From the outside, the name “bitter melon” seems to have nothing to do with the fruit in question: It doesn’t look like a melon, though it does hail from Cucurbitaceae, the same vine-friendly family that brings us watermelon and cantaloupe. Instead of being round and sweet-fleshed, bitter melon — also known as bitter squash, balsam-pear, karela and goya in various parts of the world — resembles a cucumber (though flavor-wise you would never compare them). For starters, bitter melon proves as sharply flavored as you might think, and with rough, bumpy skin. Just because the fruit looks ugly and has a pungent taste, however, doesn’t mean you should pass on it. After all, folks have been cooking with it for hundreds of years, and with good reason.
WHERE IT’S FROMLike many odd-looking fruits and vegetables, bitter melon grows best in tropical and subtropical regions like the Caribbean, Africa, Southeast Asia and China (where it’s probably the most widely consumed). And as with many not-so-good-tasting foods, bitter melon was touted for its medicinal properties long before it became an ingredient used for its flavor.
“Bitter melon is very good for you, thanks to compounds called cucurbitacins, which are very bitter,” says Jennifer McLagan, author of Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor. “It has long been believed that bitter melon has cleansing powers and improves the blood, and others promote it as a cure for diabetes.” She adds, “Research shows that it is good for lowering blood sugar levels and fighting viruses, and a study at the University of Colorado Cancer Center showed that bitter melon juice kills cancer cells.” If those aren’t reasons enough to give this fruit a try, its unique flavor profile should be.