Saturday, February 13, 2010

Growing, buying, cooking Bitter Melon

The aptly named bitter melon tastes...well...bitter. The bitter melon, also known as bitter gourd, bitter squash or momordica, and pronounced "foo gua" in Chinese, is not for wimps. Fans of this member of the squash family recognize it by it's bright green bumpy skin, and enjoy it for its health benefits and distinct taste. Now mind you, I'm not talking about a dark chocolate sort of bitter, or an unripe grapefruit kind of bitter, or even a shot glass of vodka kind of bitter. I'm talking serious face-puckering bitter. When I was a child and didn't like the vegetable in the dish my mother made for dinner, I would usually just top my rice with some of the meat picked out, spoon a bit of sauce from the dish and muddle on through as any finicky child would. A dinner of bitter melon though, usually meant I'd go hungry since the bitterness would be incorporated in the accompanying meat, other vegetables, AND sauce. However, experienced bitter melon eaters would urge you to try the squash by describing the bitter tang or the refreshingly cooling quality of the bitterness. It's a taste not precisely describable and a vegetable you must try yourself at least once. If it helps, know that bitter squash is believed to lower blood glucose and lipid levels. It has even been found to have anti-viral and anti-oxidant properties.

Photo courtesy of J. Stander, Wikipedia

Grow Your Own Bitter Melon...

Growing bitter melon requires some attention at the outset, but once the vine gets going, it is fairly trouble-free. It takes at least 60 days to reach maturity AFTER planting out, and the melon also has a long germination period of up to 30 days. It is possible to directly seed in the garden, but the soil must be warm or the seed may rot before a cotelydon ever sees the light of day. For most gardeners without a very long season, it may make most sense to start bitter melon from seed indoors about 4-6 weeks before the last frost. To help the germination process along, consider soaking and/or nicking the thick seed coat. After soaking for about two hours in lukewarm water, spread seeds in a single layer between moist paper towels. Put the moist paper towels in a plastic bag and store in a warm place. Many people use either a waterproof seedling heat mat or simply the top of the refrigerator for this purpose. I have a special "seed germination corner" (which doubles as the cat's napping corner) that remains consistently warm throughout the early spring. I always use this warm spot to start seeds. Check the bag daily for germination and to be sure the paper towels are moist. Even with this method, it may take two weeks to germinate. Alternatively, consider nicking the thick seed coat carefully with a sharp knife, or breaking the seed coat with pliers (similar to how you would crack a sunflower seed). Be very careful that the endosperm is not damaged (and that your fingers are not damaged either!). After seeds germinate, they can be potted in a soilless medium.

While tending to seedlings, be sure there is room in the sunniest spot in the garden for the bitter melon to grow. This vine needs a structure to climb up and over in order to produce a good harvest. Before planting in the garden, harden the seedlings off by gradually exposing them to the outdoor elements for an increasing number of hours a day over a period of several days. Once they're in the garden, mulch well and water twice a week if there is no rain.

It is time to harvest approximately 60 days after planting out. Look for a smoothing out of the bumpy ridges on the melons to let you know they're ripe. Pick them while they're still green. Do not wait for them to become yellow - telling you they're too mature.

One of the most interesting sights for the gardener is a ripened bitter melon. To save seed, allow the melons to yellow on the vine. At a later stage, the melons will split open on their own, delighting garden visitors with the changes Mother Nature determined for them. Each seed will be covered in a bright red, goopy mucilage. At this point, the seeds can be collected and carefully washed off, or they can be left on the plant or even allowed to drop to the ground. Ants and other insects will carry the mucilage off and you'll be able to collect your seeds the next day. It's a most fascinating process!

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

If You're Buying...

If you're not ready to grow your own, many farmer's markets are beginning to carry bitter melon. Alternatively, your local Asian grocer may carry them - the freshest melons will be available from about April to September. Choose firm, green melons about 6-12 inches in length. Bitter melon can also be found dried and canned (though I suggest if you're going to try this for the first time, do it the right way - purchase a fresh bitter melon).

Cooking With Bitter Melon...

Bitter melon is most often cooked in stir-fries or soups. One way of taming the bitterness is by blanching the bitter melon for a few minutes. Totally hardcore connoisseurs may opt out of this step. Bitter melon is often cooked with hot red peppers, as the spiciness tends to balance the bitterness. To use bitter melon in a stir fry, slice the melon in half lengthwise, scoop out and discard the pulp and seeds, then cut into 1/4 to 1/2 inch segments. You'll be left with attractive little C-shaped segments to use in your favorite stir-fry (black bean sauce is a favorite companion).


