We’re programmed to sense four basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter (yes, I know you want to include umami, but lets just deal with the basics for now). The first three are easy enough to understand, and enjoy fully as they come across our tongues. But, bitter? Bitterness conveys a sense of danger to our psyches, some ingrained, instinctual message to spit out food; to be repulsed; rejection. Bitter melon, a food prized for its pronounced bitterness, as well as its myriad of medicinal properties, exemplifies the love-hate relationship Westerners have with bitterness in general.
As foreign as the bumpy, extraterrestrial-looking, Momordica charantia L. is to American and European markets, the fruit— yes, it is a fruit—originated in India, and was domesticated in Asia in the 1400s. This dissemination of the plant created two general types of bitter melon: the smoothly ridged, jade-colored version that is popular in Chinese cuisine, somewhat resembling a cucumber, and the smaller, wartier, darker colored kind, usually called Karela, which is found most frequently in Indian and Caribbean cooking. Related to the cucumber family, the bitter melon gets most of its sharpness from incredibly healthy compounds called cucurbitacins.
Though it hasn’t reached most local supermarkets yet, bitter melon is one of the only fresh items to definitely seek out in Chinese herbal medicine shops, and for good reason. After studying the populations of Southern China, epidemiologists traced a link between bitter melon consumption and reduced risk of cancer and diabetes. Traditional healers have used it for centuries to successfully cure fever, parasites, virus, and other illnesses. Chemical and nutritional studies have verified these antiquated practices, with many studies like one from the University of Colorado Cancer Center showing that bitter melon juice can kill cancer cells in both humans and mice. Bitter melon may, in fact, be one of the healthier plants available for consumption, yet hasn’t been incorporated nearly enough into our cuisine for it to be acceptable to our palates, nor for it to positively impact our health.
Flavor and Health Benefits
So, what is it that makes our programmed, Western palates shy away from the thought of using bitter melon in our cooking? The common cause of bitterness in foods is alkaloids, which evolutionarily existed to dissuade animals from feeding on plants that would upset their digestion, as described by Harold McGee in his book “On Food and Cooking.” As a defense mechanism, plants secrete natural pesticides and toxins such as phenols, flavonoids, isoflavones, terpenes, and glucosinolates, which are always bitter, acrid or astringent. A study on the bitter taste in plants by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition explains that, “Sensitized to the bitter taste of plant alkaloids and other poisons, humans reject foods that are perceived to be excessively bitter. This instinctive rejection of bitter taste may be immutable because it has long been crucial to survival.” The food industry now takes steps to remove those compounds from plants through selective genetics and various de-bittering methods. Due to our inherent aversions to one of the basic tastes, we’ve found ways to wholly remove it from most modern day consumption.
For each one of our 10,000 tastebuds we have around twenty-five bitter receptors, some of which only respond to a single bitter taste, while others can perceive over fifty bitter chemical compounds. While salty, sweet, and sour sensations quickly fade on our tongues, the bitter taste sensation is comparatively prolonged. The area on our tongues most sensitive to bitterness is a swath on the back of the tongue, closest to the throat. So, as that bitter morsel goes down, you quickly realize that perhaps you don’t need another bite.
Just like many bitter, cruciferous vegetables, bitter melon is rich in vitamins C, A, E, B1, B2, B3, folate, potassium, calcium, zinc, magnesium, phosphorous, iron, and dietary fiber, making it a cornucopia of nutritional value. What sets bitter melon apart from the rest of those pesky, bitter vegetables is its abundance of polypeptide-p, an insulin-like hypoglycemic protein used to control diabetes naturally by lowering glucose levels through an action that mimics human insulin.
In concert with other flavorings and accompaniments in food, bitter melon does have its place. Another name for bitter melon is “elegant vegetable” because its bitterness does not affect other foods it comes in contact with. McGee points out that monosodium glutamate, MSG, seems to increase the intensity of salty and bitter flavors, perhaps further discouraging people to consume bitter melon when tasting it in many Chinese preparations. Furthermore, in a 1997 study in Nature on salt enhancing flavor, chemists found that, “in addition to adding desired saltiness to food, salts potentiate flavor through the selective suppression of bitterness (and perhaps other undesirable flavors), and the release from suppression of palatable flavors such as sweetness.” So, perhaps some science can be used to back up the practice of liberally salting bitter melon, like some recipes do, before cooking.
Growth and Appearance
Bitter melon is one weird looking fruit. It bears some resemblance just short of taste to its relative, the cucumber, and exists in several cultivated forms found throughout mainland China, India, Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean. The Chinese classified the varieties of the plant with the names “Broad Shoulder” or Dading, “Smooth Body” or Huashen, and “Long Body” or Chang-shen. The Dading variety is approximately 20 cm long and 11 cm across with flesh about 1.3 cm thick. It is highly adaptable to seasons, growing as a spring, summer, or fall crop. The Huashen bitter gourd has a longer, thinner fruit, measuring 25 cm long and just 6 cm across. Usually a deep green color, this smooth bodied kind of bitter melon is prized for its sturdiness in transport and strong bitter flavor, and is available in Chinese markets throughout the summer months. Long bodied bitter melons are similar to the smooth bodied variety and are about 30 cm long with a flesh thickness of just 8-9 mm, and bitter with a sweet aftertaste. Bitter melons can also be subdivided by the color of their interiors, ranging from dark green, jade, celadon, cyan, ivory, and white.
