True to its title, this member of the gourd family is highly prized in many Asian cultures for its bitterness, which is considered one of the fundamental flavours of a balanced diet (sweet, salty, sour, umami, bitter).
While many would nominate bitterness at the least pleasant on the flavour spectrum, don’t let that put you off. Just like radicchio, grapefruit, black olives and even tonic water, a little bit of bitterness can be a wonderful thing, especially when paired well with complementary ingredients. In the case of bitter melon, it is best matched with other strong flavours such as the sourness of lime, the saltiness of fermented black beans, the heat of chillies and the pungency of ginger and garlic.
Also known as balsam pears, bitter melons grow in tropical and subtropical areas of Asia, Africa, South America and the Caribbean. It is one of the most popular vegetables in Nepal and China, where it is often paired with beef in stir-fries, while in Sri Lanka, it is enjoyed in curries and salads. In India, it is used to make pickles and deep-fried for a popular snack of bitter melon chips (karela), and, in both Vietnam and Thailand, the melon is often stuffed with pork and served in a soup.
Bitter melons are available from selected supermarkets and greengrocers, and are sold both fresh and pickled at Asian food shops; buy ones that are brightly coloured, without discolouration or soft spots. They are best eaten young, when firm and light green. As the bitter melon matures, its skin turns to yellow/orange and its bitterness increases. Filled with inedible seeds and soft white flesh, the insides should be removed with a spoon, and only the remaining flesh and skin used (there’s no need to peel it). Prior to cooking, you can reduce the bitterness by soaking the vegetable in salted water or scoring and salting the skin. Alternatively, cooking it until it is well done also reduces its bitter flavour.
Process 500 g chopped, skinless blue-eye cod (trevalla) fillets and 1 egg in a food processor until finely chopped. Combine with 200 g chopped green prawns, ½ small seeded, chopped bitter melon, ¼ cup coriander leaves and 2 tbsp yellow curry paste. Season. Mould into 15 patties. Heat 250 ml oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Cook patties for 3 minutes each side or until golden. Drain on paper towel. Serve with sweet chilli sauce. Makes 15.
Bitter melon pickle
Slice 1 seeded bitter melon into 1 cm-thick semi-circles. Toss with 1 thinly sliced onion and 1 tbsp salt. Stand for 30 minutes. Rinse under running water and drain. Squeeze to remove excess liquid and place in sterilised jars. Place 325 ml white vinegar, 110 g brown sugar, 1 chopped long red chilli, ½ tsp mustard seeds and 2 tsp pickling spice in a saucepan. Bring to the boil and cook for 2 minutes. Pour into jars and seal. Will keep for 2 weeks in fridge. Makes 3 cups.
Steamed bitter melon and tofu dumplings
Process ½ small seeded, chopped bitter melon, 200 g Chinese honey tofu, 1 tsp grated ginger, ¼ cup Thai basil leaves, 2 tsp sesame oil, 2 tsp fish sauce, ½ tsp Chinese five-spice, 1 chopped spring onion and 1 egg in a food processor until finely chopped. Place 2 tsp mixture in the centre of 30 round gow gee wrappers, brush edge with water and fold in half, pressing edges to seal. Steam for 15 minutes or until cooked. Serve with kecap manis.
Sri Lankan salad
Cut 1 seeded bitter melon into 1 cm-thick semi-circles. Soak in water with 1 tsp each salt and ground turmeric for 30 minutes. Drain. Pat dry with paper towel. Heat 60 ml oil in a wok over high heat. Cook bitter melon, stirring, for 5 minutes or until golden brown. Remove, drain on paper towel. Combine with 1 each sliced long red and green chilli and 1 tsp ground Maldive fish. Season. Add the juice of 1 lemon to serve. Serves 4 as part of a meal.
Photography by Jason Loucas.