[Balsam Pear, Bitter Gourd; Karela (India); Ampalaya (Philippine); Ku gua (China); Goya (Japan / Okinawa); Momordica charantia]
Actually a gourd, not a mellon, this is one of the most bitter of edible vegetables, the bitterness coming from a substance called momordicin, which is similar to quinine. It is reputed for many beneficial medicinal properties, particularly treatment of diabetes, but all need further study.
Despite the bitterness this gourd is very popular throughout India, Nepal, China and Southeast Asia and is now grown in Africa and the Caribbean. It is not much seen in mainland Japan but is popular in Okinawa. It is a favorite of Southeast Asian farmers here in California so the Chinese variety is always in good supply and the Indian version is increasingly available.
The gourds are generally eaten quite green when the seed mass will be white. As the gourd ripens fully it turns yellowish, very bitter and less crisp. The pulpy arils surrounding the seeds become brilliant red and quite sweet. They are popular in salads in Southeast Asia but at this point the rest of the melon is of little use.
The melon at the top in the photo is the common Chinese variety, while the other three are the Indian variety. White versions of the Indian type also exist but are not much seen around here. Miniature Indian varieties are popular in India and Southeast Asia for stuffing as individual portions.
For information on Bitter Melon Leaves see
Bitter Melon Leaf.
For more on Gourds see Gourds.
In parts of Asia developing a taste for bitter melon is part of the passage from childhood to adulthood, though even there most recipes have some step in them that's a largely futile attempt to reduce the bitterness.
While I enjoy a bitter melon dish now and then, I wouldn't serve one to unsuspecting guests - most Americans aren't accustomed to bitter flavors. I often just seed a melon, slice it about 1/4 inch thick, salt the slices heavily and let them sit a couple hours. Then I rinse the slices and eat them as a low calorie salty snack.
Buying: The darker green the color the better as they get increasingly bitter and less crisp as they mature. If they are yellowish they are useful only for the brilliant red arils surrounding the seeds. For use as a vegetable the seed mass should have no more than a faint pink blush surrounding the seeds. Select fresh looking fruit without soft spots or blemishes. The Indian type tends to get black spots where the points have been damaged and this indicates they aren't very fresh.
Different varieties have different degrees of bitterness. The Indian type is the most bitter. I occasionally find a long narrow dark green Chinese variety that's a little milder than most. The very large Taiwan variety pictured at the left may be a little too mild. It would be a good "starter melon" if it weren't so rare.
Storing: These gourds are quite perishable, the Indian varieties more so because their pointy skin is more prone to damage. In either case they should be kept refrigerated, preferably wrapped in paper rather than plastic and for a few days at most.
Prep: Generally cut off the ends, split the gourd lengthwise and scrape out the seed mass. In some cases where they are stuffed they are cut into lengths of about 1-1/4 inch, the seed mass is scraped out for stuffing. The skins are thin and they are very rarely peeled.
After cutting, recipes call for either salting the pieces, then rinsing, or parboiling. These procedures are supposed to reduce the bitterness but aren't really very effective.
Cooking: Bitter melons are most often used in soups and stir fries or stuffed. For stir fries do parboil the melon slices in boiling water for about 3 minutes so they need be stir fried for only a minute or two.
Health & Nutrition: Bitter Melon tastes bitter and medicinal, so it's got to be good for you, right? These gourds and their leaves are considered highly medicinal, particularly effective against type 2 diabetes but also against cancer, HIV and hemorrhoids. These effects have been neither proven nor disproven by scientific investigation. Since this is an inexpensive, commonly available plant usable as-is, the pharmaceutical companies are completely uninterested in sponsoring major research. Smaller studies have tended to support bitter melon's reputed properties.
While bitter melon does not contain quinine, it has been found to have similar anti-malarial properties. Anti-viral and antioxidant properties are also suspected. Bitter melon is high in minerals and vitamin B, but how much is in a form the body can absorb is not known - again, nobody interested in sponsoring research.
There are also negative effects, mostly noted in small children, particularly hypoglycemic coma. It is also reported able to cause headaches.