About Bitter Melon
Bitter melon (also known as bitter gourd) is a vine in the gourd family that grows best in tropical and sub-tropical climates. It is closely related to zucchini, squash, pumpkin, and cucumber. It is also in the same plant family as cantaloupe and watermelon. The vine produces fruit that is picked unripe and eaten as a vegetable. The flavor is described as bitter or sour. The color can be green or white, with the white variety being a little softer in texture, and less bitter as the fruit matures.
The bitterness in the fruit comes from its level of quinine. Because of this property, bitter melons have been highly prized by Asians, Panamanians, and Colombians who use it as a cure, and preventive medicine, for malaria.
Bitter melon is cultivated around the world and is considered to be a staple in many Asian cuisines. The common variety grown in China is typically long, green, and covered with wart-like bumps. The variety enjoyed in India is narrower, and green with pointed ends and rough, jagged spikes on the rind. Chinese bitter melons look more like cucumbers, despite their indentations, whereas Indian bitter melons are darker in color with ripples all around the fruit.
Nutrition and Health Benefits
Bitter melon is low in calories, with one cup of raw slices having a mere 20 calories. This fruit is high in nutrients, especially Vitamin C. One cup of raw bitter melon slices contains 93 percent of the Reference Daily Intake (RDI) for Vitamin C. That’s very impressive! It also contains a lot of Vitamin A, folate, potassium, zinc, iron, manganese, magnesium, and fiber.
The fruit also contains powerful antioxidants that help to protect our cells from damage, thereby warding off various disease. This helps to explain why bitter melon was used for medicinal purposes long before it was used as a food.
Blood Sugar Control. Components of bitter melon have been shown to improve several markers of long-term blood sugar control. It has been used by indigenous populations around the world to help treat diabetes-related conditions.
Cancer Fighting Properties. Laboratory studies have found that bitter melon extract was effective at killing cancer cells of the stomach, colon, lung, and nasopharynx. Another study found that bitter melon extract was able to block the growth and spread of breast cancer cells.
Improved Cholesterol Levels. Several animal studies found that bitter melon may lower cholesterol levels, supporting overall heart health. Total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides were all reduced significantly in an animal study using extract of bitter melon. Further studies are needed to determine if these same effects would apply to humans, but the evidence is promising.
Weight Loss. Since bitter melon is low in calories and high in fiber, it may be helpful in weight loss plans. The high fiber helps to make you feel full longer, while the low calories can help to reduce overall calorie intake. Both animal and human studies found that bitter melon extract helped to decrease belly fat and body weight.
Hair and Skin Health. People living in areas where bitter melon is commonly grown have used it as a topical treatment for maintaining healthy hair, scalp, and skin. It has been used as a remedy for dandruff, hair loss, split ends, dry hair and scalp, and premature graying.
People have also eaten bitter melon as a preventative and treatment for acne, eczema, and psoriasis, and for stimulating blood flow to promote healing of wounds while preventing blood clots.
Precautions. Eating a lot of bitter melon, or taking a large amount of bitter melon supplements may cause some adverse effects such as diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain. Supplements are not recommended for pregnant women as its long-term effects have not been studied.
Use caution when taking bitter melon supplements if you are currently taking blood sugar lowering medications. Since bitter melon is known to help lower blood sugar levels, it may enhance the effect of your medications, causing your blood sugar to go too low. Eating the fruit in moderation may not be an issue, whereas it is advisable to consult your healthcare professional before taking bitter melon supplements.
How to Select
Bitter melon is not something you’ll find in the average American grocery store. However, since it is popular in Asian cultures, it can often be found at Asian food stores. It is harvested in the late summer to early fall, so that’s when it would be most available.
Choose melons that are free of bruises, dents, or any type of blemish. Avoid those that are soft or show signs of mold. Choose smaller sizes, up to about 10-inches in length. Larger melons may be available, but they are more bitter than the smaller fruit. The dark green melons are unripe, firm, and what is usually preferred. If it has some orange or yellow coloring, it is ripe. The riper the melon is, the more bitter it will be. If you’re buying Chinese bitter melons that look similar to cucumbers, choose ones with long ridges further apart, rather than closely placed. The very wrinkly ones will be more bitter than the others.
How to Store
Store bitter melons wrapped in a paper towel inside a perforated plastic bag in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator. It is best to keep them away from ethylene-producing fruit and vegetables, because the gas will cause the bitter melon to age faster. Use them within 4 to 5 days.
How to Prepare Bitter Melon
Wash the melon, then cut off the tip at each end. Slice the melon lengthwise. With a small spoon, remove the seeds and white pith from the center. This helps to reduce the bitterness. The melons do not need to be peeled. Slice the halves crosswise into thin, ¼-inch slices. The slices may be salted and allowed to rest for up to 30 minutes, or blanched for 2 to 3 minutes to remove some of the bitterness. If desired, 1 teaspoon of baking soda may be added to the blanching water to further reduce bitterness. Gently squeeze the treated slices, and rinse the pieces very well if they were salted. They may also be soaked in a bowl of water with 2 to 3 tablespoons of salt. Soak them for 15 to 20 minutes, then rinse well, drain them, and gently squeeze out extra liquid before cooking.
