by Amy Saltzman
My CSA usually sends me recognizable vegetables, but this week I met my match: a mutant cucumber-looking thing that turned out to be bitter melon. What is bitter melon, you ask? It’s not an odd zombie fruit, but actually a plant of the tropics that is most commonly used in Indian and Chinese cuisine.
I learned a lot while trying to figure out what to do with this vegetable: there is a National Bitter Melon Council, proving that there really is a commodity interest group for…everything. Bitter melon is called “karela” in Hindi, so if you find yourself in need of a recipe, that may be a better Google search term than bitter melon. The bitter property is thought to be “cooling,” making it a summer vegetable, but the bitterness can be reduced by salting/resting/rinsing (like eggplant) and removing the bright red seeds. Still, recipes frequently refer to it as “an acquired taste,” “a bit of a shock,” and “best if you grew up eating it,” so I wasn’t quite sure what I was in for.
After surveying some friends, I settled on a recipe for a bitter melon coconut curry. There are lots of bitter melon curry recipes out there, but in the end, I picked the wittiest one, which referred to coconut milk as “the priest of this wedding between bitter gourd and mango.” Note: this is probably not the most sound reason to pick a recipe, but wasn’t a major misstep.
1 mango, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 bitter gourd, halved, seeded, and chopped
1 onion, diced
2 hot peppers (I used jalapenos), diced
1 Tbsp. fresh ginger, grated
1/2 tsp. cayenne powder
3 Tbsp. coriander powder
1 tsp. turmeric
1 c. coconut milk
2. Sauté onions until soft, then add ginger and peppers.
3. Mix spices with a little water to make a paste, and add to pan when onions have browned.
4. Sauce for 5 minutes and add 1 cup of water; mix well.
5. Rinse bitter melon and add bitter melon and mango to the onion mixture. Simmer for 15 minutes.
6. Add coconut milk and taste. Add salt as necessary. Serve with rice.
So, I bet you’re wondering: how was it? Well…I don’t think bitter is a familiar flavor to the traditional American palate – or at least not to mine. The coconut milk definitely helps mellow the bitterness (trust me; I tasted the ingredients at various stages of preparation) but I felt like the whole point of the recipe was to mask the flavor, rather than complement it. I would make this recipe again – the mango and curry parts of the recipe were very tasty – but I feel like I’m missing something here. Does anyone have a better strategy for cooking bitter melon?
Amy Saltzman is an avid gardener and cook in DC. She is a member of the Lancaster County Farm Fresh and North Mountain Pastures CSAs.