Homegrown bitter melon

Richie and Linda Huang cover the tops of their bitter melons to protect them from the sun. (Ann Summa)

In the Long Beach community of Carmelitos, Richie Huang’s gardener father has positioned little protective paper hats over the ripening bitter melon. Even though this is a sun-loving tropical vine that grows like a vigorous cucumber and is a member of the same botanical family, bitter melon can get damaged by the sun. Immature gourds taste best, but the Huangs also cook with the leaves.

Linda Huang, Richie’s wife, said they add the leaves as a final step in cooking soup, as you might do with spinach. The bitter melon leaves cook fast. "Tastes a little bitter," she said. "Different.”

Different is an understatement. Bitter melon (Momordica charantia) is undeniably an acquired taste. The slightly musky flavor has bright highlights of crunchy bitterness. Salting the fruit and squeezing out the juice before cooking reduces the sharpness. Those who grow bitter melon often combine it with other savory ingredients and eat it stir-fried, steamed, boiled or baked. It’s a staple in tropical gardens from the islands of Japan to the rain forests of Brazil.

This is the rare fruit that is best eaten unripened. The gourd should be slightly firm, starting to yellow but not puffy, Richie Huang said. If bitter melon is new to you, start off sampling riper Chinese varieties. The bigger the fruit and the smoother the skin, the milder the taste.

The two main types of bitter melon are from India, where it originated, and China, where it was introduced in the 1400s. Indian varieties have warty, sharply ridged or spiny skins; Chinese bitter melons are generally larger, smoothly ridged and milder in taste.

All parts of the plant are edible, root to fruit, including the sweet, red fleshy coating that develops around the seeds of fully ripened gourds. Let at least a few fruit fully develop before you collect the seeds.

Bitter melon is used as folk medicine, particularly in Brazil and India. In Brazilian herbal medicine, the leaves and fruit are used with a range of intents, including as an aphrodisiac and as contraception. This is not a plant for you if you're hypoglycemic or nursing.

It’s easy to find seeds online, but it can be a little hard to get them to start, sometimes taking more than two weeks. Some gardeners place seeds in a warm spot, layered in a moist paper towel, until the seed casing splits. Cracking the shell gently with a file can also jumpstart germination, although it may also introduce mold or bacteria. Be patient. Plant in a clean potting mix for best results. 

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