Bitter melon may be blanched, boiled, grilled, baked, pickled, steamed, stir-fried, and stuffed. It can be eaten raw, but is usually not served that way because of the bitterness.
Quick Ideas and Tips for Using Bitter Melon
* The peel of bitter melon is edible, so peeling is optional.
* When stir-frying with bitter melon that has been blanched, add it toward the last stages of cooking.
* Try juicing bitter melon along with other fruits and vegetables for a nutrient-rich beverage.
* Add bitter melon to your next stir-fry.
* Sauté bitter melon with tomatoes, garlic, and onions, then scramble the mixture with eggs.
* Try stuffing bitter melon with ground meat and vegetables, then serve with a black bean sauce.
* Add bitter melon to a savory salad, topped with your favorite salad dressing.
* Serve diced bitter melon in curries, stir-fries or pickles, or stuffed with meat, shrimp, spices and onions.
* Try parboiling bitter melon like you would zucchini, and serve it as a vegetable.
* Try seasoning bitter melon slices with salt, turmeric, and a little chili. Stir-fry with some onions and garlic, and top with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar or soy sauce. Add a pinch of sugar, if desired, to cut some of the bitterness.
* Try stuffing bitter melon halves (after the seeds and white pith have been removed) with seasoned minced pork, shrimp, and chopped onion. Season with fish paste.
* Balance the bitterness of bitter melon with strong flavors such as chili peppers, garlic, tamarind, ginger, sweet soy, miso, fermented black beans, fish sauce, dried shrimp, or curry paste.
* Pair bitter melon with something sweet like any winter squash, sweet potatoes, or corn.
* Try breaded and fried bitter melon slices.
Herbs and Spices That Go Well with Bitter Melon
Chili powder, cilantro, coriander, cumin, salt, turmeric
Foods That Go Well with Bitter Melon
Proteins, Legumes, Nuts, Seeds: Beans (i.e. black, fermented black), beef, chicken, duck, eggs, lamb, lentils, lima beans, poppy seeds, pork, poultry, seafood, sesame paste, sesame seeds, shrimp, string beans, tofu (i.e. firm)
Vegetables: Chiles (i.e. green, jalapeno, red), eggplant, garlic, ginger, okra, onions, potatoes, squash (i.e. kabocha), tomatoes, sweet potatoes
Fruits: Coconut, lemon, lime, pomegranate seeds
Grains and Grain Products: Corn, kamut, pita bread, rice
Dairy and Non-Dairy: Coconut milk, yogurt
Other Foods: Miso, oil (i.e. canola, olive, peanut, sesame), soy sauce, sugar (i.e. brown), vinegar (i.e. cider)
Bitter melon has been used in the following cuisines and dishes…
Asian cuisines, Cambodian cuisine, Chinese cuisine (esp. Cantonese), curries, East Indian cuisine, ice creams, Indian cuisine, pickles, sorbets, stir-fries, stuffed bitter melon
Suggested Food and Flavor Combos Using Bitter Melon
Add bitter melon to any of the following combinations…
Garlic + Soy Sauce
Honey + Lemon
Miso + Tofu
The Best Bitter Melon Recipes https://www.thespruceeats.com/the-best-bitter-melon-recipes-4071414
Stir-Fried Bitter Melon with Ground Pork, Fermented Black Beans, and Fish Sauce https://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2010/07/seriously-asian-bitter-melon-stir-fry.html
Bitter Melon Tofu Stir-Fry (Vegan, Gluten-Free) https://sharonpalmer.com/bitter-melon-tofu-stir-fry-vegan-gluten-free/
Cold Summer Pasta with Bitter Melon, Sour Plum and Tuna https://cookpad.com/us/recipes/13647181-cold-summer-pasta-with-bitter-melon-sour-plum-tuna?via=search&search_term=bitter%20melon
Stir Fried Bitter Melon (Vegan) https://cookpad.com/us/recipes/11315973-stir-fried-bitter-melon-vegan?via=search&search_term=bitter%20melon
Simple Bitter Melon Soup https://cookpad.com/us/recipes/651242-simple-bitter-melon-soup?via=search&search_term=bitter%20melon
Bitter Melon with Egg and Tomatoes [Note: Scroll to the bottom of the page for the recipe] http://simplegoodandtasty.com/2011/05/03/bitter-melon
Chinese Bitter Melon Stir-Fry http://www.chubbypanda.com/2008/10/chinese-bitter-melon-stir-fry-how-to.html
Stir-Fried Bitter Melon with Eggs https://praneesthaikitchen.com/2011/08/04/stir-fried-bitter-melon-with-egg-recipe/
Page, Karen. (2014) The Vegetarian Flavor Bible. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
Julia W. Klee (Judi) began her journey enjoying “all things food” in elementary school when she started preparing meals for her family. That love of food blossomed into a quest to learn more and more about health and wellness as related to nutrition. She went on to earn a BS Degree in Food and Nutrition, then an MS Degree in Nutrition. She has taught nutrition and related courses at the college level to pre-nursing and exercise science students. Her hunger to learn didn’t stop upon graduation from college. She continues to research on a regular basis about nutrition as it relates to health. Her hope is to help as many people as possible to enjoy foods that promote health and wellness.