Many moons ago, I felt the same way. In fact, I’ve only acquired a taste for it in the past several
months. After that first taste many years ago with that bracing bitterness that lingered on the
palate and it didn’t help that it looked like a cucumber or squash with a social affliction… What
am I talking about? The fruit of the Momordica charantia of course known simply by its other
name, bitter melon.
Bitter melon or niga gori is a tropical and subtropical denizen of the Cucurbitaceae family
which includes melons, squashes and cucumbers. It’s commonly found in the cuisine of India,
Pakistan, China, Okinawa and the Philippines. It is usually stir or deep fried though it is also
used in curries and stews. I know what you’re thinking because I used to feel the same way.
“Why would anyone want to eat something that looks like that and is so bitter to boot”? Well,
the first part isn’t answered with a simple response. There are many foods that legions of people
enjoy that don’t look or smell edible at all. Oysters on the half shell. I’ve polished off as many
of these delicacies as Daniel Webster himself. But look at it, a little slimy looking, a potentially
sharp shell (and impending hand injury) just to get to the innards and a texture akin to phlegm.
“And you’re gonna eat it raw”? Well someone had to be the first person to do it.
Or yogurt. I don’t think the first person who consumed it intentionally planned on making a
cultured, soured milk product. You know that the milk soured on its own, then coagulated and
I’m sure it wasn’t flavored with strawberry banana or vanilla or sweetened. Yet someone tasted
that first spoonful. And for the biologically minded, when nature wants you to consume a
product, it usually makes that product attractive to eat. Red coloring, sweet flesh, fragrant
perfume emanating from said product. Not light green and bumpy and if that didn’t stop you,
a bitter pulpy flesh. So what drove that first person to consume bitter melon? Probably
starvation. Though green, bumpy and bitter, it probably still looked more palatable than dirt.
What about the second part of the question? Most of the cultures still consuming bitter melons
aren’t faced with daily starvation. And bitter melons are still… very bitter. I think this has to do
with balance. Yin and yang of the palate. After all, we’re all equipped with taste buds that
detect bitterness. Must be for a reason right? Bitterness in food does have a balancing role to
richness in food. The reason why tannic red wine is great with rich red meats. The fat from
meats coats the palate and by itself would tire your palate (I know you meat, cheese, meat,
cheese and more meat fanatics would beg to differ). However a sip of a big, bold red wine
between bites plays a role more than the flavor of the wine itself. The tannins help cleanse your
palate of that fatty, rich feeling and refresh it for another bite. Likewise, the bitterness in bitter
melon helps cleanse the palate of any rich element in the food which may be as simple as
balancing the oil used in stir fried dishes all the way up to fatty rafute (slow simmered shoyu
braised pork belly) in the Okinawan stir fried dish; champuru.
Why the Change of Palate?
It started not with bitter melon but with its partner, rafute. I remember watching an episode of
Soko Ga Shiritai years ago where a Chinese chef prepared a shoyu braised pork belly over the
course of 3 days and only had 14 servings available each day. He first methodically selected just
the right cut of pork from the butcher then cut 14 servings from the belly region and slowly
braised it in a mixture of sake, shoyu, sugar and water. After cooling overnight and skimming
the copious amount of congealed fat from the surface, he then did another slow braise and
thickened the braising liquid for a “gravy”. Though I usually avoided fattier cuts of meat (and
pork belly is as fatty as they get) in my youth, I’m definitely in the stage of life where the
movie credits are closer than the introduction if you know what I mean. I would have to taste
something like this before I died. But what does this have to do with bitter melon? Rafute or
pork like I described is commonly seen in Hawaii due to its large Okinawan population. And
what’s the Yang to the silky, richness of rafute’s Yin? Bitter melon. And it just happens that
another popular Okinawan dish is champuru which combines the rich, fatty shoyu braised pork
belly with slices of stir fried bitter melon to cleanse the palate. Simplicity but oh so harmonious
in one simple dish! Of course we don’t have to just enjoy it with extravagantly rich and fatty
pork products. There are other foods which balance nicely with bitter. Like sweet. Or simply
rich, creamy textures in the mouth like eggs or tofu. Of course we can even rely on other animal
fats since a diet with regular pork belly consumption may get you closer to your own movie’s
credits a lot faster… if you know what I mean. So try it with that other white meat, chicken.
This is one time where I specifically prefer chicken thighs to breast since thighs do have more fat
than breast and make a better shoyu chicken than breast meat.
If you have any family members who regularly consume bitter melon, I’m sure they told you
that bitter melon had medicinal qualities right?! “Anything this bitter MUST be good for you”.
That’s what my Dad always used to say. Others may point to the Okinawan culture and their
longevity statistics which exceeds even Japanese on the main islands. Or you may have seen
bitter melon extracts touted as treatments for diabetes, cancer and a host of other ailments. If
you enjoy bitter melon on a culinary basis, please continue to partake in its flavor qualities. If
you’re thinking of starting a bitter melon diet just so that you can stop your metformin or
insulin treatment, I’d advise against that behavior. And as far as Okinawan longevity goes, it
could be the laborious farm work in tropical climates, a diet high in vegetables or maybe just
the awamori that increases their lifespan. Then again it could be pure genetics so if you want to
consume bitter melon, please do so from a culinary standpoint and not with a medicinal
The Gochiso Gourmet’s Champuru
Though I’ll still occasionally indulge in champuru with rafute, I try to use leaner shoyu braised
protein for regular consumption. The basics other than the bitter melon are tofu (creamy
texture for balance), eggs (richness for balance) and thick grated carrots (sweetness for balance
and a nice color contrast).
I don’t really have a recipe for shoyu pork or chicken and just “eyeball” everything depending on
the quantity of the protein. The key is bringing the sauce to a boil, adding your protein,
lowering the temperature and slow simmering for 1 to 2 hours. Chicken only takes about 1 hour,
lean pork usually takes a little longer.
1 can chicken broth
About ½ cup shoyu
About ½ cup awamori or sake
About ½ cup brown sugar
About a thumb sized piece of peeled fresh ginger
1 clove garlic cut in half
After protein is braised then cooled (can do the day before), slice into ½ inch slices and set
3 to 4 bitter melon, halved lengthwise and cored then sliced diagonally to ¼ inch slices
2 carrots peeled and rough grated (I use the larger grate on a Japanese mandolin)
6 eggs (I usually use only 3 to 4 yolks and the whites of all 6 eggs) beaten
Salt and fresh black pepper to taste
1 tbsp canola oil
2 tsp of Hondashi (optional)
Heat oil then quickly stir fry protein – just to reheat if made the day before then add bitter
melon. When bitter melon is softened (a couple of minutes), add grated carrots and toss then
add beaten eggs. Toss until eggs are cooked then add Hondashi (if using it).
Is This Edible?