Because it is bitter, and because it is my melon*

6 Mar

I’m cheating a little with this post, because bitter melon isn’t completely new to me, but I bet it’s new to a lot of SOK readers. Bitter melon (also called balsam pear or goya) is one of those daunting vegetables you often see in Asian groceries, and is widely eaten across Asia, but hardly at all by Westerners. It’s supposed to be one of those superfoods, and has been credited with everything from treating diabetes to curing cancer to even preventing malaria. So why hasn’t it gone all trendy, like açaí? The main reason you’re not going to find bitter melon smoothies at your local Jamba Juice is that bitter melon is, as you might guess, really, really bitter. Like, possibly the bitterest in the known vegetable universe, although I don’t know how they quantify that sort of thing; do they have a bitterness equivalent of the Scoville scale? And it’s not your run-of-the-mill bitter, like coffee or beer, but a bitterness with a vegetal bite, as if you were chewing on leaves.

Eat me. I dare you.

This bitterness, I think, accounts for bitter melon’s popularity in Southeast Asia. As hot and muggy as it is in the tropics, it can be refreshing to eat something with an edge. And of course, bitter melon is always prepared in ways that both mitigate and balance the bitter element. Below are a few pointers on making the bitter melon a little more palatable:

  1. Select a fruit that’s yellowish in color, like the larger fruit in the photo. (Incidentally, the smaller melons are a different variety, not just babies.) The seeds inside will be orange, but don’t be alarmed; that just means the fruit is mature, and has outgrown its youthful resentments.
  2. Cut the melon lengthwise and scoop out as much of the cottony pulp as possible.
  3. Slice thinly and toss with salt, and let sit for 10 minutes; this draws out the bitterness. Rinse twice, squeezing out as much liquid as you can each time.
  4. Cooking the melon with a bit of oil and protein helps smooth out the flavors. Onions are also a good addition, as the sweetness balances out the melon.

Bitter melon, sliced and salted

Here’s a recipe to get you started. (I confess, it’s the only thing I know to do with bitter melon. But it’s pretty tasty.)

Goya Champuru (Bitter melon with tofu and egg)


1/2 bitter melon, prepared as above
1/2 medium onion, sliced thinly
1 spring onion or small bunch of Chinese chives, cut into 2-cm lengths
200 grams extra-firm tofu, cut into chunks (get it from an Asian grocer, if possible)
200 grams pork loin, sliced thinly (can be replaced with chicken or omitted completely)
2 eggs, mixed well
1 tablespoon mirin (sweetened Japanese rice wine)
Soy sauce and/or salt, to taste
1 teaspoon oil, or as needed for cooking


  1. Heat a large wok or frying pan. Add enough oil to just coat the bottom.
  2. Add onions and cook until translucent. Add pork or chicken, if using, and sauté until no longer pink.
  3. Add spring onion or chives and bitter melon.
  4. Season with mirin and soy sauce or salt. Keep in mind that the bitter melon has absorbed some salt during the de-bittering process; you may want to taste before adding any.
  5. Add tofu, and toss together until tofu just starts to crumble.
  6. Add the eggs, and turn off the heat – the eggs will keep cooking with the residual heat. Serve with steamed rice.

*Bonus geek points for those who get both literary references in the post title. Hey, your English major should be good for something.


9 Responses to “Because it is bitter, and because it is my melon*”

  1. Nate @ House of Annie March 7, 2011 at 11:20 am #

    Since coming to Malaysia, I’ve grown to like bittermelon. We’ve got a bittermelon recipe calling for black bean sauce that’s pretty tasty:

  2. Megara March 28, 2011 at 11:59 pm #

    Joyce Carol Oates. But can’t think of a second reference.

    I saw those green wrinkly guys at the market last week. I’ll try your recipe. Adding pork improves so many things.

  3. Latisha Merican October 13, 2011 at 9:12 pm #

    The Malays eat the small varieties, which is called bittergourd or peria in Malay, raw with sambal belacan, a side dish made with chillies, belacan, salt and sugar. It’s considered an herb, and credited with helping to lower high blood pressure.
    The bigger ones can be found cooked in mamak restaurants.

    • rgautz October 13, 2011 at 9:55 pm #

      I’ll have to try it that way — sambal belacan is magic. Are they less bitter raw? I cook with the large ones regularly, mostly in stir-fry, but I always salt it first to draw out some of the bitterness.

      • Latisha Merican April 15, 2013 at 11:32 am #

        Have you tried with the sambal belacan yet? No, I think the bitterness is about the same.
        Recently my mother-in-law taught me to fry it with turmeric, a bit of chilli powder and salt. Slice it thinly first and marinade for a few minutes. It’s crunchy and you don’t taste the bitterness that much. You can also try it at the mamak restaurants.

      • rgautz April 23, 2013 at 9:39 pm #

        I did try it with the sambal, it was delicious! And I love the fried bitter gourd at the banana leaf restaurants.

      • Latisha Merican April 29, 2013 at 7:32 pm #

        Let me know if you’d like to try some nasi kandar with me. I could pick you up and go to my favorite restaurant in KL

      • rgautz May 3, 2013 at 8:29 am #

        I love nasi kandar! What’s your favorite restaurant? Email me at and we can set up a lunch date 🙂

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