In The Garden: Growing Bitter Melon

In previous posts I have mentioned growing bitter melon in the garden. For many years I have enjoyed eating this unusual asian bitter gourd.

While working in Chinese restaurants I had the good fortune to eat food that Chinese chefs do not make for their American clientele. Each day the chef made something traditional for the staff to eat. Sometimes it was as simple as a can of fried dace with black beans and a plate of gai lon and rice, other times the meal was something special like a rich duck stew with fresh (not canned) bamboo shoots, or thousand year old eggs, or winter melon soup. I discovered so many vegetables and so many flavors I had never before experienced at the table. It was a real culinary pleasure. Bitter Melon was one such discovery.

Bitter melon or bitter gourd is a cucurbit, a plant from the family Cucurbitaceae. It is a vegetable that grows well in hot and humid weather so it is a natural for our summer months. It has deeply lobed palmate leaves and tiny tendrils that wrap around the fence or trellis on which it grows. It has yellow flowers and a green gourd that has a lobed and lumpy surface. Inside the seeds are coated in something red and slimy. I have never eaten the seeds, and they were never offered so I think they are not edible. As it ripens the gourd turns orange. I have always eaten it while the color is still green. I harvest once I see any orange color. There are many different varieties of bitter gourd and it is eaten throughout various asian cultures in myriad ways. I have only had it prepared in two different ways; stir fried in a salty sauce with meat, and stuffed with ground meat. At home I stir fry it in black bean garlic sauce.

Bitter Melon is as its name implies, bitter. I recall that whenever it is discussed inevitably its health benefits are mentioned. I have been told it is good for digestion. Really I am glad it is a healthy vegetable, but I eat it because I love the bitter flavor. It tastes wonderful teamed up with a salty sauce.

The first time I grew Bitter Melon I was surprised to discover that it looks exactly like a weed that grows here. I believe they are close relatives. That smelly weed which I often pull out of trees has the same shaped leaves, the same tendrils, the same growth habit, the same yellow flowers, the same smell, and this weed has a small seed pod that also turns orange and once ripe it splits open to disperse seeds covered in some slimy red coating. Two separate friends, one who keeps iguanas, and one who keeps chickens have mentioned to me that their creatures eat that weed when they are ill and allowed to forage. I am wondering if that weed has some food or medicinal value for us too.

Bitter Melon is often sold in oriental food markets. To cook it you slice it open and remove the seeds and junk inside. Cut it into bite sized pieces and stir fry in black bean garlic sauce. Black Bean Garlic Sauce is usually sold in concentrated form in a jar. Just one heaping teaspoon mixed with some cooking oil (peanut or sesame if you want an authentic oriental vibe), and water will flavor the bitter melon when stir fried all together. It is usually cooked just long enough to soften it a little. Once it softens the edges take on some of the color of the brown sauce, I just poke it with a fork to be sure.

Growing Bitter Melon here in South Florida requires good soil made with ample compost, regular watering, and a good support system for climbing, as well as good mulch (I use straw) to retain moisture in the soil. I find that since I am growing it in our hottest weather the Bitter Melon plant starts well in partial shade, and then seeks the sun as it grows up.

While this is one of my favorites vegetables it is quite bitter and has no match I can think of in traditional American cuisine.
Unless you are very adventurous, or commonly enjoy bitter flavors this bitter melon may not appeal to you. Then again, I love bitter melon, and you may too. If you grow bitter melon your friendly neighborhood Chinese food restaurant may want to buy some of your harvest. After all employee meal happens every day.

Cheers to different flavors!