Bitter what now? But isn’t melon sweet?

14 August, 2020

Finding out more about bitter melon

Normally when you think of fruits and vegetables in the melon and squash family, you think sweet and usually quite mild in taste. But bitter melon is without a doubt the black sheep of the Cucurbitaceae family. Unlike its cousins, like watermelon, rockmelon, cucumber, squash, pumpkin and zucchini, bitter melon is sharply flavoured with a pungent bitter taste that can be so high in astringency that it leaves your mouth feeling like it’s been dried out.

Bitter melon’s bumpy exterior also brings to mind warts, so it would be easy to leave it on the shelf for more adventurous eaters. Well, don’t! Bitter melon might be a little bit challenging, but it offers a unique and memorable eating experience. The bitterness can effectively cut through and complement dishes featuring chilies and fat.

How to get comfortable with bitter flavours

Bitterness is typically the most challenging of the major tastes (the others being sweet, sour, salty and umami). As Jennifer McLagan outlines in her book Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavour, this is “a natural defence system to protect us: many poisons are bitter, so our response when tasting something very bitter is to grimace and often to spit it out.” But as well as possibly signalling danger, bitterness can also be desirable and delicious. Think coffee, dark chocolate, bitter greens like rocket, Brussels sprouts, grapefruit, beer – all foods that champion and celebrate bitterness.

By incorporating a bitter element to a dish or meal, you can create balance between some of the other tastes. If bitterness is overwhelming, it can often be balanced by a bit of sugar or additional fats, like coconut milk.

Plus, it’s good for you

Bitter melon has also been prized for years for its health benefits, especially in Chinese culture. It’s long been eaten to help aid digestion.

In addition, studies have also suggested that bitter melon can help to lower blood sugar levels as outlined by Healthline. While it is not a medically approved treatment, adding bitter melon to your meals can be one way to help manage blood sugar levels as part of a varied diet.

So, what are some ways to enjoy bitter melon?

One of the most popular ways to enjoy bitter melon is in stir fries, either by itself, with other vegetables or with proteins like pork like in these recipes suggested by The Spruce Eats. It also pairs well with strongly flavoured fermented foods like black beans and fish sauce, and Jennifer McLagan’s book referenced above suggests using it in a Thai curry using either red or green curry paste as well as coconut milk and salty fish sauce to balance the bitterness. She suggests using just a small amount of bitter melon in combination with other vegetables and increasing the amount of melon as your palate adjusts to bitterness.

Keep an eye out on the menus of your Chatswood favourites for bitter melon. Maybe you too will discover a love for the world’s most dangerous flavour?