Plants with a purpose
Why you need to grow this mouth-puckering vege
Momordica charantia is a long, warty, green fruit that looks like it’s wearing alligator skin. The slightly-smoothed ridges run the length of the fruit with dozens of little blistered, warty bumps between them. They look like suitable fare for creatures in a Star Wars movie.
When I first saw them hanging from their vigorous vines, I was fascinated, and also amazed people would consider eating them, especially with the skins on.
As far as flavour goes, the ‘bitter’ in their name gives it away. The vine is grown for its edible immature fruits, which have a distinct, bitter flavour due to the presence of quinine, the same thing that gives tonic water it’s distinctive taste. In cooking, it tends to bring out the flavour of other ingredients and is also neutralised by them.
It’s variously known as bitter cucumber, bitter melon or gourd, alligator pear and balsam pear, the Indians call it karella, the Okinawans goya, the Chinese ku gua (bitter gourd), jin li zhi (bright beautiful lychee) or lao pu tao (ugly grape). Strangely, both those last two names apply as they could be seen as both beautiful and ugly, depending on your perspective. I think they’re beautiful.
As they mature the fruits go from pale green to dark green or silvery white, to orangey-red when fully ripe. Sometimes the ripe fruit will split open revealing a bright red pulp.
Fruit size and shape vary considerably, with varieties ranging from 10-20cm long. They can be spindle-shaped, pearshaped or oblong, with most tapering to the tip. Experimenting with unusual fruit is always fun and bitter melon adds a distinctly exotic touch to the greenhouse. If you want to stretch climatic boundaries at the same time as extending your palate, these groovy curcubits are worth a try.
If there is one vegetable that could have come from another universe, bitter melon would be it.
It is one of the vegetables credited with giving the islanders of Okinawa one of the highest life expectancies in the world.