Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Eating Bitter Melon: Momordica Charantia

Bitter, sweet, salty, pungent and sour are the five primary flavors according to Traditional Chinese Medicine. When eaten regularly in moderate quantities, the five flavors are thought to balance each of the five major organ systems and promote good health.

The bitter flavor is the least represented in the Standard American Diet, which is predominantly sweet and salty; sour and pungent (spicy) foods are also eaten with some frequency. Coffee is one of the few bitter foods in the American diet today; bitter greens like dandelion were once eaten regularly in certain regions of the U.S. as a springtime "tonic".

"Eating Bitter" is a Chinese expression which refers to enduring hardship; it is sometimes said that one must "eat bitter to taste sweet". The organ system which is strengthened by the bitter flavor is the heart, which "rules the blood" and "houses the spirit".

Bitter melon (Momordica Charantia) was first cultivated in South Asia in the 14th century; today it is used extensively in Asian, Indian, Caribbean and Filipino cuisine. When bitter melons appear in early summer at my local farmer's market, Asian American customers eagerly crowd around to select the best specimens.  Highly regarded for its health giving properties, ku gua  has been used in Chinese herbal medical formulas for centuries.

On the exterior, the bitter melon has a strange primitive beauty. Its color ranges from pale celadon to deep green; the darker the pigment the more bitter the flesh.  

The inside of the bitter melon contains seeds and pale flesh which most recipes instruct the cook to remove. For those who enjoy or even crave the bitter taste, bitter melon is delicious in stir fry recipes, or hollowed out and stuffed with flavorful ingredients. Onion, garlic and chile peppers seasoned with sesame oil are commonly used in bitter melon preparations.  Many techniques are employed to reduce its bitterness, but it is not possible to change the true nature of the bitter melon! 


"Oh bitter melon
 my heart rebels
 against your jade green beauty."

~ O-risa-san,  20th century ~