeds themselves still had the same nutty quality but the bitter aftertaste was almost non-existent. The only thing I really dislike about the ripening effect is that the flesh yellows somewhat and is not nearly as pretty and fresh looking.

Preliminary Preparation

In many Indian dishes the melon is used whole and simply sliced into cross-wise rounds before cooking. In most other recipes, however, the melons get sliced lengthwise, the pulp and seeds are scooped out and the halves are then cut into half-moons, either straight across or on a bias.

Scooping out the pulp is fairly simple and can be achieved by dragging downward along the length of the inside with the tip of a spoon.

Although some eat the melons in their raw natural state, or else cook them without any pre-processing, most recipes one sees call for some preliminary steps to remove, or at least reduce, the bitterness. The three main methods are:

  • Salt the slices with salt and let them sit so the bitter juices drain away;
  • Soak in cold water baths, changing the water several times; and,
  • Blanche the slices for 1 to 3 minutes.

To test which of these methods yields the best results, I cleaned and sliced up two melons, yielding about 2 ½ cups in all. I devoted one quarter to each of the first two methods and the remainder to the third. Basically, the steps I took are as follows:

Salting – I sprinkled the ½ cup or so of slices with about a half-teaspoon of salt and put them in a colander for an hour. Afterwards, I rinsed the slices in water and squeezed them dry;

Soaking – The slices (again about a half-cup or so) were put into a large bowl of cold water and left to soak. I changed the water twice at hour intervals so that the slices had a total soaking of three hours and, at the end, I drained and squeezed them out;

Blanching – I heated a large pot of salted water to boiling, threw in the remaining  slices for one minute and then plunged them into cold water to stop the cooking. Again, I drained them and squeezed out as much water as I could.

And the result …

Well, to be honest, I don’t see much difference between any of the methods. There was a general decrease in the bitterness level across all three ways but not a great deal, to my mind. If one were to assign and arbitrary bitterness level of 10 points to the raw, unprocessed melon, then after processing the level would still be somewhere around a 7 or 8. I quite like bitter melon but I’d say that if you really dislike the bitter quality then salting, soaking or blanching won’t improve it much for you. Interestingly though, in Indian cookery, many dishes are made without any of the soaking or blanching but it is said that the spices used, particularly turmeric, cut the bitterness. I am not sure if this is true yet so I will definitely have to experiment with that sometime …

To come …

Bitter Melon is chiefly fried or braised but is also frequently used in salads, both with the raw vegetable and in preparations where it is pre-cooked first. As I have the Chinese phenotype at present, I am going to focus my next culinary experiments on Chinese styles of cookery. I have been reviewing a lot of recipes and see that the vegetable is frequently paired with eggs, pork or shrimp, and also seems to take well to garlic, ginger and salted black bean.  I am wondering, given the preponderance of recipes featuring the beans, whether the saltiness may actually cut the bitter taste a little.

I have the Bitter melon slices left from my ‘de-bitterization’ experiment still and I plan to try a small salad and some sort of fried dish over the next day or so. I also want to try freezing some of the remaining melon to see how well it handles that. I am going to try freezing some blanched slices for at least three weeks and will post the results afterwards to let you know how it all worked out.

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