Thursday, December 29, 2011

Ingredient of the Day: Bitter Melon

I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone. – Edith Cavell 

Bitter melon. Photo: Frankfarm, Flickr ccl
You've probably seen this in the grocery store and had no idea what it was or what to do with it. It doesn't win any beauty prizes, for sure. In North America we tend to gravitate to the familiar in our kitchens. That's a pity. The world doesn't just consist in foreign sights for us to see, but also their cultures and cuisines to appreciate.

I hate it when I hear someone went to another country "and didn't leave the resort. They had everything!". Right. What a waste of a trip.

Photo: goosmurf, Flickr ccl
Bitter melon is the edible fruit of the plant Momordica Charantia. Other English names for this vegetable are balsam pear and bitter gourd. It is grown in tropical and subtropical areas around the world. The “bitter” in its name comes from the taste (duh), considered to be the most bitter among all edible vegetables.

Bitter melon grows as hanging fruit on a vine that can reach up to six feet in height. The fruit, commonly in excess of one foot long, is the part that is used both culinarily as well as medicinally, although the deeply lobed leaves are sometimes also used when young.

There are two main types: Chinese and India. The Chinese variety (pictured in this post) has wavy, deep ridges and are bright green. Indian bitter melons are darker and very "warty."

On The National Bitter Melon Council web site (yes, it has it’s own council) they state the following:
Bitter compounds evolved in plants as a mechanism to deter consumption by animals. Humans, unlike other mammals, are the only creatures to have developed a palate (or taste) for bitterness. Bitterness defines our humanity!

Indeed. That I tend to believe.

Bitter melon is an unusual looking vegetable to be sure. It resembles a cucumber with a rough, wrinkled or bumpy skin. There are several varieties that differ somewhat in appearance but it’s such an odd thing that even with the differences they all look similar.

The flavor is also unusual and one might even say…bitter. Blanching bitter melon before cooking will help reduce the bitter taste. 

Ready to be stuffed.Photo: laofood, Flickr ccl
If you’re not up to blanching it, you can also pair it with strong flavours that help mask the taste, like fermented black beans. You can also scoop out the seeds, as sometimes is done with eggplant, to reduce the bitterness. I haven't read, but salting may draw out some of the bitterness. That's what is usually done with eggplant.

You can find bitter melon in the Asian vegetable section of your grocery. Its taste pairs well with lime, garlic, cilantro and ginger.

Medical properties
Bitter melon has long been an ingredient in African, Caribbean and Asian cooking. It also has had a long folkloric history of medicinal use, some of which is now being borne out by study.

Some of the medicinal properties that have been studied, or are now, are its chemical properties to help combat malaria, many viruses such as herpes, cancer and as a potential cardioprotective. 

Bitter melon preparations are still used traditionally in parts of the world to treat malaria, chickenpox, measles, gastrointestinal issues, dysentery, fevers, painful menstruation and some skin problems.

One proven caution: bitter melon can possibly decrease sugar and insulin levels in the blood so should be consumed with caution by diabetics. I couldn't find out from my source what quantity would induce this effect, so better safe than sorry.

Growing bitter melon in Zone 6 (Nova Scotia)
Bitter melon require a long(ish) growing season if you want to harvest for months. Fortunately for us we have very long Autumns.

Purchase seed over the winter from a seed merchant. Here's a link to a Canadian company. Start the seeds indoors in early April. By the middle of May (after last frost) start "hardening the seedlings off" by exposing them to the cooler temperatures outdoors. This can take up to a week. leave them out a little longer each day, preferably where they will be planted.

Bitter melon requires a lot of sun and decent drainage to thrive so pick your spot carefully. You will also need support for the vines so take that into consideration. Unlike other vines (squash, watermelon, etc.) bitter melon doesn't do well fruiting on the ground.

Plant the seedlings in manure amended soil about 6" apart. Ensure you dig down into the soil at least one foot so the vines have plenty of nutrients available as they mature.

Maturation usually begins in about 60 days. Harvest when green and the ridges have become rounded. If allowed, the fruit will turn yellow and split. Even non-split yellow fruit is not suitable for eating.

If desired, let a few go to seed so you have material for next year's garden.

Bitter melon has no natural pests or diseases in our climate. Bonus!

Open yourself up to new experiences. It's never something you will regret. I bought one of these today for with a black bean tofu stir fry. Come back to see the recipe – probably tomorrow. I'll let you know just how bitter it is.


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