What is a bitter gourd and what can you do with it?

“He offered me a dish of bitter melon cooked with hot peppers.
‘How does it taste?’ he wondered.
I had never eaten such a dish. ‘It’s hot and bitter’, I replied.
Mao roared with laughter. ‘Everyone should taste some bitterness in his life,’ he said, ‘especially a person like you. You studied medicine and became a doctor. You have probably never eaten bitterness.'”

Zhisui Li, The Private Life Of Chairman Mao

Whilst staying at Parisons Plantation in India with my daughter recently we went into the local town, Mananthavady, and had a look around to see what was on offer. In the greengrocers, I spotted some very exotic, knobbly-looking cucumber-like vegetables.

I asked our host about them and he laughed – “it’s called bitter gourd, and indeed it deserves its name, children here think about them rather like children in Europe think about Brussels sprouts!”.

I’m past worrying about being sophisticated, so when, finally we reached Vijayawada, on the other side of India, I tried bitter gourd juice for breakfast. And I was happy to be counted as a child – for me it was a dramatic burst of sourness (slightly sour apple) and not in a good way!

bitter gourd
Bitter gourd juice…you’ve been warned!

About the bitter gourd

The bitter melon is also known as bitter melon, and bitter squash as well as karela (an ancient name which comes from the Sanskrit). Its botanical name is Momordica Charantia, and it originated in India, but, as you will gather from the quote above, it is also freely available in China, and much of Asia, and has been ever since it was introduced there in the fourteenth century.

There are different types, varying in bitterness, with a particularly gnarled and knobly type being more typically found in India and a smoother type more typical in Asia, but I found both in India.

What do people do with it?

The texture is crunchy and watery like a cucumber….but the taste….well, as I keep saying, it’s downright bitter. In the north of India they temper the bitterness with yoghurt, and in the south with coconut cream. In Asia, it’s thrown into all sorts of stir fries and other dishes, including being deep fried with peanuts, but they don’t use the red seeds inside. My daughter got mocked for including these in the lunch she brought into work while out in China. Apparently these are considered too bitter to eat. My daughter did say it wasn’t something she would make again…

However, all is not lost for the bitter gourd. Vivek Singh, of Cinnamon Club, told Food and Travel Magazine,

“There’s a growing interest in bitter flavour profiles….I’m experimenting with karela paired with lamb…. “

karela or bitter gourd
In India you find some positively prickly specimens….

“But I loved reviewing Beijing’s restaurants and writing about Chinese regional cuisine, experiences that would eventually inspire me to write a novel. Every day for lunch, my colleagues and I would try a new restaurant, often delicious and always, always dirt cheap, and slowly, over shared plates of stir-fried bitter melon and cumin lamb, these co-workers evolved into friends.”

Ann Mah, Mastering the Art of French Eating

You might also like…

Our other posts on Asian cuisine

To explore other specialist fruit and vegetables

This post is dedicated to Hugo Stride, who gave me the fascinating biography of Mao.
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