Home & Garden

Growing bitter melon: Tricks to an unusual treat

BrazilIndiaMedicine

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. 

The Global Garden, a look at our multicultural city through the lens of its landscapes, appears here on Tuesdays. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook page for Gardening in the West. Email: home@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
BrazilIndiaMedicine
  • Calamondin: Cousin of the kumquat delivers fruit all year
    Calamondin: Cousin of the kumquat delivers fruit all year

    The scent of citrus emanating from Boni Liscano's backyard in Atwater Village comes from a 20-foot-high calamondin tree (Citrofortunella microcarpa), sometimes called kalamansi or calamansi. The tree is covered in small, lime-shaped green fruit that has a thin rind, juicy pulp and...

  • How to grow tomatillos
    How to grow tomatillos

    Long before the tomato achieved star status in the vegetable gardening world, its cousin in the nightshade family, the tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica), was a staple for the people of Mexico and Guatemala. One tomatillo plant can pump out more than 10 pounds of fruit, each neatly wrapped...

  • Renovated 1926 home in Carthay Circle shows its past yet feels modern
    Renovated 1926 home in Carthay Circle shows its past yet feels modern

    Liz Dennery Sanders and husband Peter Sanders had been looking for a corner-lot house in Carthay Circle for more than a year when they saw a For Sale sign go up on their street.

  • Sophisticated Robert Kuo designs on display at Pacific Design Center
    Sophisticated Robert Kuo designs on display at Pacific Design Center

    Robert Kuo is a designer for all ages. Marrying ancient Chinese motifs and crafts including enamel cloisonne, lacquer work and hammered copper repousse with sleek modern forms, he has consistently redefined contemporary art furniture and accessories since opening his namesake West Hollywood...

  • 'Good Morning America's' Lara Spencer talks flea market fun, finds
    'Good Morning America's' Lara Spencer talks flea market fun, finds

    When she’s not co-anchoring “Good Morning America,” Lara Spencer can be found shopping at the Elephant’s Trunk Flea Market near her home in Connecticut. “It’s not about the money,” Spencer said of her passion for flea markets. “It’s about...

  • Water-wise fall planting
    Water-wise fall planting

    How to tackle fall planting in Southern California during the third straight year of drought and the diminishing likelihood of El Niño storms this winter? At the very least, Los Angeles gardening experts agree that planting in the fall is water-wise as new plants require less...

Comments
Loading