By Himanee Gupta-Carlson
I can’t let the summer pass without at least one thought about my favorite gourd, the bitter melon. It is a light green, somewhat bumpy cylindrical squash sold at the Saratoga Farmers’ Market primarily by The Otrembiak’s. It is native to China but popular throughout southeast and South Asia. I grew up remembering my mother (who emigrated with my father from India in 1961) stuffing it with spices and onion and ginger, and roasting it whole.
The bitter melon, as the web site Bonnie’s Plants quite astutely notes, is pretty bitter in flavor. It is an acquired taste, one that I only acquired in my forties. However, many people who hail from the countries to which it is native swear by it for a range of purported health benefits including treatment of malaria, control of diabetes, and management of such things as blood pressure and cholesterol.
I have generally prepared bitter melon in a simplified style from that of my mother. Rather than stuffing and roasting, I slice the gourd into thin rounds and fry these rounds until they’re lightly crisped on the sides. I then remove them from oil, and add some onion or garlic, some fresh green pepper, turmeric, and a little fresh tomato. I saute this mixture together for a few minutes, and then return the previously fried rounds to the pan. Even though my parents are vegetarian, I find that this preparation is a delicious side dish to meat, particularly steaks and hamburgers.
For years, I struggled to grow the bitter melon myself. Two years ago, my husband and I produced our first successful crop. This year, we were fortunate to be able to sell some of the fruits of our bitter melon harvest at a small local farmers’ market, and in the process, I discovered from customers a variety of different ways to prepare the gourd.
Many from the Philippines, for instance, prepare the bittermelon with eggs. John Otrembiak recommends this preparation himself, using the duck eggs that he and his younger brother Steve sell at the Saratoga Farmers’ Market. Others have used the gourd in soups or stuffed it with meat. Just recently, I also learned from a customer of the Otrembiak’s of someone who likes to prepare it with brown sugar. All of these preparations suggest that the bitter melon – once a bit of an oddity in upstate New York – is finding a wider audience.
Give it a try while supplies last. It is, like many other summer crops, a short-season item that reaches its peak in late summer and dies off with the first frost.
Additional note from The Friends of the Market:
Please consider saving your kitchen scraps for compost. If you do not have a way of composting scraps for your own backyard garden, do not despair! We are accepting non-meat kitchen scraps, coffee grinds, and other simple compostable items at our tent at the Saturday market through the end of October. The compost is being taken to a local small farm to help create topsoil. We also are working with the market staff to make our favorite farmers market more green by encouraging recycling. Recycle bins have been set up near the Something’s Brewing coffee stand and by Clarity Juice in the food pavilion. Please deposit clean and empty glass, aluminum and plastic containers as well as newspapers and unsoiled paper products.