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Anyone actually like to eat and cook BITTER MELON?!

  • c

So I had my first encounter w/ bitter melon last night. Call it more of a tussle. The ugly wrinkled gourd that I battled w/ last night is pictured below. Having never eaten or cooked w/ it before, I picked one up at the Asian produce stall on a whim. This looked pretty compared to the really funkily-pocked Indian bitter melons sitting next to it.

Perhaps my subconscious fear of this beast caused me to bury it in the veggie drawer on Sat., not to be unearthed til last night. Radicchio is bitter, but isn't called "bitter radicchio." So something actually known as "bitter melon" must pack a punch. And boy, did it!

I tasted it raw to know what I was dealing with here. Once my teeth penetrated the flesh and extracted a tiny bit of juice, bitterness permeated my entire mouth. I didn't have too much time to comb the web for recipes, but did see some interesting ones of Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese origin. I had some other things I needed to use up, so went w/ my own Thai-style curry concoction that included Japanese eggplant along w/ spices, coconut milk, and herbs. I salted the seeded melon first and let it sit for a while to extract some liquid before rinsing, hoping that this would mellow the bitterness. I read about blanching, but was lazy and noted comments about this detracting from the texture.

In the end, the dish looked very appetizing, but was, for the most part, a loss. My husband couldn't eat anymore past two bites. I was only able to eat a couple pieces of melon, while the eggplant and curry sauce were edible w/ a hint of bitterness. Optimistically, I wrapped it up for today, but have a feeling it will be all chucked soon. Fortunately, I made a back up dish last night that was very simple and tasty...an omelette w/ crumbled tofu and scallions! Husband said it reminded him of soft eggs w/ brain from his childhood. So he can eat brain but no bitter melon.

Sorry for this long story, but I needed to vent and lick my wounds. So...does anyone actually like the taste of bitter melon and cook w/ these potent creatures at home? I'm not totally ready to give up on them since I feel like they have alot of potential w/ the right coaxing and treatment. They apparently have wonderful health properties. See link for some general info. Thanks for any tips and recipes!

Link: http://milonee.net/bengali_recipes/bi...

Image: http://i2.photobucket.com/albums/y45/...

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  1. Oh no, you poor woman!

    Bitter melon is somewhat of an acquired taste... it's definitely not meant to be eaten raw, I can't even imagine!

    Here is what you do with a bitter melon:

    Mix together ground pork or minced scallops, black pepper, minced garlic and a little bit of caramel sauce (or, if you don't have any, hoisin) in a bowl. Peel the melon while still whole, then cut it into quarters. Make a hole (use an apple corer or a long, thin knife) through the centre of each piece. Boil it in salted water for 3 minutes. Remove from the water (discard the water, it's all salty and bitter now) and stuff the meat mixture into each piece.

    Simmer in a soup made of two quarts chicken broth, 1 Tbsp. of fish sauce, chopped scallions and chopped cilantro. Add rice noodles to the broth right at the end. Don't forget to eat the Vietnamese way -- add chile/rooster/sriracha sauce, lime juice and bean sprouts to taste at table.

    It is still a little bitter but the sweetness (especially if you use scallops) counters it a bit, and the fat in the soup cuts the bitter taste.

    14 Replies
    1. re: Das Ubergeek

      Ah, thanks for the sympathy and recipe, DU! Your recipe sounds great, although I'm surprised that you peel it since most recipes I saw online said that you shouldn't peel. If that helps reduce the bitterness though, I'm game.

      There's a stuffed bitter melon recipe in Corinne Trang's book. IIRC, she doesn't peel, blanch, or pre-salt. Her version stuffs the seeded disks w/ a meat mixture like yours and then pan fries.

      One confusion I had w/ your recipe. You say to quarter and then core out the center. I'm envisioning it to be difficult w/ very small pieces. Can you clarify this part? Thanks.

      Below is the Thai-style curry I made w/ the melon. I did half moon slices but didn't peel at all. Added sweet, tart, salty, some spicy flavors to try to balance the bitterness to no avail. Shame, since it does look tasty to me...

      Image: http://i2.photobucket.com/albums/y45/...

      1. re: Carb Lover

        Sorry, I had to stifle a giggle because bittermelon is such a pox upon those who didn't grow up with it.

        Worst recipe ever: slices of bittermelon tossed in Asian spices. I can't stand the stuff.

        Best recipe ever, and the only way I ever make it at home: similar to Ubergeek's recipe, and great if you like meatballs and fishballs like you get in various Asian cuisine.

        Cut the tips off both ends, then cut the bittermelon into two inch tall rounds. Scoop out the spongy center with a small metal spoon. It's somewhat important to make the rounds the same size so they'll cook evenly later, but don't stress about it. And of course, the end pieces might be cups rather than hollows depending how much of each end you sliced off. No worries.

