With the possible exception of truck-stop coffee, we Americans have embraced bitter flavors only gingerly, learning to appreciate them one by one, if at all (for instance, the radicchio, arugula, and broccoli rabe we’ve gradually grown to like through our fondness for Italian food). In general, though, we tend to prefer our food sweet and salty. In many cultures, though, bitter herbs and vegetables are a prevalent part of the diet. And few vegetables are as bitter as bitter melon._
Momordica charantia, as it is known botanically, is not exactly the Kim Basinger of the vegetable kingdom. Bumpy and often gnarled, it looks like a pale, arthritic cucumber. Taste it raw and your tongue recoils. I have to admit that until recently, I was not a fan. Yet I knew that Asians have long incorporated it—leaves and vines and all—into their diet, both for medicinal purposes and because they love the taste. I figured I must be missing out on something, so I did some investigating.
Also known as bitter gourd or balsam pear, bitter melon is grown widely in India, Southeast Asia, and China; a few farms grow it in this country, too. You won’t often come across it in Western markets—although I did spot some rather limp ones at my local Safeway once—but it’s a common sight at any Asian-American produce stand. The greener melons are the youngest and most tender, and they’re also the most bitter.
As I’d never done more than take a tentative nibble, I telephoned Kasma Loha-unchit, a bitter-melon devotee and Thai cooking teacher who runs a school in Oakland, California, called The Art of Thai Cooking. Would she consider making me a bitter-melon lunch? I asked. She graciously agreed, and so, on a sunny afternoon, we sat down to a mouth-puckering feast: sliced raw melon with a pungent shrimp-paste dipping sauce; lightly stir-fried melon with egg; stewed melon with mustard greens and pork bones; and stir-fried melon with shrimp and fermented black beans. Loha-unchit’s American husband, Michael Babcock, also a bitter-melon fan, joined us. ”It just makes me feel healthy when I eat it,” he told me, smiling.
Healthy is right. I’m no scientist, but I can tell you that if you look up bitter melon on the Internet, a very long list of alternative medicine sites pop up before the culinary ones ever appear. Bitter melon is credited with curing colds, controlling diabetes, purifying the blood, even strengthening the immune systems of people with AIDS. It is also thought to protect against malaria due to its high percentage of quinine, the active ingredient in malaria pills—and the substance that makes bitter melon bitter.