The recipe I will share with you today requires an only slightly more detailed preparation, and results in a delicious meal with a very unique presentation. This is a Stuffed Bitter Melon with Black Bean Sauce.

  • 2 large bitter melons
  • 1/2 lb minced pork
  • 1 tsp minced ginger
  • 3 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp Shao Xing wine or dry sherry
  • 1/2 tsp sesame oil
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1 Tbsp soy sauce
  • pinch salt
  • 1 tsp cornstarch

Combine all the ingredients above to make the filling. Next, stuff the bitter melon. There are two ways this dish is traditionally served. The first way is to cut the melon into 1 inches slices and then cut out the seeds and pulp with a paring knife. The centers are then stuffed with the pork mixture. My family prefers to split the melon lengthwise, scoop out the seeds and pulp, and stuff the melons horizontally. Either way you choose to do it, arrange the stuffed pieces on a heatsafe plate and set over a steaming rack in a wok. Add enough water to come within an inch of the plate. Cover and steam for approximately 20 minutes.

While the bitter melon is steaming, prepare the Black Bean Sauce.

  • 3 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp fermented black beans (found in a jar in the Asian market)
  • 1 Tbsp Shao Xing wine or dry sherry
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • pinch salt
  • solution of 1/2 tsp cornstarch mixed with a splash of cold chicken broth
  • 2 Tbsp oil

In a wok or pan, heat oil. Add garlic and fermented black beans. Stir for a minute, being careful not to burn the garlic. Add wine, chicken stock, and salt. Bring to a boil, then thicken with cornstarch/cold broth solution. Heat until sauce thickens. Stir in sesame oil and serve over steamed, stuffed bitter melon.


  1. I used to hate eating it too when I was a kid due to its bitterness. Now it is one of my fave vege, also due to its bitterness! Here's how I like to eat it:
    a) boiled with sliced pork for 10 min. to make a clear soup.
    b) omelette
    c) fried with eggs or salted egg yolk
    d) stuffed with fish paste and cooked like your recipe.
    e) stir fried with chicken meat, ginger, black beans, and soya bean paste.

    Wendy, Happy Valentine's Day to you and your family :)

  2. I cannot be honest and say it sounds DELICIOUS because just the name alone is scaring me. But I am going to trust you, Wendy. I have seen these around and never had a clue what they were. Duh, me.
    That was funny, about the club penguin cheat codes, you are so funny!

    Happy v-day.

    Thanks for commenting on my daughter's anime post. :)


  3. This is a fantastic series of posts, thank you! I have been wondering about bitter melon for a while; will definitely try it now.

    And hi - I've been reading your blog for a month or so now but haven't commented before. I listed you as a favorite at the Grow It Eat It blog which I help run. Hope it brings you a few new readers since all you write is great.

  4. Autumn - the more I write about it, the more I would like to try it again. I may try some of the dishes you suggest!

    Rosey - I appreciate your honesty. You'll know to steer clear at the farmer's market - or maybe try one if you're feeling brave one day? Cook it up and have a little fun with the kids? No?

    Erica - thank you so much for your comment - it totally made my day. If you do get to try the bitter melon, I'd love your feedback (I'm sort of giggling inside in anticipation).

  5. For me, bitter melon has one of those flavors that I loved as a very young child, then hated as I developed a taste for pizza and hotdogs, and now, as an adult, the mere sight of them brings back a flood of happy nostalgia. After reading your post, I actually bought some bitter melon and practically lapped up the stir fry that I made with black bean sauce. These days, the more bitter the better! My husband will take a bite here and there, but does not care for it. However, I am happy to say that the bitterness did not appear to scare off my 12 month old--she ate quite a bit!


My awesome gardening friends...thanks for leaving a comment! I don't typically repond here, but I love knowing who you are so I can visit your blog as well.

btw - if you're trying to show me nude Miley Cyrus photos, sell me nikes or viagra or antibiotics, or encourage my lovely garden readers to visit your site on solar panel construction, or seo-whatevers, sorry, but I'm not publishing your comment. If you want to moderate my blog - well, I can't keep you too busy, and the pay would be horrible. And lastly, no. I'm not interested in Club Penguin cheat codes. Thanks anyway.

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