Bitter melon is cultivated solely as an ornamental vine in North China because of its colorful, ripe fruits— orange reflexed pericarps and scarlet red contents that closely resemble Bittersweet. Bitter melon succeeds in the hot, humid climates of South China, around the Yangtze River basin (white fleshed varietal), in areas like Guangdong, Guangxi, Fujian, Hainan (cyan), Jiangxi, Hunan, and Sichuan provinces. Though previously thought to be purely valuable as decoration, bitter melon is gaining popularity in North China as a greenhouse crop.
We don’t see bitter melon popping up that much on modern day menus, save for the tradition-preserving Chinese, Indian, or Caribbean spots. Perhaps the cooks from those cultures don’t think our unaccustomed palates can handle it. Most cookbooks with bitter melon recipes written in English forewarn the cook to blanche, parboil, or somehow precook the fruit before incorporating it into a dish. The “best” bitter melons are smaller in size with firm flesh because the larger it grows the more present those bitter compounds are. Though the large, fleshy seeds are edible, most cooks scoop away the seeds due to their additional astringency. Salting before cooking the melon is common to both reduce moisture and de-fang the bitter taste.
Just as the scientific studies above explained, fat, spice, and salt can balance or contrast the bitterness of the melon. Danny Bowien, chef of Mission Chinese Food and one of just a few chefs cooking bitter melon for a primarily unknowing crowd, came to love bitter melon in a very strange way. Once the Mission Chinese pop-up took up occupancy at Lung Shan, a Chinese take-out spot in the Mission district of San Francisco, Bowien took an interest in the foods the Chinese cooks made each other for family meal.
“There were all of these construction workers that would come in all the time, like Chinese guys, and the owner used to be in construction as well, so he has a lot of friends around the city who do construction as well so I guess he had a deal with contractors that he knew that their guys could just come in everyday and eat lunch, literally every day. There would be weeks at a time where they would just make one thing, like a cafeteria. So it would be beef and bitter melon, stir-fried… It’s one of my favorite things.”
Bowien then went to work playing with the excess bitter melon the restaurant kept around in abundance, knowing he wanted to balance it with a smoky flavor. He landed on Benton’s bacon, then a somewhat novel product in the Bay area, because he thought his customers wouldn’t understand the simple pairing of beef and bitter melon. He turned to sweet tofu skin, or yuba, so “you hide it in the sweet tofu skin and then once we put it in there it just kind of worked! It was kind of salty, it’s still one of my favorite dishes. It’s the thing that we’re chasing after, trying to make another great dish. It hits every flavor— sweet, spicy, bitter, smoky, meaty, everything but sour, basically, but it has some acidity.”
Thus, Mission Chinese Food’s famed Thrice Cooked Bacon dish was born where glutinous disks of rice cakes cozy up to rich, smoky bacon, astringent bitter melon, and sweet tofu skin for a powerful, spicy bite.
Even at Lung Shan, the cooks, native-born Chinese men, fried, steamed, or boiled the bitter melon before cooking it a second time in a stir-fry. What really irked the traditional cooks, was Bowien’s proclivity to eat raw rounds of bitter melon, something that totally goes against the Chinese ethos of eating foods in balance of one another. Bowien continues to mess around with bitter melon, stuffing the whole fruit with a farce and steaming it in a very Cantonese fashion, or using it in the stuffing of a dumpling with beef cheek, a similarly fatty element like the bacon. As much as he likes bitter melon, he knows it must be balanced or challenged with an equally strong flavor. He’s gone so far as to incorporate bitter melon into his new beverage program, helmed by Sam Anderson, where he’s created a bitter melon margarita using blanco tequila, agave nectar, lime juice, and aloe salt, an aloe vera derived salt with rich umami notes that draw out the bitter, vegetal quality of slices of bitter melon that macerate in the drink as it sits.
For the rest of us who might want to mess around with bitter melon at home, it’s best to think about how the fruit positively accentuates meaty flavors. The classic pairings call for pork, beef, or fish, and a fermented black bean sauce to tone down what some would refer to as an unpleasant bitterness. Indian curries, as well as those from the Caribbean Islands, really tend to cook down the bitter melon in stews and curries in an effort to mask the bitterness with rich flavors like coconut milk, tamarind, and dry spices. Even if you think your palate can handle it, it’s smart to partially pre-cook bitter melon in an effort to reduce its astringency the first few times you prepare it as bitterness does vary seasonally and varietally. It certainly can be beneficial to your health, but in no way should it be used as the sole medical remedy for any of the before mentioned illnesses. But, as Bowien put it, “anything that tastes like that has to be good for you,” and luckily, it is.
Photograph courtesy of Shigemi.J.