A few days ago I was at my friend Trevor’s organic market garden down the street, admiring his handsome bitter melon vine that runs the full length of the street frontage. It’s very prolific, heavily foliated and green, with lovely yellow flowers, and replete with melons which hang invitingly under its sprawling leaves.
When I was living there a couple of years ago we had a bumper crop over summer of up to 10kg a day. A prolific and generous plant. And it self-seeds, as nature intended – the unpicked fruits that hide amidst the tangle of foliage ripen to a bright red and just sort of melt away, dropping to the ground and spilling their big, flat, jet black seeds for a guaranteed next-year crop.
Bitter Melon (Momordica charantia) is a member of the Cucurbitaceae (gourd) family, and a relative of squash, watermelon, muskmelon, and cucumber.
There are different types of this healthy vegetable. Trevor grows what I can ascertain to be the Thai variety, pictured below.
The one grown in India appears more slender and spiky, being saw-toothed like crocodile skin, with seeds that are small and tightly packed in the flesh, as pictured below next to it’s bigger cousin.
Here’s a link to a great bitter melon page with photos and nice Bengali recipes, by the way.
So it was timely that Madhava Ghosh from somewhere in West Virginia just wrote:
“My wife has type 2 diabetes and bitter melon is recommended to help
normalize glucose levels. Now, we just sautee it and have it as a side dish, unspiced. Are there any simple recipes you know to vary the way we eat it?”
Here’s a nice traditional way:
Fried Bitter Melon Chips (Karela Bhaji)
In the ancient Indian medical science, Ayurveda, bitter melons are well-known for their ability to cleanse the blood, aid digestion, help cure diabetes and encourage a failing appetite. Fried chips of bitter melon are well-loved in India, and are generally eaten in small appetiser quantities at the outset of a full lunch or dinner. To reduce their bitterness, the melons are rubbed in salt before cooking. You’ll find bitter melons in Asian and Indian food stores. Always look for small melons that are dark green in colour and heavy for their size.
PREPARATION AND SALTING TIME: 30 minutes
COOKING TIME: 10 minutes
YIELD: enough for 4-6 persons
4 small or 2 medium-sized bitter melons, about 250g
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons rice flour or 1 tablespoon rice flour and 1 tablespoon chickpea flour
Trim the ends off the bitter melons. Slice them in half lengthways, remove the seeds and then slice them lengthways into long strips, 0.5cm (1/4-inch) wide. Cut the strips into lengths about 3.75cm (1/1/2 inches). Alternatively, cut each half crosswise to yield semi-circular strips of melon.
Place the bitter melon pieces in a bowl, sprinkle liberally with salt and place a weight on them. Set them aside for at least half an hour.
Rinse the melon pieces under running water and drain them. Pat them with paper towels until they are almost dry.
Pour 5cm (2 inches) oil or ghee into a deep-frying vessel. Place the pan over moderate heat and bring to a temperature of 190 C/375 F.
Sprinkle the turmeric, cayenne and flour over the melon pieces and toss gently to coat. When the oil is hot, drop in a small handful of flour-coated melon chips. Fry them for about 2 1/2 minutes, or until crisp and golden.
Remove and drain them on paper towels. Fry the remaining bitter melon chips in batches. Serve hot, warm or room temperature. For extra crispness, I like to double-fry the melon chips: allow the cooked chips to cool, then fry again briefly in hot oil.