Exoticism is all about perspective. I roll my eyes when foodies express profound amazement for an ingredient or a dish that is unfamiliar to white people. Most recently, I stumbled upon Jennifer McLagan’s Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor. She devotes pages (and recipes) to the bitter melon (also known as bitter gourd), a vegetable that the South Asian cooks in my family and community consider rather ordinary.
A bitter taste profile is prevalent in many of India’s curries, and is highly coveted. When I was growing up in New Jersey, my mother would frequently purchase this green, oblong, knobby fruit at a nearby specialty grocery story—white people would describe such a grocery store as “ethnic”—and whip up a simple tomato and onion-based bitter melon stew, a traditional Sindhi preparation. Bitter melon has a crunchy husk, like a green pepper, and a watery texture, like a cucumber. But it’s weedy, alkaline taste is unlike any other like fruit or vegetable.
Even to my trained taste buds, bitter melon is nearly inedible raw. My mother tamed its bitterness by marinating it in yogurt, lemon juice, and salt before stewing. Heat alters the fruit’s texture to that of a cooked zucchini, and the sharp sourness—khatai in my mother tongue—of the yogurt, lemon juice, and tomatoes softens its bitterness. She also knew that the younger the melon, the sharper its taste, and often chose mature, riper melons when cooking for family who didn’t care as much for the fruit as she did.
On special occasions, she prepared Punjabi-style bharwan karela, bitter gourd stuffed with a pungent, tangy masala of ground coriander powder, asafetida, and roasted cumin, fennel and fenugreek seeds. Again, this mélange of spices perfectly complimented the melon, accentuating its unmistakable astringent flavor.
Bitter melons have always been considered superfoods in my family, long before these nutrient powerhouses became hip to the West. Over the dinner table, my elderly great aunts and uncles would debate the merits and demerits of pulverized bitter gourd and cite clinical trials showing that bitter gourd has anti-diabetic properties, before downing their ayurvedic doctor-mandated spoonful-a-day of fine, brown powder.
Year later, my mother-in-law would introduce to me a Southern Indian preparation of bitter melon from the Palakkad region of Kerala. Pavakka pachadi is a bitter gourd accompaniment served as part of a sadya, or banquet of vegetarian dishes, served on a banana leaf on holidays such as Onam, Kerala’s rice harvest festival. Here, the diced bitter gourd is sautéed in a grated coconut and yogurt paste, and tempered with crushed mustard seeds, dried red chilies, and curry leaves. The vegetable’s bitterness is mitigated by sour yogurt and sweet coconut, and serves as a cooling side dish to offset the heat of the sadya’s tamarind-spiked, soupy sambars and roasted coconut sauce-based erisserys.
Outside of South Asia and South Asian kitchens, bitter gourd is considered a rather unexceptional ingredient. Here in Singapore, where I now make my home, ku gua chao dan, or bitter gourd with egg, is a classic local home-style Chinese dish in which is sliced bitter gourd is stir-fried with fermented black beans and egg. To remove the fruit’s bitter taste, home cooks often sprinkle sliced bitter gourd slices with salt. The salt leaches away liquid from this watery fruit, which is then squeezed out to remove some of its strong flavor.
Goya champuru, a popular Okinawan dish featuring bitter melon.
Just as in India, here in Singapore the healing properties of bitter gourd are widely lauded. Bitter gourd is known to reduce “heatiness,” a concept drawn from traditional Chinese medicine, and consumed for a more balanced body disposition. A Chinese acquaintance in an online parents’ group once suggested that I puree the fruit and apply it liberally on my then-infant’s eczema. I did, and it made a tremendous difference in the quality of her skin.
And I’ve learned from my Thai and Japanese friends in Singapore that bitter gourd is commonplace in their own cuisines. Thai bitter gourd soup is made by hollowing out a bitter gourd and stuffing it with minced pork laced with knock-out bird’s eye chilies and generous splashes of fish sauce, a dish that is bitter, sweet, hot, and salty with every bite. Goya champuru is a very popular Okinawan dish. This quintessential stir-fry, from the southernmost prefecture in Japan, combines bitter melon, tofu, egg, and sliced pork or Spam. Here, the melon retains its refreshing bitter taste and crunchy texture.
So, to billions of people, this acerbic fruit is hardly exotic. The sustenance of my childhood exists outside of the day-tripping context of white people’s “adventurous” eating. This doesn’t mean you can’t thoroughly enjoy bitter melon—I highly recommend it!—but just remember that this bumpy, thorny, and seemingly offbeat gourd is a staple in countless kitchens.
Pooja Makhijani writes children’s books, essays, and articles, and also develops educational media and curricula. Follow her at on Twitter @notabilia.
Main photo by John Verive CC BY-SA
Goya champuru photo by pelican CC BY-SA