What is bitter melon? It’s not called that name without reason. It is probably the most bitter of all fruits, and yet one of the most nutritious too. Its elongated shape and warty exterior also make this fruit distinct in appearance.
But what is it exactly and why is it that bitter? What is it good for, anyway, when it is not pleasant to eat?
Technically, bitter melon is a fruit because it is that part of the plant that carries the seeds. But it is more easily considered a vegetable because of its color and taste. Also called bitter gourd and scientifically named “momordica charantia”, the bitter melon is Asian and may not be easily liked by the Western tongue. It is simply too bitter, even to an Asian who did not grow up eating it. It also grows in India, Africa and the Caribbean. It is a common item in most Asian stores around the United States.
Although it does turn yellow when ripe, it is best eaten when still green, crunchy and watery in texture. It is similar to chayote, cucumber or green bell pepper, except that it defeats all three of these when it comes to overpowering flavor. Why is it so bitter? The fruit’s high concentration of quinine makes it taste that way, almost inedible in some cases. But it is because of its bitter taste that it aids digestion. It is also because of its extremely bitter taste that it is regarded as medicinal in many countries around the world. It is used in a number of concoctions and is believed to be the key to eternal youth.
The Theory of Natural Selection suggests that all plant and animal species come up with ways to make themselves attractive to other members of their kind, or protective of themselves by smelling, looking or tasting offensive to a predator. With such a strong point of defensive offense, then, it would seem that the bitter melon is hiding something really special. And so it is.
This odd-looking fruit is rich in iron, vitamins, phosphorous and fiber. It has more beta carotene than broccoli, more calcium than spinach and more potassium than banana. Not only that, it can fight off tumor and malaria, and treat dyspepsia and constipation. Although requiring more studies and scientific proof, bitter melon may be used to inhibit cancer and HIV infection.
In some parts of the world, bitter melon is used to treat chickenpox, measles, herpes simplex, dysentery, fever, painful menstruation, burns, scabies and other skin problems.
But what exactly is in a bitter melon?
For every 100 grams, a boiled bitter melon contains carbohydrates (4.32 g), sugar (1.95 g), protein (0.84 g), water (93.95 g), calcium (1 mg), iron (0.38 mg), sodium (6 mg) and zinc (0.77 mg), as well as Vitamins A, B, C, E and K.
Who would want to eat something as bitter?
Other than those who believe in bitter melon health benefits including the ability to treat the many illnesses earlier mentioned, people who have eased into making the bitter melon a part of their regular cuisine actually eat it for its bitterness. (Bitter melon recipes here) It is deliciously bitter as it is surprisingly nutritious. What is bitter melon, then, but a curious product of nature, to be enjoyed and marveled at alike for its balance of good (the amazing nutrition within it) and bad (the wicked bitterness of its flavor)?