This is a guest post by Linda from Barefoot Gardens.
While I knew that Bitter Melon had culinary uses, I only considered growing it after learning about it's medicinal qualities. Bitter melon, also known as Karela in India or Cerasee in the Caribbean, is a vine in the cucumber family that is native to tropical regions around the world. It is widely grown as a vegetable and is eaten for both its intensely bitter quality and for it's ability to stimulate insulin release in insulin dependent diabetics. In addition, according to New Jersey herbalist David Winston, it can reduce insulin resistance, LDL/VLDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Many other uses in tropical areas of the world have been reported but in are need of further research, such as in the treatment of malaria and dysentery.
With all of these benefits, I couldn't help but carve out a little section of our hoop house to devote to a few plants. I found the source of my seed at Horizon Herbs. Richo Cech is a great Southern Oregon herbalist, seed collector, and all around plant person that I trust to find varieties of plants from around the world that are the most useful medicinally. He also happens to have some amazingly interesting varieties of vegetables. Here's how his company describes the Bitter Melon:
"Bitter melon is probably the best antidiabetic herb known to herbalist, as it supports the pancreas and promotes secretion of insulin. Direct consumption, use in cooking, fresh tincturing and tincturing of the dried fruits are all viable methods of intake. The plants prefer full sun, a long growing season and a trellis. Insect-pollinated."
The seeds I started in April germinated and I was able to fit four plants in my raised bed in late May. I thought this might be too few plants, but I was wrong. By August, these plants were pumping out melons daily and I was able to harvest a few pounds per week if I so desired. They scrambled over all the other plants growing in the bed and threatened to take them out if I didn't tame the vines. I trellised the plants up with netting and attached them to the metal hoops. The plants reached over 8 feet high. I had so much more than I knew what to do with. I thought that since I was a fan of such bitter foods as broccoli raab and radicchio that I would really appreciate the taste of bitter melon and make use of the abundance. Nothing could prepare my western palate for the intensity of the bitterness. I tried stir frying in curry as was described on an Indian cooking website. I was not able to finish the dish and neither was my husband. I neglected, however, to salt and soak as some suggest, which can minimize the bitterness.
Saddened by my lack of ability to properly prepare the melon in a fashion that would agree with my taste buds, I brought some to my favorite Indian restaurant. I figured if anyone could prepare it, they could. Monte, the chef and owner, was so happy to be given this vegetable that is hard to find in the US. He said he knew of great ways to cook it and added "you know it's great for diabetes". He brought it home to his wife to prepare because she apparently knows the best ways to prepare it. He asked that I come back with more and she'll make some for me to try. I'm delivering a small harvest to the restaurant tonight. I'll let you know how it turned out...