Bitter melons are small to medium gourds, averaging 6 to 30 centimeters in length, and have a long and slender, oblong shape with slightly tapered ends. The gourd's surface will vary depending on the specific type, ranging from deeply creased, smooth, pea green, and ridged to rough, dark green, and heavily textured with warts and bumps. The gourd’s skin may also exhibit a waxy layer, and some rarer types of bitter melon showcase a white hue. Underneath the thin skin, the flesh is crisp, watery, and pale green, encasing a central cavity filled with spongy pith and large, cream-colored seeds. Bitter melons are harvested when they are young and green, containing a sharp, astringent, and vegetal flavor. The gourds are also selected when they display a green color with a faint yellow hue, an indication of further maturity and rumored to contain a slightly milder, bitter, and acidic flavor.
Bitter melon is an excellent source of vitamin C to strengthen the immune system, boost collagen production, and reduce inflammation. The melons are also a good source of vitamin A to maintain healthy organ functioning, potassium to balance fluid levels within the body, provide some calcium to protect bones and teeth, and contain lower amounts of folate, iron, zinc, and fiber. Beyond vitamins and minerals, bitter melons contain cucurbitacins, compounds in the flesh that give the gourd its bitter flavor.
Bitter melons have an astringent, bitter flavor that is well suited for cooked preparations, including stir-frying, baking, sautéing, steaming, boiling, braising, and stewing. The melon’s sharp flavor complements rich, fatty, and spicy ingredients and is often utilized in different culinary styles found within Asian cuisine. Bitter melons can be consumed raw, but the gourds should be deseeded, salted, and left for approximately 30 to 45 minutes to draw out excess moisture and bitterness. Once the bitter flavor is lessened, the melons can be sliced for salads, chopped into dips and spreads, or blended into juices. Bitter melons are also traditionally blanched before use or salted to tame the astringent notes before cooking. The melons can be stirred into soups and curries, stuffed and baked as a main dish, stir-fried with vegetables and meat, or cooked and coated in rich sauces. Bitter melons can also be sliced and roasted as a simple side dish, cut and fried as a rice accompaniment, or pieces of the flesh can be dried and steeped as a healing and cleansing tea. In addition to the melons, the young leaves and shoots of the plants are edible and share the characteristic bitter flavor, used as an accent in salads and soups. Bitter melon pairs well with coconut milk, aromatics including lemongrass, ginger, garlic, and onions; chile peppers; tomatoes; green beans, eggplant, black beans, yogurt; pork, beef, and poultry; and seafood including fish, shrimp, crab, and scallops. Whole, unwashed bitter melons will keep for 3 to 5 days when wrapped in plastic or placed in a sealed container in the refrigerator’s crisper drawer.
Bitter melons are available year-round, with a peak season in the summer.