(Momordica charantia) Also known as
bitter melon, bitter cucumber or balsam pear. Found in the cuisine of
tropical south China and most of South East Asia. Truly bitter, due to
the presence of quinine (an anti-malarial substance), bitter gourd may
take the Western palate some getting used to. The deeper green and
younger they are the better, as they toughen with age. When young, it is
possible to eat the melon in its entirety, seeds and pith included.
Bitter gourd may be eaten raw, as a salad,
or fried and made into a sambal with onion and chili. In either case, it
is advisable to first de-gorge them by slicing thinly, sprinkling with
salt (or a mixture of salt and turmeric) to draw out the liquid and some
of the bitterness, then drying them on paper towels before proceeding
with the recipe. If your melons aren't as young as they should be the
seeds will be hard and need to be removed.
Although it is an acquired taste, the bitter
flavor can be very attractive in combination with spices. It makes a
popular pickle in India. In Sri Lanka it is much sought after as a
sambal when sliced and fried crisply before being dressed with coconut
milk, sliced chilies and shallots. It is also cooked into a curry. In
Burma, it is eaten raw, finely sliced and salted to draw out some of the
bitterness, then mixed with sliced onions and garlic. In Chinese
cuisine, it is usually stuffed with minced pork and served in a
strong-flavored black bean sauce that can stand up to the bitter flavor.
Sometimes it is blanched to remove some of the bitterness, then fried
The tender shoots and leaves, rich in
vitamin A, are blanched and served with a savory dip made from chili and
shrimp. The leaves may also be lightly fried with chili and salt, or
cooked as a 'white vegetable', meaning simmered in coconut milk.
A cousin of the bitter gourd is the spiny
bitter gourd (Momordica cochinchinesis) which looks like a
prickly, yellow-green kiwifruit on a long green stem. Known in India as
kantola or kakrol, tumbakaravila in Sri Lanka, teruah in Malaysia,
Fak-khaao in Thailand, mokube-tsushi in Japan and buyok-buyok in the
Philippines, it is not quite as bitter but used in the same way as
bitter gourd. In the same family there is also a balsam apple (M.muricata)
and another species (M.subangulata).
When purchasing, buy shiny, fresh looking
bitter gourds which are green without any trace of yellow, a sign of
age. Store in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, but not for more than a
day or two, as gourds will continue to ripen and instead of a tender
center, the seeds will develop and become hard. To prepare, slice
crossways - thinly for salads and frying, thick so it can hold a filling
if it is to be stuffed. Rub over with salt and turmeric, leave for 20
minutes, then fry until golden. For a milder flavor, the pieces should
be blanched to remove some of the bitterness.
Like so many Asian foods, bitter gourd
started out as a medicine - to purify the blood, counter diabetes and
replenish the milk of nursing mothers. The leaves were used to treat
sore eyes in elephants. It is one of the few ingredients stocked by
Chinese herbalist that is sold fresh as opposed to dried. Bitter gourd
tops the list of bioactive 'herbs' according to scientists in the
Philippines, and other spin-offs of eating it include increased energy
and stamina. The latest studies indicated bitter gourd is an invaluable
dietary supplement for those with immune system damage.