Have you noticed this long, cucumber-like vegetable with its bumpy skin at your supermarket or market and wondered what it is? Some of you may have seen it growing in vacant lots or on vines.
Bitter melon is a vegetable that is widely used in various Asian cuisines. In the Caribbean it is particularly used in islands like Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana and Suriname but you can find them across the region in large quantities.
Also Known As– karaila, caraille, balsam pear, bitter gourd, bitter cucumber, and African cucumber – the vegetable is known by different names in the various islands. (We need your help in completing this list.)
Bahamas: Wild Balsam Pear
Antigua: Bitter Bush/Fowl-batty
St.Maarten: Maiden apple/Wild Corella
St. Lucia: Pomme Coulie
Popular family members: squash, pumpkin, zucchini, watermelon, and cucumber
Flavour Profile: Bitter (Indeed! Hence the name.)
Nutritional Profile (at a glance): Bitter melon is largely used in alternative medicine. In Jamaica it is drank as a tea to lower blood pressure and as a tonic. In the Caribbean the veg is also popular among those who believe in its anti diabetic contents but research on this claim is still ongoing. Fresh, it is an excellent source of vitamin C and a high beta-carotene food. To find out more about its health benefits and side effects of consuming bitter melon, speak to a nutritionist.
Cook & Serve: Stir-fried, sautéed, steamed and stuffed. Or cook the vegetable on its own, with meat or shrimp.
Pair With: Herbs such as thyme, marjoram, fresh cilantro/coriander, scallions/green onions and celery. Aromatics: onions and garlic. Spices: mustard seeds, and spice mixes such as garam masala.
Picking and Choosing: They come in different varieties, shapes and sizes with some more bitter than others.
- The greener the skin, the more bitter it is, the lighter the shade of green the less bitter the vegetable. (Pick them young and bright green.)
- When buying check that they are firm and that the skin is not bruised. The skin should look shiny and not dull.
- Depending on the variety, choose bitter melons with big bumps; the bigger the bumps, the thicker the flesh.
Store: wrap in a paper towel and store in a perforated plastic bag in your refrigerator’s vegetable draw for up to 5 days. Bitter melons do not freeze well.
Preparation: Before cooking your bitter melon, you will need to remove some of the bitterness first.
- Remove the tips (top and bottom) of the bitter melon, slice in half and remove the seeds (use a teaspoon to scrape it out).
- Thinly slice the bitter melon halves (into half-moon shape).
- Transfer to a bowl and sprinkle liberally with salt to taste. Let it sit at room temperature for an hour, half an hour if that is all the time you have. You will notice that the melon ‘springs’ water. In other words, it will become wet and moist (this process helps to release the bitterness). It is the same reaction that cucumbers have when you add salt to them.
- After the resting, in handfuls, squeeze all the liquid from the bitter melon to get rid of the bitter juice that it has yielded. If you like, you can add some fresh water and squeeze again.
- Transfer the squeezed bitter melon to a plate spreading it out in an even layer to air dry for a few minutes. It is now ready to be sautéed or stir fried. Of course if you are not averse to the bitterness, you can altogether skip the above-mentioned step.
Get the recipe for Sautéed Bitter Melon (Fried Karaila) HERE.
Words & Photos by Cynthia Nelson