        My instructions are going to start getting imprecise, but it doesn't matter because it tastes good as long as you follow this roughly:

        Get enough ground pork to fill the centers of all the bittermelon that you have. Two is usually enough for a 5 qt. pot. Let's say you have one pound of ground pork. Mix together, roughly speaking:

        -1 pound ground pork
        -1/2 pound plain fish paste (some have weird things mixed in)
        -handful chopped cilantro
        -one or two handfuls chopped shrimp. The more shrimp you have, the sweeter the soup will be.

        Bring a pot of chicken stock to a boil. You can certainly add dried scallops or any of the other things Ubergeek suggested. I usually go without due to pantry limitations. Fill each bittermelon with the mixture, wipe off both ends, and drop into the boiling soup. Make balls out of any leftover meat, and drop that into the soup too. It's like fishballs. In fact, you might want to use extra your first time because that meat/seafood combination really offsets the bitterness of the melon. My BF always eats all the meatballs and I eat the bittermelon. A daikon cut into large cubes helps too.

        Cook until the bittermelon is translucent, but not until it's about to fall apart. Salt and pepper to taste. The flavor really mellows out, and the soup has a bitter edge that I really enjoy. I usually tell people that if they like collards, mustard greens, Chinese a-chai, and other bitter vegetables, they might like this. Of course, it's not for everyone.

        Note: your bittermelon looks rather green. As with all vegetables, the greener ones have more flavor. Therefore, Chinese chefs actually prefer really pale, very fat bittermelon. I've hardly ever seen them almost white at the market, but that's how they look when people grow their own. If you ever see any that are very pale green, grab them!

        1. re: nooodles

          I grew up with bitter melon as well, but I still don't like it much (although I can do better than eat two bites :) ). The dishes I've had unfortunately will not mask any of the bitterness (or also known as "coolness", due to its cooling minty-like sensation as well as the bitterness) of the veggie.

          1. re: Curtis

            Oh, I'm glad you mentioned the "coolness" part. I totally felt it's minty cooling effect as it was travelling down my esophagus into my tummy. I sorta liked that stomach-numbing feeling which is why I want to get over my initial aversion. Little does my husband know that I'm plotting to smuggle the bitter guy into our kitchen again. I'll likely be eating these soups by my lonesome, as he is more sensitive to bitter than me.

            1. re: Carb Lover

              FYI, the "cooling" properties of bitter melon apparently are an integral part of chinese medicine philosophy, which believes that certain foods make your body cooler or hotter (ice, ironically, makes your body hotter because it makes your body work harder to raise your body temperature back to normal)

              In my experience, all the "hot" foods are the delicious ones and all the "cold" ones are... well, like bitter melon :-)

              Mr. Taster

        2. re: Carb Lover

          That does look tasty!

          I grew up with bitter melon (I think), because whenever I eat it now (which is rarely), I get the deja vu feeling of hot humid days in my grandmother's back yard.

          Whenever I have it, it is usually sliced thinly and stir fried with ground pork.

          Along with sator beans, bitter melon is the ultimate acquired taste from South East Asia. Both of which I like to eat...once in a while.

          At least bitter melon won't make your pee stink to high heaven like sator beans will.

          Link: http://elmomonster.blogspot.com

          1. re: elmomonster

            Sator beans! What are they?

            1. re: Noah

              I only knew them as "petai" (Malay language) until elmomonster's post. You'll find a pic and description on this site: www.paradasia.com/1a14_Petai_product_...

              Also known as stink beans (because your pee will have a funny smell afterward, just like the effect asparagus has on some people).
              In Singapore and Malaysia, they're usually cooked with sambal and eaten as part of the condiments in nasi padang.

              1. re: ju

                Exactly...sator beans are commonly found in Singapore, Malaysian, and Indonesian cuisine. Some Thai restaurants serve it too, but it's rare. If you're in the L.A. area, I've seen it served at Bua Siam in NoHo and Penang (Malaysian) in West Covina.

                Sator beans (petai, peteh), look like wrinkled lima beans and has sort of a nutty, and almost metallic taste. I like it, but hate that it makes any restroom you use later, inhospitable for days!

                Link: http://elmomonster.blogspot.com

          2. re: Carb Lover

            It seems to me that most of the bitterness is right under the peel and in the seeds, but I've not done any thorough studies of it, so I could just be wasting food. :(

            How to explain what I mean... the bitter melons I buy tend to be small, probably no more than about eight inches long. So I cut off the ends, and I peel, and I cut the thing crossways in half, and then each of those pieces I cut crossways in half, ending up with four "cross-sections" of bitter melon, each about two inches in length.

            Then I take a sharp knife (a grapefruit spoon works great for this too) and take out the spongy, nasty core, which is absolutely horrendously bitter... so now, each of those four pieces looks like a two-inch long piece of pipe.

