Home & Garden

Growing bitter melon: Tricks to an unusual treat

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 © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • 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 distinctive...

  • 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 in...

  • From rock stars to royalty, Nicky Haslam discusses 'A Designer's Life'
    From rock stars to royalty, Nicky Haslam discusses 'A Designer's Life'

    As adept at sumptuous louche grandeur as he is with classic English style, it’s no wonder that famed British interior designer Nicky Haslam is a favorite of both rock stars and royalty. Born in a Buckinghamshire manor and educated at Eton, he worked for Diana Vreeland at Vogue and...

  • The fierce angel who tends Amir's Garden in Griffith Park
    The fierce angel who tends Amir's Garden in Griffith Park

    "These winds are creeping me out," shouted Kristin Sabo as she tended groves of black walnut atop a Griffith Park peak during a mid-March heat wave. As the no-nonsense volunteer caretaker of Amir's Garden, Sabo battles more than unseasonable Santa Ana winds. She terms the 5-acre parcel, created...

  • Indoor garden products plant edible crops in the kitchen
    Indoor garden products plant edible crops in the kitchen

    Supermarket greens are rarely as tasty as the ones you grow in your garden, which is why a new crop of products looks to offer city dwellers a zero-mile diet by letting them raise their own greens indoors, year-round.

  • 'The Royals': Behaving badly never looked so good
    'The Royals': Behaving badly never looked so good

    From the Clampett’s Beverly Hills mansion to Lord and Lady Grantham’s pile o’ bricks, aka Downton Abbey, television has inspired house envy in viewers pretty much since its invention. The newest entry, however, puts them all in their place: the behemoth baroque estate...

Comments
Loading