Saturday, November 20, 2010

Bitter melon

This month I have felt especially fortunate to live in a place which although it is a moderately small city in a very northern latitude, is so culturally diverse that the foods I have been featuring are readily available at various grocery stores within walking distance of my house.  It was not always so, in fact it was not so not too many years ago.   In Edmonton we have large Asian and African communities, and so for instance it is much easier for me to obtain these little items to the left than, say, grits, which I've been seeking diligently all month but have been unable to find.

Bitter melon, also called bitter gourd, is the cilantro of summer squashes.  You love it or you hate it, apparently, no matter where you grew up.  But I can verify that these and their larger slightly less gnarly cousins, that look like this:

are some of the most popular items in Superstore and T&T, and when they're fresh and looking good (the bottom type nearly always are but the top ones are easily bruised in transit) you'll see people greedily stuffing five or six of them into a grocery bag.  And it has its own fan club, a National Council no less ("We claim all of humanity as part of our Bitter Melon community"), which is so kewl. 

And that's weird for something that tastes like poison, right?

In texture they're much like--sorry to keep repeating this, but it's true--a soft zucchini with large tough seeds.  A cross-section of the large one looks like this.  You don't have to peel it but you do have to scrape out the seeds and the pith before using it:

With the little guys, on the other hand, you can optionally leave the seeds in.  The two types taste very similar, that's to say bitter.  The texture is nice and fresh and cool, and you're thinking, "Yeah, this isn't too bad at all, really," but then the aftertaste kicks in.  I tried the large one, before MoFo, in a stir fry, and although I quite liked it at the time, I was--or imagined I was--tasting it for days afterwards.  What it tastes like, and I'm not kidding, it's only slightly less bitter, is like biting into a potato sprout, only these are not poisonous and potato sprouts are, so don't try that at home, please, just because I did.  But take my word for it, potato sprouts are probably the bitterest substance known to man. it or hate it...I'm still sitting on the fence until I've tried a few more ways of preparing them. 

This is another tribute post, this time for the Garlicky lemon bitter gourd crisps from Jugalbandi.  That post is definitely worth reading for the introduction and links especially.  The recipe is over there but there isn't much to it.  All you do is slice the bitter melon thinly:

...then coat it in a spice mix of salt, turmeric, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper:

...spray it with oil and bake it at 400F for about 20 minutes, flipping halfway through, until you get this:

Serve hot, sprinkled with lemon or lime juice.  Yeah, it was pretty good, and certainly very interesting-looking.  Strong flavours and spices offer bitter melon more of a fair fight, so if you're not sure you'll like the taste but want to try it, a good place to start is with a very spicy dish like this one.

Bon appetit, fellow experimenters!


  1. The skin is a lovely vibrant green. Sounds interesting. I wonder whether I would like it. I've never seen this in the groceries around here; I'll have a look next time I'm in the Asian market. If I see this now, it will stand out for having read about it her

  2. Great photos — I felt as though I were reading a food encyclopedia. (In a good way.) Sounds like an interesting food — but maybe not one to serve in large amounts to company.

  3. I've seen it every time I've gone to the Asian market. Rather off-putting in appearance. Glad to know it's got more 'bark' than 'bite';-)

  4. Well, your dish ended up looking delicious! I love finding out about all of these new foods.

  5. Wow! That last picture looks great! I have always wondered what I should do with this food. I see it often at the farmers market!

  6. My mom served it in a stir-fry once in awhile when I was little. I've never developed a taste for it, it was always too bitter even if you don't eat the melon part, everything in the whole dish had the same bitter taste. As an adult, I know to avoid it. :-)