Illustration by Samantha Huang

Chinese bitter melon: What is it and how do you cook with it?

Nov 13, 2019

Bitter melon gets a bad rap for its taste. But the flavor is not as overwhelming as people think it is.

“What the Plant?” is Clarissa’s weekly column where she dives into the origins, legends, and misconceptions surrounding some of the most beloved ingredients in Chinese cuisine.

Bitter melon is a polarizing plant. Some people love it, others abhor its bitter flavor.

Despite the name, the taste is actually not too overwhelming. In Chinese cuisine, bitter melon is sometimes called a “gentleman’s vegetable” because it doesn’t impart its bitterness on other ingredients when cooked. You’ll often find it stir-fried with fermented black beans or gently tossed with salted duck eggs.

Bitter melon stir-fried with pork and black beans.
Bitter melon stir-fried with pork and black beans. / Photo: South China Morning Post

Its bitter taste is lent by compounds called cucurbitacins, substances that can be found in watermelon, squash, cucumber, and other gourds.

The plant is a tenacious climber, holding onto anything and everything that comes its way. It’s indigenous to South Asia, and its wide reach has led to two general varieties: one called Karela, found primarily in India and distinguished by its forest green exterior; and the Chinese bitter melon, which is more elongated, smoother, and has a paler green hue.

How to cook with it

The Chinese bitter melon is the one I cook with most. I’ve found that blanching chopped pieces with saltwater goes a long way in mitigating the melon’s bitter taste. A liberal coat of black bean sauce at the end is the cherry on top.

(Read more: In Chinese, water spinach is ‘empty heart vegetable.’ Here’s the story behind the name.)

There’s scientific evidence supporting this cooking method. A 1997 study found that salt selectively filters out flavors, suppressing bitterness while enhancing sweetness.

It’s the same reason why some people sprinkle salt on their grapefruit and swear by a pinch of salt in their morning coffee.

Health benefits

The fruit (yes, it’s a fruit, because it has seeds in it) has been embraced for its therapeutic aspects.

Traditionally, Chinese food philosophy categorizes ingredients as either “hot” (yang 阳) or “cold” (yin 阴). They’re less about the flavors and more about the perceived effect that the food has on the body.

A sliced bitter melon.
A sliced bitter melon. / Photo: Shutterstock

Chili peppers and red meat, for example, are decidedly yang because they’re usually high in calories and intensity, perfect for keeping the body warm in the winter.

The bitter melon, on the other hand, is very yin. It joins other leafy greens and vegetables with high water content in their supposed ability to cool the body down.

(Read more: Snake soup: A classic winter warmer in Hong Kong)

Scientific studies have shown that the bitter melon does have antidiabetic effects. It’s also been sold as a health supplement to reduce blood sugar levels.

In my view, bitter melon is not as polarizing as it is misunderstood.

Bitter melons growing on vines.
Bitter melons growing on vines. / Photo: Shutterstock

In the proper climate, its fast-growing nature can make it a great edible perennial. Once in the mountainside of Taiwan, I found a network of wild bitter melon vines that had anchored themselves in the forest canopy, reseeding themselves generation after generation.

My friends and I gathered a bunch and cooked it in a pineapple and chicken soup, a typical Taiwanese dish that’s sweet from the pineapple and savory from the chicken.

The bitter melon was the mellowing agent between the two.

Bitter can be delicious. Just make sure to add salt.

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