            (the melon, eight inches long)
            ======== (cut off the two ends BEFORE peeling)
            == == == == (cut into four and hollow out the middles)
            O O O O (this is what you end up with)

            Then I stuff the meat in there (note: when I first had bitter melon it was at a Bengali friend's house and his mother stuffed it with curried yams and simmered it in coconut milk and it was absolutely delicious but I haven't managed to duplicate it yet) and simmer it in the broth.

            My Chinese friend often takes whole scallops and stuffs them in the centre... he also does it with dong gua (winter melon -- looks like a long zucchini) which is much, much sweeter, tastes like a cucumber when cooked.

            1. re: Das Ubergeek

              Hahahaha! Loved your ASCII illustration of how you made the cuts!

              Hilarious!...... and informative!

              Link: http://elmomonster.blogspot.com

              1. re: Das Ubergeek

                Thanks for the tutorial for dummies! :-) Seriously, what a great way to communicate your instructions. Makes sense now; I thought you meant to quarter lengthwise before. Can't wait to make a soup using your and nooodles' suggestions!

                BTW, anyone know how the Indian bitter melon compares to the one I bought? Could it (*gulp*) be even more bitter?

                1. re: Carb Lover

                  It's just smaller and knobblier. They taste the same. Lighter melons are slightly (SLIGHTLY) less bitter than darker melons.

                2. re: Das Ubergeek

                  I made a curry soup out of bitter melon last summer. I sliced it, sauteed it with some other vegetables and used Thai curries. Probably similar flavors to your recipe but it was a thin, clear soup.

                  At first the flavor was kind of jarring. It was more than bitter, it was, I don't know, soapy. I added some more heat and it was better. I think the astringency of the melon balances out the heat. As I went on drinking the soup, I started to enjoy the balance of flavors.

                  I'll make that soup again when I see bitter melons, but more as a refreshing hot drink, if you see what I mean.

            2. I'm pretty sure it's an acquired taste. A Chinese friend once gave me cooking instructions, and I cooked it using her technique. There are very few things that I don't like to eat, but this turned out to be one of them. I've never had an inclination to try it again.

              1. I am a bittermelon fan. Yes, it is very much an acquired taste. My grandmother lived with us when we were children and it's a stable on our menu. I love it, my sister isn't a fan.
                When we order bittermelon in restaurants, we usually get the stir-fry bittermelon and beef. Thin slices of beef and bittermelon in a black bean sauce. You can always use chicken, pork or spare ribs.
                At home, I usually do a traditional stew. I start with either some pork spare ribs or just some meaty pork bones (like neck bones or leg bones) to make a broth. Once the broth is done (usually takes a couple of hours, I skim the fat and add chucks of bittermelon (cut in half lengthwise, scoope out the seeds, and cut into 2 inch pieces) and perserved (pickled) mustard greens. Cook for another 45 minutes or so till the melon is tender and meat falling off the bone. Taste the broth and add salt is desire. When everything is done, I usually dip the bittermelon and pork in a little soy sauce. I also drink it like a soup. Cooking it in the stew this way does take some bitterness from the melon. I have to say, my sister is still not a fan of this dish, so it's definitely not for everybody, especially people how doesn't like the bitterness.

                1. I love bitter melon but it is definitely an acquired taste and my kids won't even look at it, let alone eat it. You might want to order this dish at cantonese restaurants with black bean sauce along with meat of choice and see how you like it before trying to make it. If you still want to forge on, here are a few tips:

                  (1) The lighter color and deeper groove ones are less bitter. Try to get as light green as possible because the deep green ones are less mature.

                  (2) Some people blanch cut up pieces in water for about a minute before sauteing them.

                  (3) Some people like to add sugar to the saute to counteract the bitterness, try chinese brown bar sugar...if not, white sugar is ok. Maybe a tsp per melon.

                  (4) Depending on personal preference, some people like the melon soft. If so, stewing with meat juices would lessen the bitterness. The more al dente, the more bitter.

                  (5) As a short cut, you can buy a lb of black bean spareribs from the dim sum deli's. Cut the bitter melon in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. If the seeds are tinged red, then it is more mature and tend to be less bitter. Cut the melon into bite size pieces and blanch them in boiling salted water for a minute. (I don't do this because I can't be bothered and I don't mind the bitterness.) Drain. Heat up saute pan...add some crushed garlic, saute blanched melon for a couple of minutes. Throw in precooked spareribs and simmer to desired softness. Season with addtional salt & pepper to taste.

                  I hope you'll acquire the taste for this melon. It does grow on you but it's not for everyone. For people who are prone to acne or dryness of mouth or heat exhaustion, bitter melon is really good for you in a homeopathic kind of way. Margret

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: Margret

                    I can second the homeopathic acne remedy there... I was given it as a zitty teen in a Chinese medicine shop in Flushing, Queens and that's how I learned to tolerate the taste.

