Some of the choices we made in the selection of vegetables and fruits to grow not only reflected what we wanted to eat on a regular basis but also how accessible is the food itself. When I decide to plan a meal and I open an ethnic cookbook, I’m often limited by the availability of the ingredients. I’m not about to travel an hour plus to find Chinese Bitter Melon, for example, so I decided to grow it along with other esoteric produce. So what can one do with Chinese Bitter Melon?
Medicinal Uses of Bitter Melon (Momordica charantia)
First of all, this warty looking oblong melon or gourd, like it’s name implies, is quite bitter especially when eaten raw (not recommended). It is high in Vitamin C and folic acid and used in a range of different cultures known as “fu gwa” in China, “karela” in India and “nigauri” in Japan. It’s typically prepared in soups and stir-fries. Like many other bitter vegetables, bitter melon is helpful for digestion. Europeans have traditionally used “Swedish Bitters,” a mixture of bitter herbs including angelica root, aloe, myrrh, rhubarb root, camphor and saffron, for a variety of digestive ills. Its mechanism of action is thought to be through the release of digestive “juices” including saliva, bile, gastric acid and pancreatic enzymes. Angostura Bitters, made primarily from Gentian root, is used in various alcoholic beverages in addition to aiding in digestion as well.
Of all the flavors discernable by the human tongue: salt, sugar, sour, bitter and the more recently recognized 5th taste “umami,” the western palette favors bitter flavors the least. Some examples are endive, mustard greens, broccoli rabe, and brussels sprouts. The interesting association that bitterness=medicine=good for you may hold true here, at least in the case of the family of cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, kale, brussels sprouts, mustard greens and broccoli rabe). They tend to become more bitter as they mature or when cooked and recent research is continuing to amass significant evidence showing the phytochemicals present in this family of vegetables is a crucial element in cancer prevention and may even be helpful to those with existing cancers.
There are other benefits of bitter foods aside from digestion and cancer prevention (though at this point I’m hoping you’ll be more inclined to add these into your food repertoire after hearing the health benefits), which brings me back to Chinese bitter melon. Increasing data points to this cucurbit’s ability to help with sugar metabolism. You might see it as one of the principle agents in supplements and neutraceuticals targeted to diabetes, metabolic syndrome, or glucose intolerance. Studies are small and not very vigorous so far but what evidence is currently available seems to suggest a glucose lowering benefit from consuming these fruits or their extracts. A 7 week study demonstrated significant lowering of the HbA1c (an average indicator of a person’s sugar level). You will also undoubtedly see Bitter Melon in weight loss supplements but there is no current evidence to suggest that, only a theoretical one. In addition, it seems that bitter melon can also have a cholesterol-lowering effect due to the flavonoid content and will bound to be, if not already, the next herbal addition to cholesterol lowering supplements.
From a non western medicinal viewpoint, I also want to add that bitter melon is used in traditional Chinese medicine for dispelling excess “heat.” In Ayurvedic medicine, Bitter Melon or “karela” as it’s known, can affect the Doshas (the three basic physiological principles that maintain balance in the body) specifically calming Pitta and Kapha doshas.
It is not advisable to consume this during pregnancy as recommended from traditional cultures.
How to Grow
My seed was saved from an aunt but seeds can be found online relatively easily. I’d recommend Kitazawa Seed Co. I started my seed indoors under a heat mat 2 weeks before the final frost date but these can be easily seeded directly provided the soil temperature is warm enough. I’d recommend starting indoors for those with a shorter growing season. They enjoy heat and sun. Remember, they are a sub-tropical fruit. They also need a trellis or similar type of support system as this is a vining plant. Harvest younger fruits for best taste.
Pork Filled Chinese Bitter Melon with Black Beans
1 tsp chopped garlic
1 tsp sesame oil
1/2-1 Tbs corn starch
1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 cup water
Bitter Melon 1/2 lb
Ground Pork 6 ounces
1 tsp fermented black beans*
1 tsp crushed red pepper
2 scallions chopped and 2 Tbs chopped cilantro (optional)
Vegetable Oil for frying (suggestions: grapeseed, rice bran, canola oil)
Cut off ends of the bitter melon and cut 3/4”-1” thick slices and discard the seeds. Place melon in boiling salted water for 3 minutes then drain and rinse with cold water. When cooled, dry the melon.
Combine 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp sugar and 1/4 cup of water. Mix to dissolve and put aside.
Mix ground pork with the garlic, 1/2 tsp salt, sesame oil and 1 Tbs corn starch and the scallions and cilantro.
Coat the inside of the melon with a little corn starch and fill with the pork mixture.
Heat a frying pan and add approximately 2 Tbs oil. Cook both sides of the pork-filled melon around 3 minutes each then remove to a plate.
To the existing hot oil, add the red pepper flakes and black beans and cook for 1 minute. Add the pork-filled melon slices and add the the salt/sugar mixture in. Cook for 3-4 minutes longer. Serve with rice. Serves 2.
* available at Asian markets
Farmer Pam, MD