Bitter melon: It’s ugly and has a dauntingly aggressive taste. So, of course, it’s super healthy. Only nature would have such a twisted sense of humor.
“It looks like a cucumber with a bad case of acne,” quipped WNYC’s Amy Eddings. She recently spoke with Dr. Pamela Yee, a physician at the Beth Israel's Center for Health and Healing, about the healthful properties of bitter melon, which is in season now and growing on Yee’s farm in Nyack, N.Y.
Earlier this year, a study in the journal Cancer Research reported that bitter melon extract had the ability to kill breast cancer cells. However, Yee said that the singular study doesn’t paint a complete picture.
“What’s important to note is that...this study, was [done] in a laboratory setting...there are very few studies looking at these botanicals and substances in food in clinical trials,” explained Yee, who is certified in both internal and holistic medicine. “But that doesn’t mean that we should discard this valuable information.” She noted, for instance, that bitter melon aids digestion in a way traditionally associated with bitters, and it’s rich in iron, carotene, vitamins A, B, C, and dietary fiber.
While Yee insists that bitter melon is safe and has been eaten in Asian cultures for generations, consumption may have some potentially little-known side effects. “In some animal studies it appears to reduce sperm count and might actually induce periods and cause miscarriages in animals,” she said, “so it’s a relative contraindication for someone who is seeking to become pregnant or who is already pregnant.”
For those who are interested in sampling bitter melon, it can usually be found are Asian specialty grocery stores. Chichi Wang, a writer for Serious Eats who wrote about bitter melon recently, advises looking for lighter colored ones, which are more mature and less bitter.
Both Yee and Wang recommend stir-frying bitter melon with meat, red chili flakes, or fermented black beans — basically anything with a strong enough flavor to balance out the bitterness. Below is a recipe from Yee’s father for bitter melon.
Pork Stuffed Chinese Bitter Melon with Black Beans
- 1 teaspoon chopped garlic
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1/2-1 Tablespoon corn starch
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 lb of bitter melon
- 6 ounces of ground pork
- 1 teaspoon fermented black beans (available at Asian markets)
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
- 2 scallions chopped
- 2 tablespoon chopped cilantro (optional)
- oil for frying (suggestions: vegetable, grapeseed, rice bran, canola oil)
1. Cut off ends of the bitter melon and cut 3/4"-1" thick slices and discard the seeds. Place melon in boiling salted water for 3 minutes then drain and rinse with cold water. When cooled, dry the melon.
2. Combine 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon sugar, and 1/4 cup of water. Mix to dissolve and put aside.
3. Mix ground pork with the garlic, 1/2 teaspoon salt, sesame oil and 1tablespoon corn starch and the scallions and cilantro.
4. Coat the inside of the melon with a little corn starch and fill with the pork mixture.
5. Heat a frying pan and add approximately 2 tablespoons oil. Cook both sides of the pork-filled melon around 3 minutes each then remove to a plate.
6. To the existing hot oil, add the red pepper flakes and black beans and cook for 1 minute.
7. Add the pork-filled melon slices and add the the salt/sugar mixture in. Cook for 3-4 minutes longer.
Serve with rice.