Meet bitter melon: grows well, has anti-cancer properties

Published 3:06 am Saturday, September 2, 2017

My husband brought in some bitter melon from the garden and I thought, “What do I do with this?” He is trying this in the garden this year since our climate is perfect for this vegetable. Why not grow what works?

From the outside, the name “bitter melon” seems to have nothing to do with the fruit in question; it does not look like a melon, though it does hail from Cucurbitacese, the same vine-friendly family that brings us watermelon and cantaloupe. Instead of being round and sweet-fleshed, bitter melon, also known as bitter squash, balsam-pear, karela and goya in various parts of the world, it resembles a cucumber (though flavor wise you would never compare them). For starters, bitter melon proves as sharply flavored as you might think, and with rough, bumpy skin. Just because the fruit looks ugly and has a pungent taste, does not mean you should pass on it. Folks have been cooking it for hundreds of years, and with good reason.

Bitter melon grows best in tropical and subtropical regions like the Caribbean, Africa, Southeast Asia and China (where it is more widely consumed). Bitter melon was touted for its medicinal properties long before it became an ingredient used for its flavor. Bitter melon is good for you, thanks to compounds called cucurbitacins, which are very bitter, says Jennifer McLagan, author of Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor.

“It has long been believed that bitter melon has cleansing powers and improves the blood, and others promote it as a cure for diabetes.” She adds, “Research shows that it is good for lowering blood sugar levels and fighting viruses, and a study at the University of Colorado Cancer Center showed that bitter melon juice kills cancer cells.”

You can usually find this fruit at Asian markets all year long, but if you choose to grow it at home, you will harvest it at the end of summer or early fall, when temperatures are high and humidity peaks (sound like home?).

This is the time that you might see bitter melon at the farmers’ market, so don’t pass it up.

My husband got his seed from John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds under edible gourds.

So if you are in for growing something different and perfect for our climate buy some seed next spring.

It does need something to climb on.

Unless you get a small, young melon (recommended), avoid eating the thick, waxy skin. Instead, peel the fruit to get to the flesh beneath. The taste of the meat is quite astringent due to the high levels of quinine, the same ingredients that makes the tonic part of your gin and tonic.

But it is this bitter quality that makes it beloved by those in the culinary world.

The Chinese use the bitter melon in stir-fries and in soups.

A stir-fry was how I used it for my first try and it turned out really well.

I tossed it in salt and let it sit for 30 to 45 minutes and this will draw out some of the bitterness and excess liquid.

Also it can be blanched after the soak before adding it to the pan and this will help retain some of its crunch.


Bitter Melon Stir-Fry

This recipe called for red wine vinegar or even balsamic vinegar for a bit more bite.

But if you have a good Chinese rice wine feel free to substitute it.

1 pound bitter melon (about 1 ¼ melons)

1 tablespoon minced garlic


½ teaspoon chili flakes

2 tablespoons oil for stir-frying

2 tablespoons light soy sauce

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar

½ teaspoon sugar

A few drops of sesame oil (optional)

To prepare the bitter melon, cut in half lengthwise, remove the seed and cut on the diagonal into thin slices. Degorge the bitter melon by sprinkling salt over the slices and placing them in a colander to drain for at least 15 minutes. In a small bowl, mash the chili pepper flakes with the minced garlic.

Heat wok over medium high heat and add 2 tablespoons oil. When the oil is hot, add the minced garlic and chili mixture.

Stir-fry briefly until aromatic (about 30 seconds).

Add the bitter melon. Stir-fry for about 2 minutes, then splash with the balsamic vinegar and soy sauce.

Stir in the sugar. Cook for another 1 to 2 minutes, until the bitter melon is browning and beginning to soften.

Stir in a few drops sesame oil if desired. Serve hot.

One can expand upon this basic stir-fry by adding pork or shrimp.

I thought this was quite good. If you find the dish too bitter, use it with rice, or potatoes, or a bite of meat to allay some of the bite of the bitter melon.