Many moons ago, I felt the same way. In fact, I’ve only acquired a taste for it in the past several months. After that first taste many years ago, with that bracing bitterness that lingered on the palate, I kept my distance. It didn’t help that it looked like a cucumber or squash with a social affliction… What am I talking about? The fruit of the Momordica charantia — known simply by its other name, bitter melon.
Bitter melon, or niga gori, is a tropical and subtropical denizen of the Cucurbitaceae family, which includes melons, squashes and cucumbers. It’s commonly found in the cuisine of India, Pakistan, China, Okinawa and the Philippines. It is usually stir-fried or deep-fried, though it is also used in curries and stews. I know what you’re thinking because I used to feel the same way. “Why would anyone want to eat something that looks like that and is so bitter to boot?”
Well, the first part isn’t answered with a simple response. Legions of people enjoy many different foods that don’t look or smell edible at all. Take oysters on the half shell for instance. I’ve polished off as many of these delicacies as Daniel Webster himself. But look at it: it’s a little slimy looking, a texture akin to phlegm and with a potentially sharp shell that could cause a hand injury just trying to get the innards. “And you’re gonna eat it raw?” Well someone had to be the first person to do it. Or yogurt. I don’t think the first person who consumed it intentionally planned on making a cultured, soured milk product. You know that the milk soured on its own, then coagulated. And I’m sure it wasn’t flavored with strawberry-banana, or vanilla, or even sweetened. Yet someone tasted that first spoonful.
And for the biologically minded, when nature wants you to consume a product, it usually makes that product attractive to eat — red coloring, sweet flesh, fragrant perfume emanating from said product — not light green and bumpy. And if that didn’t stop you, there’s the bitter, pulpy flesh. So what drove that first person to consume bitter melon? Probably starvation. Though green, bumpy and bitter, it probably still looked more palatable than dirt. Or stones.
What about the second part of the question? Most of the cultures still consuming bitter melons aren’t faced with daily starvation. And bitter melons are still… very bitter. I think this has to do with balance — yin and yang of the palate. After all, we’re all equipped with taste buds that detect bitterness. Must be for a reason right? Bitterness in food does have a balancing role to richness in food, which is the reason why tannic red wine is great with rich red meats. The fat from those meats coats the palate, and by itself would tire your palate. (I know you meat, cheese, meat, cheese and more meat fanatics would beg to differ.) However, a sip of a big, bold red wine between bites plays a role more than the flavor of the wine itself. The tannins help cleanse your palate of that fatty, rich feeling and refresh it for another bite. Likewise, the bitterness in bitter melon helps cleanse the palate of any rich element in the food, which may be as simple as balancing the oil used in stir-fried dishes all the way up to fatty rafute (slow-simmered, shoyu-braised pork belly) in the Okinawan stir-fried dish champuru.
Why the Change of Palate?
It started not with bitter melon but with its partner, rafute. I remember watching an episode of “Soko Ga Shiritai” years ago in which a Chinese chef prepared a shoyu-braised pork belly over the course of three days and only had 14 servings available each day. He first methodically selected just the right cut of pork from the butcher, then cut 14 servings from the belly region and slowly braised them in a mixture of sake, shoyu, sugar and water. After cooling overnight and skimming the copious amount of congealed fat from the surface, he then did another slow braise and thickened the braising liquid for a “gravy.”
Though I usually avoided fattier cuts of meat (and pork belly is as fatty as they get) in my youth, I’m definitely in the stage of life where the movie credits are closer than the introduction, if you know what I mean. I would have to taste something like this before I died. But what does this have to do with bitter melon? Rafute, or pork such as I described, is commonly seen in Hawai‘i due to its large Okinawan population. And what’s the yang to the silky richness of rafute’s yin? … Bitter melon. And it just happens that another popular Okinawan dish is champuru, which combines the rich, fatty shoyu-braised pork belly with slices of stir-fried bitter melon to cleanse the palate. Simple, but oh so harmonious!
Of course, we don’t have to enjoy it with just extravagantly rich and fatty pork products. There are other foods which balance nicely with bitter, like sweet or simply rich, creamy textures in the mouth such as eggs or tofu. Of course we can even rely on other animal fats, since a diet with regular pork belly consumption may get you closer to your own movie’s credits a lot faster… if you know what I mean. So try it with that other white meat, chicken. This is one time where I specifically prefer chicken thighs to breast, since thighs do have more fat than breast and make a better shoyu chicken than breast meat.
If you have any family members who regularly consume bitter melon, I’m sure they told you that it has medicinal qualities, right? “Anything this bitter MUST be good for you.” That’s what my dad always used to say. Others may point to the Okinawan culture and their longevity statistics, which exceed even Japanese on the main islands. Or you may have seen bitter melon extracts touted as treatments for diabetes, cancer and a host of other ailments. If you enjoy bitter melon on a culinary basis, please continue to partake in its flavor qualities. If you’re thinking of starting a bitter melon diet just so that you can stop your metformin or insulin treatment, I’d advise against that behavior. And as far as Okinawan longevity goes, it could be the laborious farm work in tropical climates, a diet high in vegetables or maybe just the awamori that increases their lifespan. Then again it could be pure genetics, so if you want to consume bitter melon, please do so from a culinary standpoint and not with a medicinal intention.
The Gochiso Gourmet’s Champuru
Though I’ll still occasionally indulge in champuru with rafute, I try to use leaner shoyu-braised protein for regular consumption. Other than the bitter melon, the basics are tofu (creamy texture for balance), eggs (richness for balance) and thick-grated carrots (sweetness for balance and a nice color contrast).
I don’t really have a recipe for shoyu pork or chicken, and just “eyeball” everything depending on the quantity of the protein. The key is bringing the sauce to a boil, adding your protein, lowering the temperature and slow-simmering for one to two hours. Chicken only takes about one hour, lean pork usually takes a little longer.
• 1 can chicken broth
• About _ cup shoyu
• About _ cup awamori or sake
• About _ cup brown sugar
• About a thumb-sized piece of peeled, fresh ginger
• 1 clove garlic, cut in half
After the protein is braised, then cooled (you can do this the day before), slice it into half-inch slices and set aside.
• 3 to 4 bitter melons, halved lengthwise and cored, then sliced diagonally to 1/4-inch slices
• 2 carrots, peeled and roughly grated (I use the larger grate on a Japanese mandolin)
• 6 eggs (I usually use only 3 to 4 yolks and the whites of all 6 eggs), beaten
• Salt and fresh black pepper to taste
• 1 tbsp canola oil
• 2 tsp of hondashi (optional)
Heat oil, quickly stir-fry protein (just to reheat if made the day before), then add bitter melon. When bitter melon is softened (after a couple of minutes), add grated carrots and toss, then add beaten eggs. Toss until eggs are cooked, then add hondashi (if you’re using it).
The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at email@example.com.