This Asian vegetable has pucker power
by Sara Deseran
the possible exception of truck-stop coffee, we Americans have embraced
bitter flavors only gingerly, learning to appreciate them one by one, if at
all (for instance, the radicchio, arugula, and broccoli rabe we’ve gradually
grown to like through our fondness for Italian food). In general, though, we
tend to prefer our food sweet and salty. In many cultures, though, bitter
herbs and vegetables are a prevalent part of the diet. And few vegetables
are as bitter as bitter melon.
Momordica charantia, as it is known botanically, is not exactly the Kim
Basinger of the vegetable kingdom. Bumpy and often gnarled, it looks like a
pale, arthritic cucumber. Taste it raw and your tongue recoils. I have to
admit that until recently, I was not a fan. Yet I knew that Asians have long
incorporated it--leaves and vines and all—into their diet, both for
medicinal purposes and because they love the taste. I figured I must be
missing out on something, so I did some investigating.
photograph by Michael Kraus
known as bitter gourd or balsam pear, bitter melon is grown widely in India,
Southeast Asia, and China; a few farms grow it in this country, too. You
won’t often come across it in Western markets—although I did spot some
rather limp ones at my local Safeway once—but it’s a common sight at any
Asian-American produce stand. The greener melons are the youngest and most
tender, and they’re also the most bitter.
I’d never done more than take a tentative nibble, I telephoned Kasma
Loha-unchit, a bitter-melon devotee and Thai cooking teacher who runs a
school in Oakland, California, called The Art of Thai Cooking. Would she
consider making me a bitter-melon lunch? I asked. She graciously agreed, and
so, on a sunny afternoon, we sat down to a mouth-puckering feast: sliced raw
melon with a pungent shrimp-paste dipping sauce; lightly stir-fried melon
with egg; stewed melon with mustard greens and pork bones; and stir-fried
melon with shrimp and fermented black beans. Loha-unchit’s American husband,
Michael Babcock, also a bitter-melon fan, joined us. ''It just makes me feel
healthy when I eat it,'' he told me, smiling.
Healthy is right. I’m no scientist, but I can tell you that if you look up
bitter melon on the Internet, a very long list of alternative medicine sites
pop up before the culinary ones ever appear. Bitter melon is credited with
curing colds, controlling diabetes, purifying the blood, even strengthening
the immune systems of people with AIDS. It is also thought to protect
against malaria due to its high percentage of quinine, the active ingredient
in malaria pills—and the substance that makes bitter melon bitter.