                    Vietnamese use caramel sauce instead of sugar, but it's the same idea.

                    1. re: Margret

                      I've always been told about these folk remedies but I don't have actual experiences. I'm glad some of it has been validated. I assumed it worked, right? ;0) Thanks for sharing.

                    2. I like to eat it, cook with it and crave it. I agree with the other posters that it is an acquired taste that one would have grown up eating. Bittermelon is used in many Filipino dishes, I haven't had it any other way. There was a recent post about bittermelon greens, those are 100% more bitter than the melon!

                      1. I agree with the posters below on soup as the best starting point. I also hollow out, and stuff with a mixture of ground pork/shrimp, and mung bean (glass) noodle seasoned just with black pepper and fish sauce. (actually if you have a favorite Vietnamese spring roll mixture that is even nicer with the added tree ear, shredded carrot, etc.) Simmered in a good chicken stock till very tender it is lovely. Prefer it in about 3 inch sections. We do not add much other seasoning or herbs in order to enjoy the bitter edge plus the melon ends up with a pretty plush texture. In Elizabeth Schneiders veggies from A to z she talked about it tasty in a fried prep. Going to try that next.

                        1. Thanks everyone for your ideas/recipes and affirmation of the "acquired taste" element of this veggie.

                          I was really excited about going to the farmer's market today for lots of reasons w/ one reason being to pick up another bitter melon for my second rendezvous. Your words gave me hope and courage to try this again, and my groovy acquisition is pictured below. I chose the most pale green and deeply-grooved one that I could find per your suggestions. Mine is actually a little paler than it appears in the photo.

                          I joked w/ the vendor about my first embittering experience and told him I was determined to have another go. I asked him about the even more alien-looking Indian bitter melon and he said that his are significantly more bitter than the type I bought. Gulp. He said that his Indian customers complain that the regular melons are not bitter enough. Wow. I told him I would need to graduate to those...

                          I'm going to try a soup in the vein of DU's and nooodles' suggestions first. Sounds like a good way to go for now.

                          Image: http://i2.photobucket.com/albums/y45/...

                          1. definitely an acquired taste ... but good with assertive seasonings - like black beans & garlic & ginger. it's also good as a filling for a chinese omelette - along with oysters - use the liquid mixed into the eggs for added flavor. blanch the bitter melon and saute with black beans, etc...
                            also saute bits of oysters with black beans and use as part of the filling for the omelette. ( egg foo young)

                            1. If you can acquire the taste, bitter melon is EXTREMELY good for you. The Chinese believe it's "cooling" or "yang" and eat it in the summer. I've heard it's good for diabetics... AND lowers high blood pressure (could be wrong on that last point).

                              I grew up eating it the Cantonese way, stir-fried with fermented black beans and slivers of chicken. My dad, a Chinese American who grew up in California, missed it so much when he moved to the East Coast that he grew it himself and learned how to cook the dish! To him (and me) it's true comfort food.

                              1. Hi Carb Lover. Didn't catch this thread until now but my bf uses bitter gourd in soups and stews all of the time. He made a soup the other day with a variety of veggies. (most asian) and the bitter gourd had stewed a bit and was pretty mellow but very good. Other times it is more assertive but when cooked a long time it loses some of its bitterness. He uses chicken ham broth from the asian market along with soy sauce, kimchee,etc. (he'd throw in anything if you let him!)and it is delicious.

                                1. omg, i know this post is 6yrs old, but it threw me into laughter and tears. your writing is the best! i feel the same about bitter melon as well and want to like it too. thank you for your post!! do you have a blog?

                                  1. I love bitter melon, although the first time I had it it was a bit of a shock.

                                    My favourite way is with salty duck egg. Cut the melon in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, and slice in thin slices. Blanch briefly in salted water (cuts the bitterness a bit). Sautee in oil until tender but not mushy and at the last minute add a salted duck egg that's been chopped into tiny pieces (one duck egg per melon). Mmmmm..... You can find salted duck eggs in a Chinese grocery - they often come in packs of two, and keep for months. Make sure it's hard-boiled before you crack it open, though, as I think they're occasional sold raw.

                                    In general, bitter melon pairs well with salty fatty ingredients. The bitterness contrasts well with it.

                                    In Japan I had bitter melon stir fried with onions, eggs and Spam, which was pretty good too. At home, I fry bacon, then add onions, then the melon, and and egg at the end.

                                    In general, the green melons are used for stir fry, and the white in soups.

                                    1. I love bitter melon. I don't think it's any more bitter than, say, brussel sprouts.

                                      1. I have no idea why, but the bitter melon was a freakin' $3.99/lb tonight !!