Female bittermelon flower
Click on photo to enlarge
Bitter melon, also known as ku kua, foo gwa, karela, balsam pear and bittergourd, is a member of the cucurbitaceae family and looks like cucumber with warts. As the name implies, it is bitter, the most bitter of all fruits, definitely an acquired taste vegetable. Many of my friends either love it or hate it. Bitter melon has been used as a folk remedy in China, India, Africa and other parts of the world.
There are many varieties and they come in many different sizes and shapes. I grow 3 varieties – 1 white and 2 green (one is short and fat about 6″ in length, the other is long and skinny about 10″ in length). When the bitter melon fruit ripens it turns into this gorgeous orange/yellow, at this stage I harvest the fruit and collect the seeds for next year’s planting.
Left photo: bitter melon flower. Right photo: (top) seeds from the ripe fruit, (bottom) the soft red covering is removed to reveal the hard, light brown seed which I air dry and save for the following year’s planting.
Growing – Bitter melon is a climbing vine, requiring strong support. Easy to grow but requires a long growing season. As I mentioned in my angled luffa post, I am a windowsill gardener living in zone 5 and need to start my seeds indoor around mid-March. If you have a greenhouse you could start your seeds later, if you live in areas with longer growing season you could direct sow same time as cucumber and melons.
Before planting, I place my seeds between very wet paper towels (placed in a plastic bag) overnight or you can also soak them in water. Plant the soaked seeds pointy end down.
Bitter melon is cold sensitive. Set transplants in garden when danger of frost is past and soil is thoroughly warm. Plant in full sun around a trellis or along a fence 12″ – 15″ apart. I dig in compost and organic fertilizer when transplanting and give the plants a drink of fish emulsion fertilizer once a month after that. Mulch to conserve moisture.
A heat loving plant, bitter melon is slow to take off, but once the hot weather arrives it takes off in leaps and bounds.
NOTE: If you are a seed saver, avoid planting different varieties side by side. They will cross pollinate.
Harvesting – Bitter melon fruit is edible at any stage even when yellow. I like to harvest while the fruit is green and the ridges starts to expand (see photo above, center, you will notice the progress as you observe the different stages of the fruits on the vine). If there is a bit of yellow in the skin it is OK too. Taste the different stages to find the stage you like best. Harvest frequently to encourage fruiting.
Cooking – Bitter melon can be eaten cooked or uncooked. It is used in stir-fry, soups or stews. Cooked until al dente (crunchy) or until soft is a matter of preference. My favorite cooking method is making Stuffed Bitter Melon Cups. Cut the bitter melon into ¼” – 1″ rounds, remove the seeds and fill the cavities with the same meat mixture used in my Cucumber Logs recipe. Cooking method is the same also.
Below are 2 recipes, feel free to adjust to your taste and needs.
BRAISED BITTER MELON WITH BEEF (see NOTE below)
Adapted from “My Students’ Favorite Chinese Recipes, updated edition” by Norma Chang
¾ – 1 pound sirloin or other tender cut of beef, cut across the grain into about ¼” thick slices
1 teaspoon light brown sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 slices ginger from ginger wine
1 tablespoon ginger wine
2 tablespoons soy sauce regular or gluten free)
1 tablespoon oil
white pepper to taste
Combine all the above. Marinate 1/2 hour if time permits. Can be done the day before and kept refrigerated
2 – 4 bitter melons, cut in halves lengthwise, remove seeds, cut into bite-sized chunks
1 small onion, cut into 4 or 6 lengthwise wedges
carrot slices for garnish (optional)
1 – 3 cloves garlic, minced
1 – 2 shallots, minced
½ teaspoon kosher salt or to taste
2 – 3 tablespoons oil or as needed
½ cup chicken broth or as needed
1 – 2 tablespoons oyster sauce (optional)
1 teaspoon Asian sesame oil or to taste
sliced scallion for garnish (optional)
1 tablespoon cornstarch combined with 2 tablespoons water
1. Add 1 tablespoon oil to preheated wok or frying pan. Swirl to coat cooking surface. Add salt and bitter melon. Stir fry until bitter melon turns bright green. Add broth, bring to a boil. Cover and simmer until bitter melon is nearly soft. Remove to a clean platter (including liquid).
2. Add 1 – 2 tablespoons oil to wok or frying pan. Add garlic and shallots, stir fry 10 seconds. Add beef, stir-fry until beef has changed color. Add bitter melon, onion and carrots. Stir fry until beef reached desired doneness. Stir in oyster sauce (if using) and sesame oil. Thicken with cornstarch mixture. Adjust seasoning, garnish with scallion. Serves 4 – 6.
VARIATIONS: Substitute chicken or pork for the beef.
NOTE: I cooked extra and froze part of the finished dish. It reheated well, not the same as freshly cooked, but it was good and I enjoyed it.
1 bitter melon, seeded and thinly sliced (about ½ pound)
2 tablespoons soy sauce or to taste (regular or gluten free)
1 tablespoon Asian sesame oil or to taste
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon kosher salt or to taste
toasted black sesame seeds for garnish (optional) see NOTE below
In a mixing bowl, combine all the above. Let stand 15 – 30 minutes, arrange in serving dish, garnish with sesame seeds if using. (Can be served immediately or prepared overnight. There will be a flavor and texture difference. Experiment and see which you like best.)
VARIATIONS: Add 1 – 2 tablespoons Chinkiang vinegar (also known as black rice vinegar) or balsamic vinegar
NOTE: When toasting black sesame seeds, add a few white ones. When the white seeds are toasted, the black ones are toasted too.
Copyright © 2011 by Norma Chang